By Joel Brinkley

If you were to read two new government reports on American aid to Afghanistan, you would come away first astounded and then utterly furious, just as I did. Ten years into the Afghan war, our government still heedlessly throws many billions of dollars at Afghan organizations that steal some of it and pass the rest off to militants who use it to kill American troops.

The State Department, for example, hasn't made even the tiniest effort over the last decade to determine whether their Afghan grantees are thieves or traitors before handing them tens of millions of dollars. Under pressure from federal auditors, State says it has just now "recruited a small team" that has begun designing a pilot project to determine whether they might, one day, "vet contractors and grantees." Even then, State admitted, Afghanistan may not be included in the project's work.

Oh, the department complained, it's all so complicated.

The Afghan war now costs the U.S. about $120 billion a year. A small portion of that is devoted to developmental aid -- $17.2 billion in 2009 and 2010. Now, as American and NATO leaders look toward 2014, when Western forces are supposed to leave, they must prepare the ground "in a way that allows our efforts to be replaced over time by efficient local governments, thriving civil societies and vibrant private sectors," as Dr. Raj Shah, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, put it.

Could he possibly be any more naive?

Let's stipulate some facts about the nation we are trying to help. Afghanistan is arguably the most primitive nation on earth. Twenty of every 100 children die before they reach age 5 -- which may be the world's worst rate. Almost two-thirds of those who survive suffer from stunting, for lack of nutrition during infancy. The average per capita income is about $370, making Afghanistan considerably less prosperous than Haiti, Bangladesh, Ghana or Senegal. Illiteracy is nearly universal, and the average life span is 44, among the world's lowest.

At the same time, Afghanistan may be the world's most corrupt nation. Transparency International has Afghanistan tied with Myanmar in second-to-last place among 178 countries surveyed. Somalia sits at the very bottom of the survey, but it's not even a functioning nation.

So, given these facts, how exactly does Mr. Shah intend to bring about "thriving civil societies and vibrant private sectors," in a nation where we have been at work for 10 years and have not achieved even a scintilla of progress toward those goals? One of the reports, by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says evidence of progress "is limited" and "some research suggests the opposite" -- the situation is actually deteriorating.

In fact, the two government reports make the inarguable point that Western aid is so distorting the Afghan economy -- 97 percent of the state's GDP comes from foreign-government spending -- that the economy will likely collapse as soon as we pull out.

So here's the American plan. It's called the "Afghan First" policy. Among other precepts, it calls for donor nations to give more and more of their aid money directly to the Afghan government. Perhaps the government will then deposit it in the successor to Kabul Bank, now being liquidated because the Karzai family used its deposits as their personal checking accounts. (A committee that President Hamid Karzai appointed absolved the family of any blame.)

So how will the United States assure that the increasing direct aid is not misspent? The other report, by the Government Accountability Office, points to a Defense Department office established last August, nine years into the war. It's intended to vet Afghan aid recipients. Eighteen auditors -- working in Tampa, of all places -- examine the contracts. But they take up cases only after Afghan groups have already been awarded the money and, presumably, begun spending it. They don't look at grants below $100,000 -- the vast majority of them -- and they make no effort to examine subcontractors, where much of the money usually goes.

Are you angry yet?

Well, USAID wanted to open a similar office, so it sent a single test case to the DOD office, to see how it worked. Those Defense auditors got back to them three months later. So far, in 10 months, that office has examined 248 Afghan aid contracts -- of 8,487 overall. That's slightly more than one contract per auditor each month.

All of this is so disheartening.

As the Foreign Relations Committee put it, Americans must begin challenging "the assumption that our stabilization programs" actually "contribute to stability."


Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of "Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a troubled Land."


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