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Crisis in Afghanistan: The black hole of corruption that swallowed up US investment in Afghanistan | USA

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The chaos unleashed in Kabul has transformed the popular decision to withdraw United States troops from Afghanistan into a debacle. But what has happened is neither a surprise nor an inevitability, nor the unfathomable curse of a country where invading empires have repeatedly foundered and retreated.

Afghanistan has collapsed like a house of cards despite repeated warnings from diplomats, military officials and observers on the ground. Eleven separate reports by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a position created by US Congress in 2008, have reported systemic failures in the Central Asian country. A lack of long-term political perspective was papered over by ever-increasing injections of funds, and was aggravated by insufficient information sharing between the different US agencies involved in Afghanistan. But the real black hole is the country’s endemic corruption, which in 2010 was already swallowing 25% of the national GDP, and into which billions more dollars have vanished.

The free-flowing dollars of international aid have further undermined the country’s weak foundations, according to many analysts. The high levels of spending have created so-called “donor fatigue,” where international agencies tire of opening their wallets without seeing results, but have more worryingly served to fatten the Dubai bank accounts of Afghan officials. “Donors simply spent too much, too fast, in too small an economy, with far too little oversight,” said John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General appointed by Barack Obama, back in 2019. “We turned a blind eye or simply were ignorant of how regularly some portion was going to payoffs, bribes, and bank accounts in Dubai.” Now former president Ashraf Ghani has had to deny that he fled Afghanistan with $160 million in his suitcase.

Sopko presented his last assessment in August of this year. “After spending 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, the US government has many lessons it needs to learn … [to] save lives and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse in Afghanistan, and in future reconstruction missions elsewhere around the world,” his report stressed. The world has spent $2.2 trillion on the Central Asian country, not to mention the cost of the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans and foreigners. The Costs of War project at Brown University puts the death toll from the conflict at 241,000.

Sopko is not the only one at top levels of the US government who has long identified the problem. Twenty declassified documents published on August 19 by the National Security Archive, which is linked to George Washington University, reveal how sources on the ground continually contradicted the Pentagon’s official optimism. Pakistan offered shelter to the Taliban while maintaining a close relationship with Washington, while corruption in the Afghan leadership fed the Taliban insurgency. A statement from the archive upon the documents’ release said White House policy since 2001 was not a miscalculation but deliberately misleading. “The US government under four presidents misled the American people for nearly two decades about progress in Afghanistan, while hiding the inconvenient facts about ongoing failures inside confidential channels,” the statement said.

Biden himself ignored warnings from senior military commanders in the spring when they urged him to avoid a total withdrawal and to leave some form of troop presence to avoid a power vacuum. Sopko’s report recalls the repeated assurances given by US military high command, including Generals David Petraeus in 2011, John Campbell in 2015 and John Nicholson in 2017, of the “growing operational capability” of the Afghan security forces. “More than $88 billion has been appropriated to support Afghanistan’s security sector. The question of whether that money was well spent will ultimately be answered by the outcome of the fighting on the ground,” Sopko said prophetically, just two weeks before the country’s collapse.

The National Security Archive details the problems that plagued the mission from its inception, with particular emphasis on “endemic corruption driven in large part by American billions and secret intelligence payments to warlords.” But everyday activities also required bribes: preferential treatment at a hospital, transporting fuel around the country, or ownership of property.

“Everyone was well aware of the widespread corruption at the highest levels of power. For years the international community has been trying to fight it. When Ghani became president, donors imposed 20 conditions on him, the first of which was to reduce corruption in the administration by 80%,” explained Brookings Institution researcher Vanda Felbab-Brown, citing corruption in the security forces and the judiciary as key examples.

Unlike the authorities propped up by the international community, she added, “the Taliban have not been corrupt, the drug profits [from opium trafficking] were enough for them, and they were not the only ones involved in that; there were also people from the government.”

“In the 1990s they built up a reputation for integrity, with very sporadic cases of diverting money into private pockets, for the benefit of their families, but not systematically like the country’s authorities,” Felbab-Brown added. Although their legitimacy is questionable, she concedes, the Taliban could not be accused of being corrupt given that bribing judges was eradicated in the Islamic courts as a practice during their first term [1996-2001]. This argument may partly explain the popular support for the Taliban in large parts of the country.

In other cases that fell short of corruption, there was a huge amount of waste spent on unrealistic funding targets. Between 2003 and 2015, one 140-page Sopko report argues, the US spent more than $1 billion on institution-building programs, and 90% of those funds went toward developing a standardized judicial system. It was another misjudgment because of the impossibility of imposing formal institutions in an informal environment. “For the first year after Marjah [Helmand] was cleared [in 2010], formal judiciary officials only heard five cases because no one was used to it. Locals would tell us, ‘We’ve never seen this and need to see if it works’,” Sopko reports being told, noting that the vast majority of civil disputes were settled through traditional community channels.

The report’s conclusion is clear: “The US government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly,” it states. Meanwhile, “the US government consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan, and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly. These choices increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs.” A lack of evaluation and monitoring by the government agencies and the weight of endemic corruption were greater enemies than the insurgency, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker has said.

Felbab-Brown tries to stay optimistic. “One can only hope that the gains in areas such as health – especially maternal and child health – and education are not squandered. The Taliban will not be able to sustain those gains if their funding is cut off, if they are not able to pay salaries, and one can only hope that the generation of technocrats educated abroad will be able to carry out their work if they are allowed to do so,” she said.

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[Ticker] US to lift Covid travel-ban on EU tourists

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Fully vaccinated travellers from the EU and the UK will be let back into the US from “early November” onward, the White House said on Monday, ending an 18-month ban and prompting airline firms’ shares to climb. “This new international travel system follows the science to keep Americans … safe,” a US spokesman said. The EU recently recommended increased restrictions on US visitors, amid anger at lack of US reciprocity.

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Ten women and girls killed every day in Mexico, Amnesty report says | Global development

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At least 10 women and girls are murdered every day in Mexico, according to a new report that says victims’ families are often left to carry out their own homicide investigations.

The scathing report, released on Monday by Amnesty International, documents both the scale of the violence and the disturbing lack of interest on the part of Mexican authorities to prevent or solve the murders.

“Mexico is continuing to fail to fulfil its duty to investigate and, therefore, its duty to guarantee the rights to life and personal integrity of the victims as well as to prevent violence against women,” says the report, Justice on Trial.

“Feminicidal violence and the failings in investigation and prevention in northern Mexico are not anecdotal, but rather form part of a broader reality in the country,” the report adds.

Femicide has been rife in Mexico for decades – most notoriously in an epidemic of murders which claimed the life of some 400 women in the border city Ciudad Juárez during the 1990s. In recent years, a growing feminist movement has held massive street protests against the violence, but authorities have proved unwilling to take action to stop the killing.

“It’s always a question of political will,” said Maricruz Ocampo, a women’s activist in the state of Querétaro.

Ocampo has been part of teams lobbying state governors to issue an alert when femicides reach scandalously high levels – a move to raise awareness and mobilise resources. But officials often resist such moves, she said, as governors worry about their states’ images and investment.

“They refuse to recognise there is a problem,” she said.

The president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has also downplayed the problem. He branded the women protesting on 8 March, International Women’s Day, as “conservatives” and alleged a dark hand manipulating the demonstrations.

When asked last year about rising violence against women, he responded, “Tell all the women of Mexico that they are protected and represented, that we’re doing everything possible to guarantee peace and quiet and that I understand that our adversaries are looking for ways to confront us.”

Mexico recorded the murders of 3,723 women in 2020. Some 940 of those murders were investigated as femicides.

The Amnesty report focused on Mexico state, a vast collection of gritty suburbs surrounding Mexico City on three sides. It has become notorious for femicides over the past decade – and for the way the former president, Enrique Peña Nieto, a former Mexico state governor, ignored the problem.

The report found cases of families carrying out their own detective work, which were ignored by investigators. In many cases, authorities contaminated crime scenes or mishandled evidence. They often did not even pursue leads such as geolocation information from victims’ mobile phones.

In the case of Julia Sosa, whose children believe she was killed by her partner, two daughters found her body buried on the suspect’s property – but had to wait hours for police to arrive and process the crime scene. One of her daughters recalled the subsequent interview process, in which “the police officer was falling asleep”.

Sosa’s partner hanged himself, prompting police to close the case, even though family members said there were more leads to pursue.

In states rife with drug cartel violence, activists say cases of femicides go uninvestigated as impunity is commonplace.

“The authorities say it’s organised crime and that’s it,” said Yolotzin Jaimes, a women’s rights campaigner in the southern state of Guerrero. “Many of these aggressors find protection under the excuse of organised crime.”

The persistence of femicides is a stark contrast to recent gains by the women’s movement in Mexico. The country’s supreme court decriminalised abortion earlier this month. A new congress recently sworn in has gender parity and seven female governors will be installed by the end of year – up from just two before last June’s election’s

The decriminalisation of abortion “let off some steam” from the pressure driving the protests “because part of the demands was over the right to choose,” Ocampo said. “But when it comes to violence, we still see it everywhere.”

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US official urges EU to speed up enlargement

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Gabriel Escobar, the US’ newly-appointed acting deputy secretary of state for South Central Europe, has urged Europe to speed up Western Balkans enlargement. “To return 20 years later and see that there hasn’t been much progress on that front was a little disappointing,” he told the RFE/RL news agency Friday, referring to his last post in Europe in 2001. “We would like to see a more rapid integration,” he said.

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