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.
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.”
* * *
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.”
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
At one telling moment in this unnerving and convincing book, Antony Loewenstein quotes the managing director of one of the many private military companies (“PMCs”) working in Afghanistan. The United States, says “Jack”, “is not capable of running empires”. Instead, western governments outsource imperialism to people like him in a variety of organisations – Halliburton, G4S, Serco and Capita are the best known of a long list – which make their money from incarceration, the “processing” of asylum seekers or the provision of private “security” in conflict zones. No longer able to sustain itself by selling dreams, capitalism now thrives on the management of nightmares. Even the provision of disaster relief is transformed into profit.
Disaster Capitalism takes us on a journey around the victims of this system: Greece, Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. It then turns its attention to the centres of outsourcing such as the US, the UK and Loewenstein’s native Australia. It charts the consequences of a double crisis: turmoil in the economic system following the financial crash, and the migration that is the unsurprising effect of the wars in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. Greece, at the heart of the eastern Mediterranean, has been the victim of both at once. Loewenstein notes that despite Syriza’s promises to challenge austerity, the state’s hands are tied not only by the troika, but by a wave of popular xenophobia, supported by a supine media. So, instead, non-state forces are stepping in: he visits the medical centres set up by leftwing volunteers to help the victims of both crises, and, more depressingly, the Greeks-only food handouts organised by Golden Dawn.
Similarly, in his account of the “relief” that followed the Haitian earthquake of January 2010, Loewenstein argues that the people of Port-au-Prince were able to organise themselves to respond to the devastation – “makeshift clinics were established”, and “young men and women worked to clear the rubble with their bare hands”. After this, however, the international response was quickly monetised, or, to quote the typically direct words of then-US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, “the gold rush is on”. The response to the disaster combined outsourcing to the largely USAID-funded contractor Chemonics, with American and Korean companies building factories to produce consumer goods for the western market while paying workers well below the already minuscule Haitian minimum wage. A new development was the intervention of celebrity-backed NGOs. The philanthropic efforts of Wyclef Jean, Sean Penn, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates come in for particularly sharp criticism as unaccountable and aloof. All this activity rests, according to Loewenstein, on a perception of Haitians as incapable of looking after themselves, a view his account attempts to challenge. As Pierre Justinvil, the deputy mayor of Cap Haitien, puts it, surveying a housing development built by a Minnesota-based company, “I personally, with my own hands, have just built a whole school for less than the cost of one of the houses, and more quickly.”
The irony is that Britain, the US and Australia are now inflicting on themselves many of the devastations they have visited on other countries. This is visible in the US’s immense privatised prison system, providing a convict labour force which, the author estimates, is bigger than the Soviet Gulag at its early 1950s height. The militarised response to the Ferguson protests last year are another example: the tooled-up, armour-plated local police “looked like they were equipped to fight insurgents in Iraq”. And they were: a programme had sold off excess military equipment, provided in the first instance by private companies, to local police departments.
In the UK, Loewenstein tracks the results of a decision to open up emergency accommodation for asylum seekers to our beloved volume housebuilders: “Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes, Persimmon, Bellway, Redrow, Bovis, Crest Nicholson”. Meanwhile, Britain has become a major exporter of outsourcing, with G4S and Serco being worldwide leaders in the field.
Disaster capitalism comes across as a thuggish operation, largely based on low-wage, low-conditions work where sensitivity to the often vulnerable people being “cared” for is not a major priority. At a nightclub full of PMC staff in Afghanistan, Loewenstein is “reminded of a comment made by a human rights advocate in Kabul, that if you go to a party in the city, ‘a quarter of the men will have no necks’”, a consequence of widespread steroid use. Everyone is dehumanised by what another outsourcer calls “the human warehousing business”.
One major strength of the book is its interviews. We meet a succession of nice, apparently open spokespeople for outsourcers and mercenaries, and even a well-mannered physicist and active member of Golden Dawn. He lets them speak with their own breathtakingly cynical words. Loewenstein is unashamedly partisan, though, especially in the chapter on the Bougainville province of Papua New Guinea, where a mass revolt removed the privatised mining corporation Rio Tinto from the area, leaving it reliant – by popular demand, it would seem – on subsistence agriculture. The corporations are coming back to Bougainville, and Loewenstein gives a sympathetic account of the forces trying to stop them, noting the horrendous ecological record of the companies in question. These divisions can be a little too neat.
After a particularly harrowing account of Australia’s “Pacific solution” to migration (ie, put them all on an island), Disaster Capitalism concludes with a rather pro forma rousing address, insisting that “resistance is never futile” and pointing to those places – small French towns, the city of Hamburg – that have managed to reverse outsourcing and privatisation. That’s fair enough, but as the accounts from Haiti and Papua New Guinea make clear, the system Loewenstein describes thrives by presenting itself as the only possible conduit for development and change. By placing, say, Rio Tinto on the one side and subsistence farming on the other, the choice becomes either virtuous tradition or hyper-exploitation. A model of development that could challenge these ruthless practices would make Disaster Capitalism a lot more convincing, but as an eyewitness account of the vultures’ activities around the world, it does provide a useful warning.
• Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism is published by Allen Lane. To order Disaster Capitalism for £12.99 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
There are few global crises in the world today that do not pull in the UN in some way.
Its security council still sets the terms of reference for war and peace around the world; its peacekeepers take the blue beret to all four corners of the planet, with very differing outcomes. But is it fit for purpose? Where has it made a difference? And what needs reforming?
As the UN turns 70, the Guardian has published a series investigating the organisation’s success and failures. This discussion marked the culmination of the project and featured a panel comprising Harriet Grant (Guardian journalist) Natalie Samarasinghe (executive director, United Nations Association UK) Antony Loewenstein (journalist, documentarian and author) Julian Borger (diplomatic editor, the Guardian) Charles Petrie (20 years experience at policy and operational level within the UN who, at the time of resigning, was the UN secretary general’s representative in Burundi).
This event took place on 14 October at the Guardian’s offices in Kings Cross, London.
During my recent New York book tour for Disaster Capitalism, there was a book event in October at The New School hosted by The Schools of Public Engagement and New School for Social Research. I was in conversation with Nitin Sawhney, Assistant Professor of Media Studies, co-director of the great film on Gaza, Flying Paper, and friend who I met in Cairo in 2010 during the Gaza Freedom March. Thor Neureiter, the director of my documentary in progress, Disaster Capitalism, also spoke about our project:
I was interviewed by Foyles, one of Britain’s best independent bookstores:
Antony Loewenstein is an award-winning independent journalist, documentary maker and blogger. He has written for, amongst others, the BBC and the Washington Post, and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. For his most recent book, Disaster Capitalism, he has travelled across the world to witness first hand the hidden world of making profit from disaster. Here, he talks to us about what disaster capitalism is, why we should be concerned about it, and what we can do about it.
How do you define “disaster capitalism”?
People and corporations making money from misery, from immigration to war and aid, and development to mining. It’s a global problem that is not unique to any one territory, region or country.
Can you give us three fundamental features of “disaster capitalism”?
Opportunists looking to exploit a disaster, man-made or otherwise. Corporations pushing for a deregulated business environment. Moral blackmail from companies who argue, like I examine in Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan, that only their mine or operation can assist local communities (when the truth is often the opposite).
You write that “Disaster has become big business” – couldn’t this be positive? Businesses are nimble, so perhaps it is best that they rather than cumbersome states focus on solutions to today’s problems?
Exploiting people and communities when they’re vulnerable can never be noble. For example, in my book I examine how UK companies such as Mitie, Serco and G4S have spent years running privatised detention centres for immigrants and providing poor care for both detainees and the guards minding them. A lack of accountability, both in the media and government, is an issue here. Ultimately, with immigration, Britain’s insistence on warehousing immigrants is the problem, regardless of whether these facilities are run by the state or for profit. But the profit motive by definition removes an incentive to provide adequate care for all.
Can you give us some real world examples of big business causing problems “in the field”?
In my book, I examine the reality of the post-2010 Haiti earthquake environment and the litany of profiteers and aid organisations who flocked to the country and largely failed to help the people most in need (Wikileaks cables from the US embassy in the capital Port-au-Prince explained that there was a “gold-rush” for contracts). During my two trips there in the last years I’ve witnessed how a flawed USAID system is designed to benefit US corporations, and make them a profit, as opposed to empowering, training and hiring local staff. This breeds local resentment. Besides, the US claims to have spent over US$10 billion on aid since 2010 and yet the country remains framed in Washington as little more than a client state to make cheap clothing for Walmart, Gap and others.
There have always been disasters, and then apocalyptic doom-mongering about those disasters. What is new about this particular phase?
Yes, disaster capitalism has been occurring for centuries (the East-India Company was arguably the first example) but since the 1980s, and the era of mass globalisation, more corporations have embraced a deregulated world where they have become more powerful than the states in which they operate. International law remains very slow to act when, say, a US company behaves badly in Afghanistan, and independent nations on paper are shown to be little more than helpless in the face of overwhelming US corporate and government power.
Back in 1972 Jorgen Randers wrote The Limits to Growth – that’s now nearly half a century ago! Are we really reaching the limits to growth? What’s different now compared to the 70s? What’s to say that we don’t have another 50 years of growth in us?
Growth, if defined by increasingly rapacious acts to exploit natural resources, could continue for decades to come but at a massive cost to the environment and people, especially in developing nations. What I hope to achieve in my book is to bring awareness of how Western companies and aid dollars too often cause more problems than they solve in nations with little media coverage. An exploitative ideology has been exported globally. But closer to home, in Greece, UK, US and Australia, often the same firms working with abuses in the non-Western world, are allowed to buy the increasing number of public services being sold. In comparison to the 1970s, today’s inter-connected world makes awareness much easier but also the scale of the exploitation (and dwindling resources) all the most urgent to address.
What are the three things we could do immediately to ease the problem?
Pressure politicians and journalists to properly explain why companies that continually fail continue getting contracts to manage the most vulnerable people. Engage with local communities in developing nations and listen to their concerns (when, say, an earthquake strikes, don’t presume outside contractors have all the answers). Force our elected leaders not to sell off public assets that the majority of the public wants to remain in public hands (and throw them out of office if they do).
What three books would you recommend as further reading for those interested in “disaster capitalism”?
Iraq, Inc by Pratap Chatterjee
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
Private Island by James Meek