It’s no secret among my readers that, four months hence, I plan to fly out of Afghanistan without so much as a glance aft; and further, I would recommend this course of action as policy. But not everyone can say this.
The last briefing of the day was from senior officer M leading the anti-corruption efforts. Summary: the problem is epically bad, from Karzai on down. Public offices are sold; those offices are then used to enrich their purchasers at the expense of the populace. The top echelon of ISAF recognizes (because they have said this specifically) that the present alternative to the Taliban isn’t a weak government, but a predatory government. And our solution is . . . .
“I do,” I said when M asked if we had any questions, “but nobody else wants to listen to my questions anymore, especially right before lunch.” I had hammered at least three briefers with what should have been a simple question: what is the recidivism rate among re-integrees? “Re-integree” is ISAF-speak for captured or surrendered insurgents that we have deemed rehabilitated and then released. (Answer: as measured by the number of re-integrees we have captured again, the rate is low, but it grows when you consider the size of the insurgent force compared to the number of detainees.)
“I don’t envy you your job,” I told M after everyone else had left, “and I admire your candor about the size of the problem. But I have to say,” gesturing to the PowerPoint slide, “that nothing up there under ‘solutions’ looks like an actual solution. They all look like glittering generalities and wishful thinking. What concrete successes can we claim against corruption in Afghanistan?)
We talked about this for a while. “The corruption isn’t just on the Afghan side, “M said. USAID has poured many tens of billions of dollars into contracts here, a large fraction of which has simply disappeared.”
“I noticed that. Like, what’s up with this outfit Black & Veatch? 100% cost overruns on a diesel power plant for Kabul, and they still get the contract for a plant in Kandahar.”
“But the worst part is that we estimate some $300M of the missing development aid has made its way to the insurgency. When you consider that building and placing an IED only costs them $350, you begin to realize just how bad the situation is.”
“But that just leads to the question: why are we even here?”
M paused a moment. “Well, I can tell you why I’m here. Two years ago my son was killed here. What am I supposed to do, go back and tell Mrs. M – and there are two of them since my son was married – that he died for nothing?”
What do you say in the face of that level of personal investment?