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Afghanistan: Send less money for drug war, give us more control

On the eve of the Kabul Conference – the ninth major international Afghan donor conference – Afghanistan's Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal offers suggestions for how to cut down on the waste and fraud that is limiting the impact of billions in aid.

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A survey released by Integrity Watch Afghanistan earlier this month found that 1 in 7 Afghans have to pay bribes to receive government services, that many government employees must pay kickbacks to their bosses to receive their salaries, and that the country’s judiciary and security agencies are considered the most corrupt branches of government.

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Mr. Zakhilwal accepts that his own government has been part of the problem but bristles at suggestions that corruption and inefficiency on the Afghan side is largely responsible for the $4 billion that he says flows out of the country each year. Last month, Congress withheld $4 billion in Afghanistan spending due to such concerns.

He says that money has often been spent recklessly to create an “illusion of development.” The international approach “leads to quick spending because they have to show” they’re doing something and the “money spent is used as a success indicator” rather than effectiveness. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful… but the impact could have been greater.”

He says that he welcomes US criticism in turn and that the government recognizes it needs to do more to control corruption on its end. “If [the Afghan government] is trusted by the international community but not by our own people, then we are in trouble.”

Is US aid responsible for drop in opium production?

In Zakhilwal’s estimation, “not a single penny” spent on counternarcotics has been effective or to the nation’s benefit. “What was the aim of this spending? Find a single farmer, find a village” and they’ll tell you that poppy cultivation remains a mainstay for tens of thousands of Afghans, he said. The US is spending about $700 million on counternarcotics in Afghanistan this year.

The US Embassy in Kabul disagreed and said that opium production has fallen by about a third since 2008, that Helmand province received a $10 million grant as a reward for reducing land under poppy cultivation by 33 percent, and that 373 “high value narcotics” cases have ended in convictions in the past yar.

Like any other commodity, heroin is subject to market cycles. Two years ago the poppy crop hit a record high, and many middlemen stockpiled supplies. The UN estimated 2009 production at 6,900 tons of opium (the raw material for heroin), against global demand of about 5,000 tons.

That mismatch between supply and demand has pushed down prices. This year’s crop was also hit by poppy plight, according to farmers, whose yields have also become dramatically more efficient in recent years. For instance, 2009 production fell 10 percent over the previous year with a 30 percent fall in land under cultivation.

$100 million to clean ditches; Afghans used to do it for free

Mr. Zakhilwal says US money channeled to emergency employment programs has been actively harmful because he said it has paid money to Afghans to maintain irrigation canals that they previously looked after on their own, and for no pay.

“When it gets to the project level, $100 million is spent on cleaning ditches ... that takes away self-help,” he says.

The US embassy wrote that “ 'cash-for-work' projects offer short-term solutions for Afghanistan, which suffers from massive unemployment both on a rural and urban scale. USAID direct implementation or cash-for-work projects seek to avoid rehabilitating canals and roads where the Afghan government or local authorities can provide their own means of repair or construction of these projects.”