Friday, May 29, 2009

Endless War or Enlightenment? Obey and Inouye Can Decide.

Leaving for Kabul in a few hours, navigating New York city transit to JFK and then on to Dubai. I can't believe in 20 hours I'll be touching down someplace which seems to me like the moon. I have never been outside of the states in my life. Been in the same house for twenty years, with a trip on the Boston subway more than 3 stops away a bothersome adventure that makes me think twice. And now I am going to Afghanistan.

The people at embassy in New York and along the way leading to this moment have been extraordinarily kind. They seem so happy that someone is trying to push for civilian aid to go for the creation of jobs, simple, unskilled labor $10 a day jobs, which would help the country become something more than the sink hole of misery it now is. Blind elderly and deformed children begging in the street everywhere, one out of four babies dies by the age of five from malnutrition and-or dysentery. Two-thirds of population without clean drinking water. We've been here how long? And all we've managed to give them is bombs and bullets.

My hosts are sponsoring my Afghan friend and I, a recent Harvard Kennedy School of Goverment graduate I met in my hometown in Boston, to fill them in on what we are asking the U.S. to do, which is simply to spend the non-military assistance we are already spending there in a way which helps the people, not foreign contractors like Halliburton. Half the Taliban would throw down their weapons and run for $10 a day jobs, digging ditches, leveling rural unpaved roads using shovels and gravel, simple work. Instead we insist on ramming schools down their throats.

Schools are nice, but you've got to eat first, and that is what too many Afghans are not doing. Anytime I hear someone say, forget creating jobs for them, we need to create our own jobs, I am reminded of the most selfish, stupidest kinds of behavior. It's like the gay marriage debate: since we are already spending that money on reconstruction funds, as taxpayers, and all they are asking is that it be spent better, it's no skin off anyone. That money is gone and appropriated as of this budget cycle, with a Senate Subcommittee hammering out final details. If it doesn't affect you, or cost you anything, why care, what reason is there to oppose it, except it makes other people happy? The U.S. is not leaving Afghanistan any time soon. Obama has made that clear. It's not going to happen. So why not spend the money to create $10 a day jobs so men don't have to join the Taliban to feed their families, because the Taliban pays $8 a day, that's right, $8 a day, and at 40% unemployment, it's the only job in town?

I don't care who gets married. That doesn't affect me. And if the little reconstruction money we spend in Afghanistan gets spent on helping actual Afghans with jobs, instead of making Halliburton rich, that doesn't affect me either. To say "don't think about their jobs," even though it would amount to a paltry, tiny fraction of what we are already spending on the military occupation, is an idiotic mindset that will come back to haunt us in the form of a hideously expensive, protracted war. That hurts our economy, not helps it, if it's our economy one is worried about. If that's what makes them happy, fine. We're already spending the money. What does it hurt?

Americans have never been known to be particularly forward-looking or prescient thinkers, at least not since the New Deal or the Marshall Plan. That's when a little thinking about someone else's job besides your own gave us decades of peace and prosperity, for everyone, not just a few. Now wouldn't that be nice again?

The way your reconstruction money is getting spent in Afghanistan is now getting hammered out in a conference committee on War Supplemental Appropriations bill, co-chaired by:

Sen. Daniel Inouye, Ph: 202-224-3934 Fax: 202-224-6747

and Rep. David Obey. Ph:(202) 225-3365 Fax: (715-842-4488)

The key pressure points are manageable now, and you can make a huge difference by calling these two at this time, asking them to adopt something like the plan described here, then fax it to them.

Ralph will be blogging from Afghanistan this week. You can follow it at

Starvation in Kandahar

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)