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CORRUPTION: Paying Off Afghanistan’s Warlords

Pratap Chatterjee*

KABUL, Nov 18 2009 (IPS) - Every morning, dozens of trucks laden with diesel from Turkmenistan lumber out of the northern Afghan border town of Hairaton on a two-day trek across the Hindu Kush down to Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.

Among the dozens of businesses dispatching these trucks are two extremely well-connected companies – Ghazanfar and Zahid Walid – that helped to swell the election coffers of President Hamid Karzai as well as the family business of his running mate, the country’s new vice-president, warlord Mohammed Qasim Fahim.

Some of the trucks are on their way to two power stations in the northern part of the capital: a recently refurbished, if inefficient, plant that has served Kabul for a little more than a quarter of a century, and a brand new facility scheduled for completion next year and built with money from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Afghan political analysts observe that Ghazanfar and Zahid Walid are striking examples of the multi-million-dollar business conglomerates, financed by U.S. as well as Afghan tax dollars and connected to powerful political figures, that have, since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, emerged as part of a pervasive culture of corruption here.

Nasrullah Stanikzai, a professor of law and political science at Kabul University, says of the companies in the pocket of the vice-president: “Everybody knows who is Ghazanfar. Everybody knows who is Zahid Walid. The [government elite] directly or indirectly have companies, licenses, and sign contracts. But corruption is not confined just to the Afghans. The international community bears a share of this blame.”

The Rise of a Power Broker

Abdul Hasin and his brother, the vice-president, offer a perfect exemplar of the new business elite. The two men are half-brothers, born to the two wives of a well-respected religious cleric from the village of Marz in the Panjshir valley north of Kabul.

In the early 1980s, Fahim, the older brother, joined the mujaheedin forces of Ahmed Shah Massoud in the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In 1992, three years after the Soviet army withdrew in defeat, Fahim was appointed head of intelligence in Afghanistan by the new president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in the midst of a fierce and destructive civil war among the victors.

When the Taliban took control of the country a few years later, Fahim became the intelligence chief for the Northern Alliance, also led by Massoud, which controlled less than a third of the country. On Sep. 9, 2001, two days before the World Trade Centre in New York was attacked, Massoud was assassinated by al Qaeda operatives and Fahim took control of the Northern Alliance, which the U.S. would soon finance and support in its “invasion” of Afghanistan.

A number of popular accounts of that invasion, such as Bob Woodward’s book “Bush at War”, suggest that the Central Intelligence Agency directly gave Northern Alliance warlords like Fahim millions of dollars in cold, hard cash to help fight the Taliban in the run-up to the U.S. invasion.

“I can take Kabul, I can take Kunduz if you break the [Taliban front] line for me. My guys are ready,” Woodward quotes Fahim telling a CIA agent named Gary after pocketing a million dollars.

Once the Taliban was defeated, Fahim was invited to become vice-president in the transitional government led by Hamid Karzai, a position he held for two years. It was at this juncture that Fahim’s brothers, notably Abdul Hasin, started to build a business empire – and not long after, good fortune began to rain down on the family in the form of lucrative “reconstruction” contracts.

In January 2002, while Fahim took whirlwind tours of Washington and London, meeting General Tommy Franks, who had commanded U.S. forces during the invasion, and taking the salute from the Coldstream Guards, his younger brother was putting together a business plan. Soon thereafter, Zahid Walid, a company named after Abdul Hasin’s older sons, won a series of lucrative contracts to pour concrete for a NATO base as well as portions of the U.S. embassy being rebuilt in Kabul and that city’s airport, which was in a state of disrepair.

On a plot of land in downtown Kabul reportedly “seized” for a song by Fahim, Abdul Hasin also financed the construction of a high-rise building dubbed “Goldpoint”, which now houses dozens of jewelry shops. Soon, the company was importing Russian gas, and not long after that, Abdul Hasin set up the Gas Group, a company that ran a plant in the industrial suburb of Tarakhil that markets bottled gas to households and small businesses.

In the winter of 2006, Zahid Walid won a 12-million-dollar contract from the Afghan ministry of energy and water to supply fuel to the old diesel plant in northwest Kabul, according to data published on the website of the government’s central procurement agency, Afghanistan Reconstruction and Development Services. In the summer of 2007, the company won another 40-million-dollar diesel-supply contract, and last winter it took on a third contract worth 22 million dollars.

On Oct. 6, 2009, Zahid Walid was awarded another exclusive contract for an additional 17 million dollars to supply diesel fuel to a new 100 megawatt diesel power plant being built by Black & Veatch, a Kansas construction company, with money from U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Zahid Walid was hardly the only politically well-connected business to benefit from the diesel contracts: Ghazanfar, a company from Mazar-i-Sharif, also won 17 million dollars in diesel-supply contracts in the winter of 2006-2007, and then an astonishing 78 million dollars in new contracts for 2008-early 2009. Not surprisingly, Ghazanfar turns out to be run by a family that is very close to President Karzai. (One sister, Hosn Banu Ghazanfar, is the women’s minister and a brother is a member of parliament.) In March 2009, the Ghazanfars opened a new bank in the capital, plastering the city with giant billboard advertisements featuring a cascade of gold coins. Less than six months later, the bank wrote out a two-million-dollar interest-free loan to Karzai for his election campaign, paying back the favours his government had done for them over the previous three years.

Afghanistan as Patronage Machine

This week, Mohammed Qasim Fahim will be sworn in as the next vice-president of the new government of Afghanistan. Under an agreement with USAID, this new government is required to spend Afghan money to buy yet more diesel for the Tarakhil power plant, which in turn will put money exclusively and directly into the vice-president’s brother’s pocket.

Hamid Jalil, the aid coordinator for the Ministry of Finance, points out that wasting money on unnecessary projects like Tarakhil has helped to hobble Afghanistan’s progress in the last eight years. “The donor projects undermine the legitimacy of the government and do not allow us to build capacity,” he says. “Corruption is everywhere in post-conflict countries like ours.”

Former Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani agrees. “It’s not crazy, it’s absurd,” he says. “Crazy is when you don’t know what you’re doing. Absurd is when you don’t provide a sense of ownership and a sense of sustainability.”

*Adapted from TomDispatch with permission, under special arrangement with IPS.

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