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How to Prevent Afghan Aid Money From Reaching Terrorists

Humanitarian aid must be linked to an effective independent monitoring system.

By , a former chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy in Kabul and was the special advisor to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan until October 2021.
Afghan men line up for food ration distribution.
Afghan men line up for food ration distribution.
Afghan men line up for U.N. World Food Program food ration distribution in Pul-e-Alam, Afghanistan, on Jan. 17. Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Almost six months after the collapse of the national government and the pullout of U.S. forces, Afghanistan is in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The International Committee of the Red Cross has said 30 percent of the nation’s 39 million people are now at risk of severe malnutrition—and that current levels of assistance from aid groups won’t be enough to help the 18 million Afghans requiring aid or protection.

The United Nations seeks to address this crisis by calling for $5 billion in funding for Afghanistan in 2022, including a U.N. Development Program request for $667 million to set up a “people’s economy” fund to help ordinary Afghans. The United States has also agreed to provide a further $308 million for humanitarian efforts. Although these are small amounts compared to what the United States and other nations have spent on Afghanistan annually over the last 20 years, it’s enough money to do some genuine good.

Or some genuine harm. After all, the track record of large-scale financial aid to Afghanistan is not exactly promising. Over the last two decades, an appallingly high proportion of U.S. taxpayer dollars instead wound up feathering the nests of a few Afghan government officials and highly connected individuals. The level of waste and corruption was staggering, and despite the yeoman oversight efforts of such public servants as Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko, the full extent of the misdirection may never be accounted for.

Almost six months after the collapse of the national government and the pullout of U.S. forces, Afghanistan is in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The International Committee of the Red Cross has said 30 percent of the nation’s 39 million people are now at risk of severe malnutrition—and that current levels of assistance from aid groups won’t be enough to help the 18 million Afghans requiring aid or protection.

The United Nations seeks to address this crisis by calling for $5 billion in funding for Afghanistan in 2022, including a U.N. Development Program request for $667 million to set up a “people’s economy” fund to help ordinary Afghans. The United States has also agreed to provide a further $308 million for humanitarian efforts. Although these are small amounts compared to what the United States and other nations have spent on Afghanistan annually over the last 20 years, it’s enough money to do some genuine good.

Or some genuine harm. After all, the track record of large-scale financial aid to Afghanistan is not exactly promising. Over the last two decades, an appallingly high proportion of U.S. taxpayer dollars instead wound up feathering the nests of a few Afghan government officials and highly connected individuals. The level of waste and corruption was staggering, and despite the yeoman oversight efforts of such public servants as Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko, the full extent of the misdirection may never be accounted for.

The U.N. Development Program itself has hardly been immune to the wiles of Afghan functionaries on the make. It was the entity responsible for running the ironically named Law and Order Trust Fund, from which hundreds of millions of dollars were siphoned off to pay “ghost” police and line the pockets of senior Afghan officials.

That so much money has gone to a corrupt few rather than to the millions of Afghans who so urgently need it is bad enough. Already the Afghan press is reporting complaints that this new aid is again being diverted to politically connected individuals rather than the truly needy. What is even worse is the very real possibility that such funds could wind up funding narcotics production or terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda or the politically powerful Haqqani network, several of whose members now serve in senior leadership roles in the Afghan government.

This is exactly what will happen if the United States and other donor nations fail to monitor aid money properly. Unfortunately, experience has shown that the United Nations cannot be left to do this on its own. In addition to the aforementioned lapses of the U.N. Development Program, the United Nations was in charge of the Oil-for-Food Program in Iraq, which proved both ineffective and notoriously corrupt. Though the U.N. obstructed investigations into that program by American authorities, U.S. congressional investigators found evidence that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein siphoned off funds from the program to pay the families of Palestinian suicide bombers who attacked Israel.

The right response to these past disappointments is not to simply retreat into cynicism and abandon the Afghan people to their fate. Instead, donor countries—led by the United States—should take certain prudent steps to make sure the money reaches its intended target population and is not siphoned off to fund either corrupt officials or terrorists.

One such measure would be for the United States and other key Western donors to set up a mechanism to monitor all new donor funding going into Afghanistan to make sure it reaches the proper recipients. The expenditure of the money, and the continuation of its provision, needs to be linked to an effective independent monitoring system using relevant accounting and investigative expertise, rather than relying on post-expenditure U.N. evaluations, which nearly always produce a positively skewed result. For instance, if donors are concerned the Taliban are taking money intended for female teachers,​ satellite imagery analysis and crowd-sourced data provision can indicate whether girls’ schools are indeed open for girls’ education.

​​Monitoring and conditionality will likely be unwelcome to the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations, which always assert that humanitarian aid should be “unconditional,” and even more so to the Taliban, which want to control aid money and financial flows coming into the country. Yet such mechanisms are necessary (though not sufficient) to stave off large-scale corruption. The United States and its partners need to learn from history and signal with unambiguous clarity that they will not allow such theft to pass with impunity.

The U.N. and nongovernmental aid organizations also benefit from receiving aid money by taking a percentage off the top in management fees (in the case of the U.N. Development Program, usually “a minimum 7%”) in addition to all the chargeable staff costs. Even the Taliban know this and have asked the U.N. to ensure aid money reaches the intended recipients on the ground rather than benefiting organizational headquarters or international staff.

Donor nations should also heed lessons from the U.S. military’s anti-corruption task force for Afghanistan established in 2010 and headed by then-Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster. Indeed, the reports of that task force should be published to show the extent and methods of corruption, so the same mistakes are not repeated. In addition, the United States and other donors should make plain that their investigations of past Afghan corruption are not coming to a halt just because their militaries have returned home. Donor nations continue to wield significant economic and legal leverage, and they should be unabashed about using it to punish past corruption—and deter future corruption.

Such investigations could seek to discover the whereabouts of funds siphoned off by former senior Afghan officials, particularly in the financial and security ministries. These inquiries, which were certainly underway a few years ago, should continue, and the United States should work with allies, including Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, to connect the dots between former ministers and certain lavish real estate holdings in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.

Most Western countries reverse the burden of proof in cases of money laundering, compelling the defendants to prove that they were in legal possession of money required to purchase the assets in question. This standard should certainly apply here—and those former officials who can’t meet it should expect to forfeit their illegitimate gains.

What to do with these confiscated assets? Sell them and send the money where it should have been heading all along: to a properly monitored fund that can disburse it responsibly to the millions of Afghans who are either refugees living in other nations, displaced within their own land, or simply looking to survive the coming winter.

After all, these long-suffering people amply deserve both compassion and concern. But they also merit caution and conscientiousness in making sure aid money goes to them—and not to the very people most responsible for their privation.

Steve Brooking is a former chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy in Kabul and was the special advisor to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan until October 2021. Twitter: @SteveBrooking

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