Thursday, May 21, 2009

Inouye Holds Key to Getting Troops Out of A'stan by Next Year

Departure date: sometime late next week, must go to New York now to get my Visa stamp from the Afghan consulate. NGO hosts very gracious. The action now is in the U.S. Senate, they will be debating and passing the appropriations bill which govern reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan this week and next.

I have a number of people ask me why I'm doing this Jobs for Afghans thing. Why not work to stop the war, and end all funding? This is a fair question. Because I don't want to end all funding, just the military component, including getting our troops out. And the way I see it, boosting the reconstruction component in a smart way will bring down the violence and make it easier for that to happen.

There is no contradiction between pushing for the pittance in civilian funding which can make a real difference in most peoples' miserable lives there, and with 40% unemployment and getting enough food each day a dicey proposition, life is miserable, and pushing for an end to war funding. If we pulled out all the troops tomorrow and left nothing but shovels and tools and dropped money from helicopters, it's 50-50 they would get rid of the Taliban themselves. Which are better odds than we're facing turning this into a quagmire.

As the House Supplemental Appropriations Bill (Friends Committee Action Page) goes to the Senate, now is the time to call Sen. Dan Inouye (D-HI) and your own senators to tell them to stop the war by fighting it the smart way. The House Supplemental contains $1.5 billion for civilian reconstruction assistance, a pittance compared to the $40 billion military component.

Perhaps a bigger problem is that it is set to get wasted in large quantities like previous civilian aid, due mostly to foreign contractors being hired for unaccountable work and taking huge profit margins.
Up to 50% of foreign assistance for the Afghan reconstruction has been taken via multiple layers of subcontracting before a dime reaches the country.

In the end there is no insurance that the funds will end up helping many ordinary (read, dirt poor, the vast majority) of Afghans. These are the people who have seen absolutely no change in their lives since the Taliban was driven out in 2001, and for whom if anything, things may have gotten worse.

At least under the Taliban you ate, perhaps poorly, but fairly predictably. The brutal rule provided some semblance of order. Now you are hungry or starving, and you can get killed by a band of armed thugs as well, who turn into armed thugs because they also have nothing else to turn to (besides the insurgency.) To top it off, the Taliban pays a wage for joining up. Unemployment is at 40-50%. One could be forgiven for believing this is a deliberate recipe for further war.

OXFAM's Matt Waldman summarized the "aid effectiveness" problem in a report 2008 sponsored by ACBAR, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief:

• Over half of aid is tied, requiring the procurement of donor-country goods and services (i.e. equipment and material are purchased outside Afghanistan, even if they are available inside.)

• Over two-thirds of all aid bypasses the Afghan government.

• Less than 40% of technical assistance is coordinated with the government and only one-third of donor analytical or assessment work is conducted jointly (meaning, no one asks Afghans what they really need before we shove, say, a new school down their throats in a district where there aren't many children.)

• Profit margins on reconstruction contracts for international and Afghan contractor companies are often 20% and can be as high as 50%.

• Most full time, expatriate consultants, working in private consulting companies, cost $250,000–$500,000 a year.

The bill working its way through Congress does not change the way in which funds are disbursed by USAID, the agency which will handle most of that $1.5 billion. It's not USAID's fault. These are for the most part dedicated development professionals who do the best they can with the way the politicians write the rules, and with the politics surrounding those rules.

Think of aid effectiveness as traction. You can be moving forward, or just spinning your wheels and wasting gas. The parameters of the Afghan reconstruction in the House Supplemental now going to the Senate is a recipe for smoke coming out of the transmission. What's missing? What's missing is a sizable fund of at least $3 billion devoted exclusively to cash-for-work projects, which put money directly into the hands of the poorest Afghans, doing the thousands of day labor projects across the country which need doing.

Cash-for-work projects bypass most of the problems Waldman describes and give traction to reconstruction assistance. They have already been tried and proven successful in Afghanistan. Now they need to be put on steroids.

What Afghans need is a economic "shock and awe", a "jobs surge." It makes more sense than plopping a bunch of guys armed to the teeth in the middle of nowhere. The Taliban is not well-liked. They cut off hands and had mass executions. Afghans remember that.

Senator Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is the guy who can make it happen. Please call him at 202-224-3934, and fax this letter to him, maybe along with a print-out of this post marked FYI. IN your call ask him to include "cash-for-work job programs in Afghanistan, as detailed at" in the budget.

Afghans will thank you for it. The soldiers who come home much sooner will thank you for it. And our economy, which cannot take the strain of another trillion dollar war, will thank you for it, meaning your own pocketbooks. Now is the time to force politicians to save you about a trillion dollars all told down the road, by letting them know you understand this insurgency, and it's time to pull the military-industrial complex from the pig trough.

What Obama can do is provide a real second prong of the two-prong approach he has been talking about, which this budget in no way reflects. $3 billion exclusively for cash-for-work, and maybe in a year or less we can be talking about them really coming home. After you call and fax Inouye, please call as many of these Senate Appropriations Committee members as you can, and fax or email their office staff the letter here.

The diarist is traveling to Kabul, Afghanistan next week to discuss cash-for-work programs with various humanitarian organizations. He and his colleagues are being hosted by Afghan NGOs. Follow his trip blog at

READ the Job for Afghans Mission Statement

Senate Appropriations Committee:

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D- HI)

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D- WV)

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D- VT)

Sen. Tom Harkin (D- IA)

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D- MD)

Sen. Herb Kohl (D- WI)

Sen. Patty Murray (D- WA)

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D- ND)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D- CA)

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D- IL)

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R- KY)

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R- AL)

Sen. Judd Gregg (R- NH)

Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R- UT)

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R- TX)

Sen. Tim Johnson (D- SD)

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D- LA)

Sen. Jack Reed (D- RI)

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D- NJ)

Sen. Ben Nelson (D- NE)

Sen. Mark Pryor (D- AR)

Sen. Jon Tester (D- MT)

Sen. Thad Cochran (R- MS)

Sen. Arlen Specter (R- PA)

Sen. Kit Bond (R- MO)

Sen. Sam Brownback (R- KS)

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R- TN)

Sen. Susan Collins (R- ME)

Sen. George Voinovich (R- OH)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R- AK)

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