KABUL // The 10-year, $19 billion nation-building effort in Afghanistan by the United States is a waste of money and will collapse when US troops leave, a damning report said yesterday.
The State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) spend $320 million a month in Afghanistan, most of it devoted to stabilising areas in the south and east cleared of Taliban fighters by US and Nato troops. That excludes the $10 billion spent on US military operations.
In a report released yesterday after a two-year inquiry, US Senate investigators struck a blow to Barack Obama's ambition for a foreign policy success in the country where Osama bin Laden hatched his plans for the September 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
"The evidence that stabilisation programmes promote stability in Afghanistan is limited," the report concluded.
Nearly $100,000 a month distributed to provincial leaders for local expenses and development projects is "a tidal wave of funding" that some local officials are incapable of "spending wisely".
Insecurity, abject poverty, weak indigenous capacity and widespread corruption "create challenges for spending money".
The findings are expected to fuel calls by a war-weary American public for a stepped-up timetable for the withdrawal of the 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
Demands for a swifter pullout, now scheduled for completion by 2014, had already intensified since bin Laden was killed by US commandos in Pakistan last month. Most Americans believe the war is "not worth fighting", according to a poll this week by an American television network.
While Afghans are divided over the wisdom of the US troop withdrawal, few thought there was any risk that the mammoth US aid funds would follow. That may now change.
Daoud Sultanzoi, a former member of the Afghan parliament, said: "The next few years will be very volatile for us, because the US drawdown will have major psychological ramifications for the population.
"The biggest problem we have is that we're lacking national confidence. Even if we could stand on our own without US aid, we still don't believe that we can."
The economic indicators are bleak. At least 97 per cent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, currently about $2 billion, comes from spending related to the international military and donor community presence.
Afghanistan "could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014", the report says.
The American government's widespread use of both international and local contracting firms to carry out some of its largest aid initiatives, it warns, "can weaken the ability of the Afghan state to execute its budget, lead to redundant and unsustainable donor projects, and fuel corruption".
While pessimistic about the prospects for reform, the "single most important step" the Obama administration could take, the report says, is for foreign governments and contractors to stop paying Afghans "inflated salaries" often 10 or more times the going rate.
Such practices, it says, have "drawn otherwise qualified civil servants away from the Afghan government and created a culture of aid dependency".
US-favoured, anti-Taliban warlords and Afghan politicians have notoriously filled their coffers with the massive amounts of foreign aid money pumped into the country over the past 10 years, skimming money from projects and leaving most of Afghanistan's 29 million people to fend for themselves, US government documents revealed.
Injecting huge amounts of cash into local communities also runs the risk of distorting economies and destabilising social hierarchies, the report says, contributing to insecurity as communities grapple with how to absorb the funds. According to the United Nations, two-thirds of Afghans live on $2 a day.
"There is now a new monopoly of warlords, of criminals who saw that the US was interested in spending a lot of money here, and they took over. They took over the government, the economy, and reconstruction efforts," Mr Sultanzoi said.
"They created a very small economic base from which they are the only ones that benefit. Nothing has changed for ordinary Afghans."
While extraordinary development gains have been made with US aid, including a boost in school enrolment and the expansion of paved roads, independent aid workers here say US-funded initiatives are often completed hastily and with little regard for the communities' actual needs.
Arbitrary political deadlines and for-profit projects often prohibit long-term development investments, aid organisations say.
"A lot of projects here are based on profits, and not on the needs of the beneficiaries," one Kabul-based western aid worker said. "The conditions of the communities are often completely overlooked, which means the projects won't be sustainable."
The same aid worker described a recent visit to a rural area in Afghanistan, where several US-funded aid organisations had received funds to dig wells.
None of the organisations had carried out a basic geological survey of the water table and almost all the wells had dried up.
"A lot of organisations," the aid worker said, "come to Afghanistan with dollar signs in their eyes."