Australia’s refugee policies are designed to inflict harm on the most vulnerable. Last week I was interviewed by Turkish international news channel TRT World in Berlin about the issue (my interview starts at 19:54):
The human cost of the Afghan war has been devastating. The United Nations estimates that at least 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed since 2001 and violence is worsening across the country.
United States president Barack Obama, fearing an Iraq-style state collapse after withdrawing the bulk of US forces from there in 2011, has pledged to maintain an indefinite presence of 10,000 soldiers, tens of thousands of contractors (the Pentagon claims up to 30,000) and an unknown number of special forces. Foreign occupation is seemingly permanent.
Former head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and commander of US special operations command, General David Petraeus, argued in a recent Washington Post opinion piece that Washington should step up its bombing campaign to halt a resurgent Taliban. There’s no evidence that this failed strategy, advanced in Iraq and Afghanistan over more than a decade, would be any more successful this time.
Afghan resources, estimated to be worth billions of dollars, have provided very little money to the general population.
During my time in Afghanistan last year whilst investigating the mineral, oil and gas industries, I witnessed the suffering of local people around proposed mining sites, such as Mes Aynak in Logar province. They were kicked off their lands, without jobs, and were attacked by the Taliban, ISIL and the Afghan military.
Countless western and Afghan corporations have made a killing in the country since 2001, often replacing functions once undertaken by the state, and with little accountability. This policy has been pursued by both the Bush and Obama administrations.
A 2010 US Congressional report, Warlord, Inc, found that the US military was indirectly paying the Taliban and warlords, via private contractors, to ensure safe passage for their goods across the country.
The ideology behind outsourcing war existed before September 11 but accelerated after the attacks on New York and Washington. Apart from enriching corporate friends of the George W Bush administration, it was framed as a way of saving money for the US taxpayer (the evidence for this is missing) and reducing the responsibility of the state to manage its own affairs.
Afghan civilians have borne the brunt of this policy. There is currently no sustainable vision by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani to support his country when western aid inevitably reduces to a trickle.
The US defence department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) had grand ambitions in Afghanistan. Embarking on its work there in 2009, the Pentagon group pledged to exploit the country’s large and untapped mineral resources and to attract international investment.
Former head Paul Brinkley told the Washington Post in 2011 that, “we do capitalism. We’re about helping companies make money. That mindset cannot exist in a humanitarian organisation. It’s like asking General Motors to make potato chips.”
After being established in 2006 to stabilize war-torn Iraq, TFBSO had remarkable freedom to act independently without adequate oversight. It attracted US$8 billion (Dh29.4bn) in private investment commitment in Iraq with little long-term evidence that former state-run businesses benefitted from the money. In Afghanistan, Brinkley brought Google to Kabul to start an information technology industry while pledging to expand the nation’s fruit and carpet trades.
On-the-ground investigations, however, revealed the paucity of TFBSO’s legacy. The US government-appointed special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (Sigar) has released a number of reports demanding accountability for the group’s spending. It has been stymied at every step of the way.
The US has spent more than $110bn in US taxpayer funds to support reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2001. It is now the country’s longest war and yet the outcome has been desultory. Sigar head John F Sopko gave a speech in November at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University where he said that more than 300 reports issued since the group launched in 2008 had brought some successes.
Sigar had conducted “nearly 900 investigations, resulting in 103 arrests, 136 criminal charges, 100 convictions or guilty pleas, 78 sentencings, and roughly $945 million in savings for American taxpayers”, he said. This amount is a tiny fraction of the financial commitment made by Washington in the past 15 years.
In a November letter to US defence secretary Ashton Carter, Sigar showed how 20 per cent of TFBSO’s 2010-2014 $822m budget was spent on private villas and security guards in Kabul.
“If TFBSO employees had instead lived at DoD [department of defence] facilities in Afghanistan”, it said, “where housing, security and food service are routinely provided at little or no extra charge to DoD organisations, it appears the taxpayers would have saved tens of millions of dollars.”
Sigar estimated that in 2014 alone, the 10 TFBSO staff would have paid just $1.8m to live at the US embassy.
Another report, released in October, accused TFBSO of spending up to $43m to build a natural gas filling station in the northern Afghan city of Sheberghan when a similar facility in Pakistan cost only $500,000.
“One of the most troubling aspects of this project”, Sigar said, “is that the department of defence claims that it is unable to provide an explanation for the high cost of the project or to answer any other questions concerning its planning, implementation or outcome.”
TFBSO was disbanded last year after consistent allegations of ethical breaches and financial irregularities. But its legacy lives on. The first Sigar report of 2016 found that TFBSO had spent up to $488m since 2009 attempting to develop viable oil, gas and mineral businesses in Afghanistan, but achieved nothing sustainable. Corruption and rampant violence conspired against it.
The lack of accountability of Washington’s war in Afghanistan was exposed when Sigar chief Sopko wrote to defence secretary Carter in October and chastised his department for “no longer having any knowledge about TFBSO, an $800m programme that reported directly to the office of the secretary of defence and only shut down a little over six months ago”.
I asked the department of defence to respond to Sigar’s allegations against TFBSO, and spokesman Army Lt Col Joe Sowers told me that, “we welcome continued review by Sigar in their effort to ensure the TFBSO activities are properly assessed and analysed. With respect to holding someone accountable, to our knowledge, Sigar has not identified or accused any particular individual of malfeasance. The department will cooperate fully with any investigations.”
Sigar said to me that there had been no official response from the department of defence to its 2015 report detailing extensive TFBSO use of private villas in Kabul. Likewise there was no substantive comment after Sigar accused TFBSO of massively overcharging for the natural gas filling station in Afghanistan.
Former TFBSO head Brinkley now runs the investment company Nawah, in Jordan. Critics accused him of entering the private sector too soon after leaving the US government in 2011 – only four months afterwards – though he told me that he “did so in accordance with the ethical rules established by the government to do so”.
Brinkley explained that during his time running TFBSO, from 2006 to 2011, oversight “was very, very rigorous. The recent media reports about Sigar studying TFBSO spending appear to be focused on activities that occurred after my departure. However, to assist in providing some important context and history, I voluntarily met with four members of the Sigar study team in mid-December”.
Brinkley believed that TFBSO was “based on the belief that the US government can offer economic improvements as instruments of foreign policy. Failing to provide a hopeful future for young people in conflict-ridden countries leads to frustration and sympathy with insurgents … I felt we served the [TFBSO] mission well”.
Amidst all the carnage and mismanagement in Afghanistan, it is the civilians who have suffered the most. The Taliban today control more territory than at any time since they were overthrown in 2001. The prospects for the country, after almost 15 years of foreign occupation, are grim. There is every indication that contractors, such as DynCorp and Fluor Corporation, will continue making a fortune profiting from the conflict. However, according to Sigar, it’s nearly impossible for American auditors to assess their work because they can only access about 10 per cent of the country due to insecurity.
These facts don’t mean that some outspoken Afghans aren’t still fighting for improvements.
Shughla, a Fulbright alumni from Kabul (and member of peace initiative the Afghan Fulbrighters for Peace), told me that she blamed many international agencies for ignoring the real needs of Afghan women since 2001. “There was a limited assessment of cultural and contextual background”, she said, “and gender relations in the policies were one of the reasons why Afghan women made fragile and hindering progress despite the gigantic investment.”
Shughla argued that there needed to be empirical research “undertaken by civil society, government agencies and international donors as to where, what and how to improve the livelihood of Afghan women who are manoeuvring in a highly patriarchal and tribe-oriented society.”
The general failure of the USAID project in Afghanistan can be attributed to many factors, but a lack of local consultation was fatal. “Mohammed”, an Afghan in Kabul working for an international financial organisation who requested anonymity over security fears, said that the majority of USAID-funded projects had “largely failed to have significant impact on the life of Afghan people. Those who develop these projects are sitting in Washington DC with very little understanding of the realities in this country”.
I asked Mohammed why projects condemned by Sigar were so ubiquitous in Afghanistan. “The contractors have little access beyond Kabul city”, he said, “with very poor understanding of the country, and try to remotely manage their projects. In order to keep their senior counterparts in the government happy, they usually provide them favours that can border on corruption. Accountability mechanisms are very weak.”
This accurately articulates a key problem for the US mission in Afghanistan since the beginning. A lack of transparency has bedevilled the project since 2001, and president Obama, despite pledging during his 2007 campaign to clean up the bloated contracting racket, has done nothing.
History will not be kind to the litany of American mistakes and crimes during its longest war.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
Les catastrophes n’ont pas le même sens pour tout le monde. Antony Loewenstein s’intéresse ici à tous ceux qui « profitent des désastres » — le tremblement de terre de 2010 en Haïti, par exemple — pour privatiser, déréguler et faire fructifier leurs affaires. Mercenaires, multinationales de la sécurité, sociétés minières, secteur de la construction, etc. : de la Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée au Pakistan, le journaliste présente une vaste palette de chefs d’entreprise qui prétendent venir en aide à des Etats confrontés à telle ou telle difficulté. On visite ainsi des prisons privatisées aux Etats-Unis, des camps de détention de migrants en Australie et au Royaume-Uni, des parcs industriels entourés de bidonvilles et transformés en nids douillets pour les entreprises américaines ou sud-coréennes en Haïti. Et l’on découvre la symbiose parfaite entre précarisation, paupérisation, surveillance des populations d’une part, et affaires lucratives de l’autre. L’auteur identifie une tendance qu’il observe sur toute la planète : « le remplacement de la démocratie par le “business plan” ».
Written by Eva Spiekermann, Google Translate tells me it says the following in English:
Disasters do not have the same meaning for everyone. Antony Loewenstein is interested by all those who “take advantage of disasters” – the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, for example – to privatize, deregulate and grow their business. Mercenaries, security multinational mining companies, construction industry, etc. : Papua New Guinea Pakistan, the reporter has a wide range of business leaders that claim to help states facing a particular challenge. Thus privatized prison visits to US detention camps for migrants in Australia and the UK, industrial parks surrounded by slums and transformed into cozy nests for US or South Korean companies in Haiti. And we discover the perfect combination of insecurity, impoverishment, population monitoring on the one hand, and lucrative business on the other. The author identifies a trend he sees on the planet, “the replacement of democracy by the” business plan “.”
My column in the Guardian:
Australia first introduced onshore detention facilities in 1991 at Villawood in Sydney and Port Hedland in Western Australia. Mandatory detention came in 1992. Bob Hawke’s government announced it was because “Australia could be on the threshold of a major wave of unauthorised boat arrivals from south-east Asia, which will severely test both our resolve and our capacity to ensure that immigration in this country is conducted within a planned and controlled framework”.
More than 20 years later, the rhetoric has only worsened against the most vulnerable arriving from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Policies that years ago seemed unimaginable, such as imprisoning refugees on remote Pacific islands, are the norm and blessed with bipartisan support.
The sad reality is Australia’s refugee policies are envied and copied around the world, especially in Europe, now struggling to cope with a huge influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Walls and fences are being built across the continent in futile attempts to keep out the unwanted. A privatised security apparatus is working to complement the real agenda. Australia is an island but it has long implemented remote detention camps with high fences and isolation for its inhabitants.
As a journalist and activist who has publicly campaigned against Canberra’s asylum policies for over a decade, this brutal reality is a bitter pill. In early 2014 I called for UN sanctions against Australia for ignoring humanitarian law and willfully abusing refugees in its case both on the mainland and Nauru and Manus Island. I still hold this view but must recognise facts; the international mood in 2016 for asylum seekers is hostile. As much as I’d like to say that my homeland is a pariah on the international stage, it’s simply not the case.
When Denmark recently introduced a bill to take refugees’ valuable belongings in order to pay for their time in detention camps, this was remarkably similar to Australia charging asylum seekers for their stay behind bars. Either directly or indirectly, Europe is following Australia’s draconian lead.
Consider the facts in Europe: after Sweden and Denmark reintroduced border controls, a borderless continent is now in serious jeopardy. The Schengen agreement – introduced in 1985 to support free movement between EEC countries – is on the verge of collapse. In early January, the European Union admitted it had relocated just 0.17% of the refugees it pledged to help four months earlier. In 2015 more than 1 million people arrived by boat in Europe.
This mirrors Australia’s lacklustre efforts to resettle refugees in its onshore detention camps. Figures released by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in December found that asylum seekers had spent an average of 445 days behind barbed wire. In both Australia and Europe there’s general acceptance of these situations because those seeking asylum have been so successfully demonised as potential terrorists, suspiciously Muslim and threatening a comfortably western way of life.
Germany, a nation that took in more than 1 million refugees in 2015 despite being unprepared for the large numbers, is now facing a public backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming stance, leading to fear and rising far-right support. Australia has taken far fewer people with little social unrest and yet still unleashed over two decades a highly successful, though dishonest, campaign to stigmatise boat arrivals. The result is the ability of successive Australian governments to create an environment where sexual abuse against refugees is tolerated and covered up. A politician is unlikely to lose his job over it.
Europe and Australia promote themselves as regions of openness. It’s an illusion when it comes to refugee policy. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, despite his bombastic and discriminatory attitude towards refugees and Jews, is increasingly viewed across Europe as providing necessary warnings of the continent’s struggles. EU officials in Brussels told the New York Times that Orban was often right but wished he hadn’t couched his comments in conspiracy theories. Too few in Hungary are publicly resisting this wave of racism.
“Whenever Hungary made an argument the response was always: ‘They are stupid Hungarians. They are xenophobes and Nazis,’” Zoltan Kovacs, a government spokesman, told the Times. “Suddenly, it turns out that what we said was true. The naivete of Europe is really quite stunning.”
Brussels has proposed an Australian-style border force to monitor the EU’s borders and deport asylum seekers. Germany and France support the move. This proves that the most powerful nations have little interest in resolving the reasons so many people are streaming into Europe (such as war and climate change) and prefer to pull up the drawbridge. Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott encouraged Europe to turn back the refugee boats and it seems Brussels is listening. Europe is also copying Australia’s stance of privatising the detention centres for refugees.
None of this worries Rupert Murdoch’s Australian. In light of the New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne, the paper editorialised in early 2016 that Europe must avoid “reckless idealism” and embrace an “enlightened world” where gender equality is accepted by all. The outlet has not expressed similar outrage with the immigration department’s blatant disregard for refugee lives. It’s also unclear how pushing for military action in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and other Muslim nations, pushed by the paper for years, contributes to an “enlightened world”.
It’s comforting to think of Australia as a global pariah on the world stage, pursuing racist policies against asylum seekers from war-torn nations. But it’s untrue. Canberra’s militarised “solution” to refugees is admired in many parts of Europe because it represents an ideology far easier to process and sell than identifying and adapting to changing global migration patterns.
None of this should stop activists fighting for a more just outcome, in both Australia and Europe, but today it’s more likely European officials will ask Australian officials for advice on how to “stop the boats” than chastise it for mistreating a raped refugee.
Australia has become an inspiration for all the wrong reasons.
My investigation in the Guardian:
Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagós islands look like a tourists’ paradise – the 88 mostly uninhabited islets are filled with palm trees and white, sandy beaches. But the archipelago has been best known as a smugglers’ paradise.
Described by the UN as a narco state, Guinea-Bissau has long been a drug trafficking hub for South American cocaine cartels. And although this illegal trade appears to be declining thanks to US and UN counter-narcotic policies, the country still bears the scars and remains dogged by the same poverty and institutional weaknesses that allowed the drugs industry to take hold in the first place.
On Bubaque, the main inhabited island, there are no roads, just dirt tracks. People live in mud-brick homes, and pigs and dogs meander in the streets. Most of the small guesthouses are empty; despite nascent efforts to promote the islands’ rich biodiversity, tourism has yet to take off. At Bubaque’s airstrip on a November day, the small terminal was empty and men on bikes rode along the “runway”, hacked out of the grass and scrub.
This isolation was one of the elements that attracted drug traffickers to this area in the heyday of west African drug trafficking in the first decade of the millennium.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says it became clear around 2005 that drugs worth billions of dollars were being shipped through west Africa. Between 2005 and 2007 (pdf), more than 20 major seizures were made in the region, most at sea but some on land. Hundreds of commercial air couriers were detected carrying cocaine from west Africa to Europe.
The UNODC noted that the same period saw coups, attempted coups and even the assassination of a president in Guinea-Bissau. “While the conflict appears to have occurred along well established political faultlines, competition for cocaine profits raised the stakes and augmented tensions between rival groups,” it said.
After the US Drug Enforcement Administration arrested Guinea-Bissau’s former navy chief, José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, in 2013 for trafficking cocaine into the US, smuggling briefly slowed.
The ambassador of a European country in Bissau, who did not want to be named, said drug smuggling had declined since Na Tchuto was arrested. “Before this, local smugglers were brazen, driving around in expensive cars,” he said. “But after the arrest of Na Tchuto, people became scared. They thought US drones were flying above the country.” There is no evidence that US drones came anywhere near Guinea-Bissau.
The former justice minister Carmelita Pires denied Guinea-Bissau was a narco state but acknowledged that smuggling occurred. “We don’t produce drugs and people here don’t have enough money to consume drugs,” she said. During her last period in government in 2014 and 2015, only 15 locals and foreigners were in jail for drug trafficking and 13.5kg of cocaine was intercepted. She realised this made only a small dent, but added: “We don’t have money and drug smugglers have so much of it.”
In November, UNODC told a press conference in Bissau that about 34,000kg of cocaine and 22,000kg of marijuana had been seized in Guinea-Bissau since 2011, with 58 traffickers prosecuted. However, limited resources meant constant monitoring was impossible, and drugs inevitably got through.
One factor behind the drop in trade is the West African Coast Initiative, a joint project between UN agencies, Interpol and the regional bloc Ecowas, which began in 2009 to fight drug smuggling, organised crime and drug use in Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.
But the defence minister, Adiato Djaló Nandigna, said in December that the Bijagós islands were still the “most vulnerable” region in terms of drug smuggling. Portugal recently gave Guinea-Bissau two boats to plug surveillance gaps. According to multiple defence sources in Bissau, the country has no operational boats to fight the trade and no reliable police outposts outside the capital.
Fernando Jorge Barreto Costa, the deputy director of judicial police, said: “We have a lack of means to fight drug smugglers. Drugs are arriving more by sea than by plane and it’s very hard for us to investigate it. We don’t have the capability to intercept boats. If we receive news about drugs at sea, it takes two to three days to get an answer from authorities for action. This is too slow, and by then the drugs and people may have moved on.”
Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 178 out of 188 in the UN’s human development index. Political instability has blighted the lives of its 1.8 million people; since independence in 1974, no leader has served a full term, and the nation is still recovering from a 2012 coup. In August, President José Mário Vaz sacked his government.
In March, international donors pledged more than €1bn (£726m) to support a 10-year development plan meant to attract tourists and investors, according to Reuters.
“Every effort must be deployed so that Guinea-Bissau will no longer be a burden on the international community but will instead become an example to be followed,” President Vaz said. Growth is expected to have risen to 4.7% in 2015, compared with 2.6% a year earlier, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Mario José Maia Moreira, UNODC’s representative in Guinea-Bissau, is leading a programme to support a transnational crime unit and the state’s first drug-testing lab. “Stability is the greatest issue facing Guinea-Bissau,” he said. “All the evidence shows that there’s a large quantity of drugs [still entering the nation], and whenever a political crisis comes you see [more].”
My investigation in Foreign Policy:
BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau — The headquarters of the Judicial Police, the government agency charged with prosecuting Guinea-Bissau’s war on drugs, sits on a dusty street in the middle of this deceptively quiet West African capital city. Inside is the country’s only drug-testing laboratory, a recent addition thanks to a surge in European Union funding to curb the flow of illegal narcotics north toward its borders.
Without guards or metal detectors, the lab hardly feels like the front line in a war against violent criminals thought to be trafficking billions of dollars worth of cocaine each year. But officials say the assorted vials and testing equipment here represent an important, if limited, first step toward routing the South American cartels that have ventured thousands of miles from their home turf to stake out an ideal drug transit point in one of Africa’s weakest states.
“We want to diminish 80 to 90 percent of the drug trade flowing into Guinea-Bissau,” said Sargento Natcha, the lab’s soft-spoken coordinator, as he tested a small sample of cocaine with a kit bought with donor funds. “The EU has promised to send more equipment.”
But the odds are stacked against Natcha and his team at the lab. Key players in the country’s notoriously corrupt government — the same government that must act on any leads produced by the lab — are thought to be backing the drug trade. The United Nations has dubbed Guinea-Bissau, an impoverished nation of 1.7 million, Africa’s first “narco-state.” For decades, its governing elite is known to have opened the country to South American drug barons who use it as a base for smuggling vast quantities of cocaine to Europe, according to the United Nations. According to the United Nations, 60 percent of the cocaine consumed in Western Europe makes its way through West Africa.
The routes are varied, with some drugs transported through the Sahara — passing through Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, and Morocco and then on to Southern Europe — and other shipments crossing the Atlantic bound for the United States. Guinea-Bissau is a key hub in both cases. According to a 2012 U.N. report, an estimated 50 Colombian drug lords were based in Guinea-Bissau, operating alongside members of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel. The report estimated that they were flying 2,200 pounds of cocaine into the West African nation every night.
Smugglers have gained a foothold in the tiny West African nation in part because of its persistent political instability, experts say. Since independence in 1974, the military has participated in nine coups or attempted coups and no elected political leader has ever served a full term in office. Current President José Mário Vaz fired two prime ministers in 2015, deepening a political crisis that has strengthened the resolve of the military brass to protect cocaine trafficking as their key source of income.
“During military dictatorships [that lasted until 1994] the military was used to getting benefits [from drug trafficking],” said Miguel Trovoada, head of the U.N. Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau, adding that desire to control the drug trade has fostered political instability since then. “In all the coups, the military didn’t take over governance responsibilities, leaving that to others.”
Much of the country’s ruling class is now thought to be implicated in the trade, forming what Mark Shaw, a professor of criminology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, calls an “elite protection network” for the cartels. Senior military figures in particular provide security and logistics to South American drug cartels in exchange for money and drugs, according to Shaw.
Examples of corrupt military officials abound: In 2013, the former army chief of staff, Gen. Antonio Indjai, was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York for trying to import cocaine into the United States, though he denies the allegations and remains a free man in Guinea-Bissau. Likewise, former navy chief José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto was captured in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting in 2013 and a year later pleaded guilty to importing narcotics, including cocaine, into the United States.
The international community has gradually woken up to the problem. The United States, European Union, and United Nations, in particular, have invested billions of dollars in recent years in battling the drug trade and supporting development. In addition to Natcha’s lab, aid dollars have helped set up a transnational crime unit that supports the government’s anti-corruption department, according to Mário José Maia Moreira, the representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Guinea-Bissau. Moreira said his office is also working to obtain boats that can be used to conduct seizures, since the country’s counternarcotics units currently lack operational vessels.
But progress has been slow. Moreira estimates that dozens of tons of cocaine still move through Guinea-Bissau every year, a figure that he reckons is less than in the past but still worth more than “the entire annual military budget of many West African countries.” This year, only 11 kilograms of cocaine have been seized so far — or a tiny fraction of the estimated total that flows through the country en route to European countries every year.
“If you were a drug smuggler from South America, wouldn’t you choose Guinea-Bissau, considering the system and the fragility of the country itself?” said Moreira. “The authorities are still very fragile in terms of resources.”
A recent report by the respected Jane’s Intelligence Review confirms Moreira’s assessment. In addition to accusing the military for being “complicit” in the drug trade, the report concludes that Guinea-Bissau “remains an important hub for cocaine trafficking to Europe, despite the anti-trafficking initiatives of the United Nations and other international organisations.”
Outside the capital city, drug smugglers operate virtually unmolested by authorities. In the fishing village of Kassumba, a known smuggling hub near the border with Guinea, law enforcement has no visible presence at all. White sandy beaches and palm trees give the impression of calm, but the reality is very different: According to the UNODC’s Moreira, smugglers drop sealed packages containing small quantities of cocaine into the coastal waters here. The packages are retrieved by local fishermen and passed on to military officials and politicians, who oversee their safe transport to Bissau.
Those members of the security services that are not a part of the official smuggling racket remain woefully under-equipped. On Bubaque Island in the Bijagós island chain, an archipelago of mostly uninhabited land known as a center for smugglers, five hours by slow boat from Bissau, a soldier named Djibril Sanha explained how he’d been tasked with combating drug trafficking and illegal fishing, but had been given virtually no resources.
“We have no boats, no communication devices, and only our mobile phone,” he said in an interview. “I don’t understand what I’m doing here. You give us a head and stomach but no legs.”
Despite billions of dollars spent over the last decade by international donors, the weakness of West African states like Guinea-Bissau continues to attract opportunistic traffickers. Much of the aid has simply been swallowed up by corrupt officials who are in on the game; some of what was promised was never disbursed because of fears that this might happen. Meanwhile, collaboration between drug traffickers and the government has only deepened, according to U.N. officials.
Back in the drug-testing lab in Bissau, the scale of the challenge before officials like Natcha was clearly on display. The coordinator furnished a list of names of traffickers who had been caught at the airport in 2015 with cocaine in their stomachs: None was carrying more than 2.5 kilograms (about 5.5 pounds). But more importantly, none had any known affiliation with the government.
An anecdote: as a resident of Chicago, I often use public transit. Although the system is in no way perfect, it is popular, extensive, and runs (mostly) on time, which is quite a feat in itself. In August 2013, the fare card system, previously operated by the Chicago Transit Authority, was outsourced to the privately owned Cubic Transportation Systems. Riders accustomed to the yellow-and-blue Chicago card were forced to switch over to the Ventra card. Savings and efficiencies were promised, as well as utility, since Ventra could also function as a MasterCard, netting riders who by choice or circumstances are unbankable.
The rollout was disastrous. Riders were kept hanging for weeks waiting on their new cards. Card readers wouldn’t work or would take multiple tries, slowing down commuters, especially bus routes. Tens of thousands of dollars were lost from fares as frustrated bus drivers waved through harried riders during system crashes. Customer service calls entailed hour-long waits. One rider ended up receiving 267 Ventra cards in the mail through a fluke.
All of this frustration was supposedly done for the benefit of riders and taxpayers. Yet, the privatization scheme outsourced a piece of public infrastructure (one that was up, running, and embraced by commuters) into private hands that promised a solution to a problem that didn’t exist with a flawed product at the price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars across 12 years.
While Ventra is a relatively low stakes example of privatization, Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein’s latest book Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophedocuments instances far more sobering, far more enraging, and much more relevant, considering the ongoing migrant crises in parts of the world destabilized by war and natural disaster.
Loewenstein is a writer of strong convictions, with formulations such “In many ways, privatization had no moral code, apart from making money.” Those looking for a dispassionate NPR or New Yorker-esque examination of social and economic ills best look elsewhere. Instead, the author treks around the globe, relating his experiences of documenting the dangers of “disaster capitalism”, a term coined by author Naomi Klein, where disasters, natural or manmade, are followed by deep cuts to spending, privatization, and deregulation. What results is an increasing capture of and pressure on those most vulnerable to profit seeking entities.
Reporting on private military contractors in Afghanistan, outside NGOs in Haiti, resource extractors in Papua New Guinea, and large multinational corporations that handle immigrants and refugees arriving in Australia, Britain, and the US, Loewenstein is attentive to the causes and the actors involved in each context. Though largely suspicious of and primed to be dismissive towards those in positions of power (perhaps overly so), the author takes pains to examine and excoriate the systems, rather than the individuals in charge.
This is a fine direction and it allows us to focus more on structures than devolving into painting cardboard cutouts of the company man, the media shill, the heartless non-profit CEO, something reporting on the excesses of capitalism can breed (look to the coverage of pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli’s price gouging, the press anointed ‘pharma-bro’. Much attention was devoted to his “doucheness”, if you will, while little was devoted to the ethics of for-profit medicine). Loewenstein’s attention to structures also draws attention to the contradictions of capitalism, something best embodied in the costs of housing refugees on Australia’s Manus Island by a private contractor.
As Loewenstein reports, a large multinational charges the government, “$74,792 per detainee per year on Manus Island.” Ironically, the privatization of this service, intended to save taxpayers and increase efficiency, did the opposite. The author continues, “It was cheaper to place an asylum seeker in a room in the Sheraton hotel in Sydney than for one night on Manus…”
Combined with a high rate of self-harm reported by detainees, low morale among the staff, and the legal limbo asylum seekers find themselves in, it becomes clear the disaster capitalists aren’t interested in providing a service, but are only interested in milking a cash cow; namely, taxpayers and the economically insecure, along with the politically marginal.
There’s a tendency towards sameness in some of Loewenstein’s sections, as if each portion was tackled piecemeal, without a greater sense of a larger project. Redundancies occur. Essay collections often run into this kind of problem, but it’s a bit odd in a workof extended reportage, considering how wide ranging the author’s case studies are.
However, what cuts through this sameness is when Loewenstein interjects himself into the reporting. This provides a human face that readers might find lacking in his attention to big, impersonal structures. For example, he sits down with a Hazara refugee seeker housed on Australia’s Christmas Island. Loewenstein listened closely to the man’s story. “It was a difficult conversation. I tried to show empathy for his situation—I did not know his exact story or its validity, but I could see he was in a bad way.” Consideration of dollars and cents don’t enter the conversation, here—only the plight of the person does.
Here the author hits what exactly is needed or, at least, one of the essential ingredients to combatting unrestricted capitalism and the neoliberal capture of national governments. “Humanity must not be outsourced to the highest bidder,” he states, “Awareness does not necessarily bring change, but it is the first, vital step in doing so. What we do with this information, living in nations with power, is our choice.”Rating: 7/10
My investigative feature in The Nation:
efore its failed occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union discovered that the country was rich in natural resources. In the 1980s, Soviet mining experts drafted maps and collected data that would lay dormant in the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul until the rise of the Taliban. These charts documented a vast amount of iron, copper, gold, cobalt, rare earth metals, and lithium.
Fearing what the Taliban might do with this wealth, a tiny group of Afghan geologists hid the maps in their homes until the arrival of American forces in 2001. By 2007, the US Geological Survey had undertaken the most comprehensive study of the mineral deposits below the country’s surface. An internal Pentagon memo claimed that Afghanistan could develop into the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” referring to the mineral that is an integral component of laptop and smartphone batteries.
Washington was ecstatic about the findings and in 2010 claimed that at least $1 trillion in resources was up for grabs. “There is stunning potential here,” said Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of US Central Command, speaking to The New York Times. US officials said that the deposits could sustain the Afghan economy and generate thousands of jobs, reducing corruption and reliance on foreign aid. Currently, with 60 percent of the country’s budget provided by foreign donors, outside investment is crucial. Acknowledging the inability of the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to handle a burgeoning resource industry, the US government pledged to help implement accountability mechanisms. However, regulations like the mining law—revised in 2014 to bring greater transparency—have had little effect on illegal mining and the non-payment of royalties.
The warning signs were there. “This is a country that has no mining culture,” Jack Medlin, a geologist in the US Geological Survey’s international-affairs program, told the Times. During my visit to Afghanistan in May, I often heard from locals that the resource industry was never going to provide enough money to support the economy once foreign aid dried up. Afghan mining expert Javed Noorani told The Nation that President Ashraf Ghani is “more constrained in his actions against the criminal networks operating in the mining sector than President [Hamid] Karzai was. Today there is open plunder of gemstones by the partners in his government, and his silence and passivity puzzle me, like many others.”
Mining and Petroleum Minister Daud Shah Saba told Iranian mining officials in October that only 25 percent of Afghanistan’s mines had been identified, indicating that the US mineral survey perhaps wasn’t as comprehensive as claimed. In 2015, according to Saba, the government will earn only $30 million from resources for the third consecutive year—far less than the projected $1.5 billion. “Unfortunately, we have failed to well manage and well control our mining sector,” the minister told Bloomberg News in October. “With the current fragile and messy situation, it’s really hard to say when Afghanistan should expect any profits from it.”
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The facts on the ground explain the troubles. Logar Province hasn’t seen peace for decades. Situated close to Kabul, the country’s capital, the area was a main supply route for the American-backed mujahideen as they poured in from Pakistan in the late 1970s and early ’80s during the Soviet occupation. Swedish journalist Borge Almqvist visited the province in 1982 and commented that “the most common sight, except for ruins, are graves.”
By 1995, the Taliban controlled Logar, and today, all sides of the modern Afghan conflict intersect there. Insurgents rule large swaths of the area, and suicide bombings kill civilians and Afghan security forces. The locals are caught between the Taliban, a small but growing Islamic State (ISIS) presence, and Afghan troops.
Logar is also home to one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits, at Mes Aynak. The Chinese company China Metallurgical Group Corp. (MCC) controls the $3 billion mine, having obtained rights to the area in 2007, but operations haven’t commenced because of security concerns and the discovery by archaeologists of ancient Buddhist relics dating back to the Bronze Age.
Local and international archaeologists have spent years finding, cleaning, and preserving the relics, and they remain opposed to the mine. Nor do they have much faith that the security situation would allow the mine to operate successfully. One Afghan archaeologist working at the site, Aziz Wafa, told Reuters in April that “for the Chinese [violence] is a problem, but not for the Afghans. I was born in a war, I grew up in a war, and I will die in a war.”
When Ghani visited Beijing in October 2014, he was asked by the Chinese government to cut the royalty rate from 19.5 percent to roughly 10 percent, which would cost the Afghan government an estimated $114 million annually. Chinese frustrations with the project, especially regarding the lack of security, were behind the demands.
MCC purchased the rights to the copper for 30 years, and the Afghan government has few if any other companies willing to take over the contract in such a volatile region. Global copper prices have dropped 40 percent since 2011; there’s no reliable transportation route for taking the metal out of the landlocked country; and MCC withdrew its workers from the site in 2014. The firm claims that tens of thousands of jobs could be indirectly created if operations commenced. MCC refused my requests for comment.
Logar Province is dangerous, unfriendly to outsiders, and only marginally safe to visit before the afternoon fades into night. I drove there in May with Noorani—who is also a founding member of the Natural Resources Monitoring Network, a grassroots group dedicated to assisting mining-affected communities across the country—and the American filmmaker Thor Neureiter. The journey from Kabul took us over paved roads and past lonely gas stations, chicken sellers, men in salwar kameez and beanies, and many burqa-clad women. Closer to Davo, a village near Aynak, the landscape became lush, with vast green fields, mud houses, and a skyline hazy from heat.
On the ground in Logar Province, civilians are angry, frustrated, and scared. Mohammed Nazir Muslimyar told me that “life is no longer normal here because of the mine. There’s too much hardship. There are engineers in this community who are doing very low-level jobs.” The advertised benefits of Afghanistan’s mining boom had not reached Davo.
I arrived at a mud compound as American helicopters flew overhead and was quickly ushered into an open room with red rugs on the floor. Ten men with long beards, white turbans, salwar kameez, and brown waistcoats were waiting to share their stories, and chief elder Malik Mullah Mirjan said our presence could result in the insurgents intimidating them after we’d left. Over piping-hot tea and biscuits, Mirjan told me that the Chinese had confiscated his family’s property and never paid compensation or explained what they were doing. There was an information vacuum filled with rumors spread by scared locals, corrupt officials, and the Taliban.
“People have been displaced, and there’s been no incentive or employment offered to local people,” Mirjan said. “When the roads are built for the mine, water in the area will be affected. When extraction begins, it will get more polluted under the ground, in the air and the soil. There’s been no good intention on the part of the government and the company. If there were, the small village where I come from would have had some peace over the last five years. We feel like we’ve been invaded.”
Mirjan explained that the police we saw stationed near his home “were to protect the company, not us. They will never come to defend us.” The Taliban attacked these forces almost daily. Meanwhile, the police insulted and beat up the local shepherds, who weren’t allowed to graze their sheep around the mine site. Mirjan and some other elders weren’t absolutely opposed to the MCC’s mine; they would accept its presence if the revenues were spent on developing the local infrastructure, including dams, canals, and electrical service. “We want to turn this into a sustainable economy,” he said. “If the mining elite spend the money on building villas in Kabul, it’s not going to be any benefit to us.”
Despite years of protest by civil-society activists and international NGOs, the contract between the MCC and the Afghan government was never released publicly. Finally, Kabul posted the contract online this year with very little fanfare. The document proposed only lax environmental protections as well as a feasibility study that was never undertaken. According to public comments by Saba, the MCC didn’t consider the social costs of its proposed operations (although the Afghan government was also neglecting its responsibilities when it signed the deal).
During my visit to the country in May, Saba refused to speak to me about his ministry’s work, despite repeated requests for an interview. The Ghani administration was just as secretive and as unaccountable as its predecessor under Karzai. After trying for weeks to obtain an interview with Saba, I spoke to his chief of staff, Shafiqullah Shahrani, who repeatedly assured me that the Aynak mine would go forward and that the local residents were being consulted about how it might benefit them. When I informed him that I had just visited the area and been told the exact opposite, he defended his government’s commitment to raising revenue.
President Obama’s recent announcement of an indefinite continuation of US military presence in the country—9,800 soldiers, plus tens of thousands of private contractors—will result in no meaningful change to this reality. In fact, it may even worsen the insurgency with the expansion of militias under the Afghan Local Police, as such groups have become notorious for heinous abuses across the state. Village elders in Logar Province have said that their livelihoods are increasingly threatened around the Aynak mine because of these lawless militias. In Davo, Mirjan said that the international community—especially the United States—has spent over $100 billion in Afghanistan since 2001 and that “it was stolen. Very little of it came to the people.”
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In April, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a US government body, released a report noting that Washington “did not have a unified strategy for the development of Afghanistan’s extractive industries.” Since 2009, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) have provided $488 million toward the nation’s extractive industries, supporting a variety of corporations like the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the US-based contractors Expertech Solutions and Hickory Ground Solutions.
This money, SIGAR explained, did nothing to build a viable and well-regulated mining industry in Afghanistan. Instead, the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum lacked “the technical capacity to research, award, and manage new contracts without external support,” while the US government—including USAID and the Defense Department—had failed in its mission to help create “self-sustaining Afghan extractive industries,” which “still seems a very distant goal.”
Take one project central to US government strategy: the Sheberghan-Mazar pipeline in northern Afghanistan. Originally built by the Soviet Union, the pipeline is just one example of how US resource strategies—in this case, to help Afghan engineers repair and maintain aging and damaged equipment—led nowhere. SIGAR found in 2014 that rampant corrosion had left the pipeline in poor shape, and the $33.7 million invested by the US government between 2011 and 2014 had not contributed to its stability. A SIGAR official told The Nationthat this project was now viewed by USAID and the State Department as a “liability…due to safety concerns, lack of sustainability, and other problems.”
The SIGAR official pointed out that the “development of mineral resources is a long-term endeavor and not a quick fix for Afghanistan’s budgetary challenges…. Unfortunately, US assistance in this area does not appear to have [made] much of a difference, and the sector shows virtually no signs of measurably improving in the immediate future.” The SIGAR official also admitted that the Defense Department had offered no response to the April audit and that USAID had “not yet implemented any of [our] recommendations.”
Illegal mining is also rampant throughout Afghanistan, with more than 2,000 such sites raising money for warlords and the insurgency. Historically, Pakistan has been a major recipient of these illicitly obtained minerals. A SIGAR report found that illegal mining has been costing the state up to $300 million annually since the Taliban’s collapse in 2001. Insecurity in eastern Nangarhar Province and elsewhere prompted Saba to warn Afghan lawmakers in 2015 that monitoring the thousands of mines around the country was impossible and that the complete and unrestrained looting of local resources could happen in the absence of a peace deal with the Taliban.
A senior source at the US embassy in Kabul, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told me that mineral revenues today were barely enough to support the operations of the mining ministry itself. He claimed that although Ghani now recognizes that natural resources won’t resolve the country’s budgetary problems, no alternative solutions have been proposed. “China is absolutely waiting in the wings, with many transport corridors and investment options [contingent on] improved Afghan security,” he explained. “They take a longer view and will be players in time, but for now they’ve been burned over copper [at Aynak], so they’ve stepped back.”
Yet mining remains a key plank of the Ghani administration’s economic plans as international aid dwindles. Stephen Carter, the Afghanistan campaign leader at Global Witness, told The Nation that after meeting with Ghani this year in Kabul, he sensed a new “sensible, strategic approach from the government—they have said they do not want to do any large-scale mining” (Aynak is the major exception), “and even small-scale is doubtful until they get stronger oversight and management capacity.” But, Carter added, “the government will inevitably be judged on actions, not words, and the next six months will be crucial. If there is not progress in substantive reforms in this time frame, it will be very worrying.” Six months after those comments were made, the signs are ominous: There is no evidence that the Ghani government is willing or able to eradicate the massive mineral theft by the Taliban or to institute a regulated resource sector.
Whether Afghanistan should actively pursue a mining industry or ignore its vast mineral wealth is a contentious issue. Pajhwok Afghan News journalist Ahmad Zia Rahimzai told me in Kabul that “many Afghans believe that our resources should stay in the ground until laws and accountability in the country are stronger.” Arguably, the risks incurred by leaving resources in the ground are both fewer and less severe than those posed by rampant exploitation. Noorani has argued that the Ghani administration should “leave the resources underground” because warlords control today’s industry. Indeed, minerals are the Taliban’s second major source of funds, after narcotics.
Global Witness’s Carter concurs, arguing that only in the long term should the country pursue mining: “It is too important a source of revenue and growth to ignore, given the desperate need, [but] be ready not to mine for however long it takes to put in place the right structures.” At this point, Afghanistan is years away from such a resolution.
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The hazards posed by climate change and environmental degradation appear nowhere in the US government’s assessments of the Afghan resource industry. Mining without environmental safeguards guarantees worsening air and water pollution. Countless residents of Kabul visit hospitals every day because of health complications caused by poor air quality. Open sewers and the burning of dung only add to the problem. The illegal and uncontrolled extraction of coal happens daily across the city. In addition to low-quality fuel, Afghanistan is already suffering seasonal shifts in its rain and snowfall, and many farmers complain of declining agricultural yields due to climate change. A huge mining industry in vulnerable parts of the country would only exacerbate these issues.
Carter pointed to the increasingly international initiative to leave resources in the ground to reduce global temperatures. “Afghanistan should be first in line for compensation in return for nonexploitation,” he said, “which might also provide a chance to get the money out of the hands” of local warlords.
President Obama, during his announcement in October of an extended US military presence in Afghanistan, claimed that US troops “could take great pride in the progress that they helped achieve.” He was against fighting an “endless war,” he said. But that’s exactly what Afghanistan has become: the longest war in American history. In terms of civilian casualties, 2014 was the deadliest year for the people of Afghanistan since the United Nations started compiling figures in 2009. Today, nobody is seriously talking about a viable resource industry funding the country’s future. Indefinite occupation is the preferred solution.