Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: Is A Peaceful Transfer of Power Possible In Afghanistan?

Photo: S. SABAWOON./ Published: 04/5/2014 12:16:53 NY Daily News

Original article:

The process to check thousands of ballot boxes in the Afghan presidential election run-off is now underway after several delays, the United Nations mission in the country confirmed, calling for local commitment to complete the audit without any more postponements.

In a written statement, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) “urged the full commitment of the parties for the unprecedented and vital endeavour that should be completed without any further delays and interruptions.”

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), under whose authority the audit is being carried out, with international supervision, resumed the process on 3 August, following the Eid holiday, but without the participation of representatives of one of the two candidates, Abdullah Abdullah.

“After today’s consultations, we expected that the process of the audit will continue smoothly and without any interruptions,” Ján Kubiš, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and UNAMA head said on Saturday, in a press conference alongside IEC Chairman Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani.

In a statement today, Mr. Kubiš added that he fully understands that Dr. Abdullah, and his opponent, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, would need reassurances concerning the audit process.

“It could not be otherwise given the high stakes and widespread mobilization of supporters they were both able to achieve over two rounds of voting,” he said.

Meanwhile, more than 200 full-time international observers – hailing from the European Union and including its Election Assessment Team and the American non-governmental organizations National Democratic Institute, Democracy International and Creative, as well as Asian Network for Free Elections, are now in auditing warehouses in the capital.

According to a UN proposal, which has been agreed to by both candidates, they joined IEC audit teams to scrutinize some 23,000 boxes of ballots from the 14 June run-off using a 16-point checklist to look for things such as inconsistencies in marking the boxes or obvious patterns.

That information will then be reviewed by the IEC Board of Commissioners in open meetings –in the presence of international and domestic observers, candidate agents, the media and UN advisors – where they will decide to accept, recount or invalidate the results.

UNAMA has said that these “extraordinary international mobilization and transport efforts” are meant to provide Afghans with “unprecedented reassurance that the popular will which they bravely expressed on 5 April and 14 June will be known and respected.”

The proposal for the audit varies from past polls, where election officials relied on sampling and trends to extrapolate the extent of possible fraud.

Auditing every single audit box is a “unique opportunity,” said senior UN international elections expert, Jeff Fischer, who directly advises the IEC Board on international best practices.

“It meets international best practice, is consistent with the Afghan constitution and laws, and will produce a robust, credible and thorough audit that detects and eliminates fraudulent ballots while protecting valid votes,” he said.

The audit is led from the UN side by the UN Development Programme’s Enhancing Legal and Electoral Capacity for Tomorrow (UNDP ELECT II) project, which has spent the last four years promoting the capacity of Afghan electoral institutions.

I do not know enough about the two candidates–Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai–to try to determine whose positions and policies are in the best interests of the Afghan people. This is exactly why we have elections, to let people who will be directly affected decide for themselves. Whoever wins (whether Ahmadzai’s victory is upheld or overturned by the audit process) certainly has their work cut out for them. Afghanistan is one of the poorest, corrupt, insecure and culturally fragmented countries in the world.

Despite all these challenges–despite threats from the Taliban and lacking a history of effective democratic governance–about 40% of eligible voters turned out for the second round “run-off” elections held on June 14th. It is the job of an  independent and international auditing body to determine who will ultimately win the election. An unprecedented full audit of all votes is currently underway–the success or failure of this experiment could resonate in many forthcoming elections in the developing world.

The question remains, however, if either side is willing to accept defeat. Recently, candidate Abdullah’s camp has voiced discontent with the purportedly independent audit process:

The United Nations, which is assisting with the audit, and the Afghan Independent Election Commission announced a decision on the criteria for invalidating votes and tried to resume the audit on Sunday, but Mr. Abdullah’s team refused to participate, citing further objections to the criteria. Mr. Kerry made phone calls to both candidates on Friday, with little apparent progress.

Also on Sunday, Mr. Abdullah’s campaign manager released an audiotape on which he said Vice President Karim Khalili could be heard directing his followers to support Mr. Ghani in the runoff. An aide to Mr. Khalili has denounced the tape as fake, according to the independent television news channel Tolo TV.

In the tape the speaker, who sounded like Mr. Khalili but had not been independently verified as such, said that the international community, the election commission and the president all supported Mr. Ghani for president. He even suggested that Afghanistan’s allies would tolerate the use of any means to achieve such a result.

“Our international friends have promised us that by using any means and using any opportunity, the election outcome must turn in favor of this team, even if these opportunities, even if these means are against electoral mechanisms,” the voice said.

Mr. Abdullah’s campaign manager, Baryalai Arsalai, said the tape proved that the election fraud had been planned to return a victory for Mr. Ghani.

“This evidence was released today to inform our countrymen that our president, other government elders and the so-called election commission are instruments,” Mr. Arsalai said. The election was a public process, he said, calling it the right of the Afghan people, not the president or the commission chief. “We have a responsibility to let people know that their rights are being violated,” he said.

After lengthy last-minute negotiations, and clarifications issued by the United Nations on the criteria for disqualifying fraudulent ballots, Mr. Abdullah’s team announced it had provisionally agreed to attend the audit on Monday.

It seems to me (and this is just speculation) that the Abdullah camp, by calling into question not only the technical aspects of the audit process but the legitimacy of the whole operation, is setting itself up for an “out” should the audit results be against his favor. This is to say nothing of Dr. Ahmahdzai, who would surely cry foul play should his “victory” be found to be illegitimate.

Aside from a fully independent and internationally monitored audit of all votes, there is little more that can be done in the name of legitimacy. I fear for the sake of the Afghan people, however, that “legitimacy” in the eyes of the two candidates is tied to their own victory–two positions which are clearly mutually exclusive.

The people of Afghanistan showed great bravery by turning out to vote on two separate occasions, risking their lives in order to enable a system they are unfamiliar with. I hope I am wrong, and that both candidates will respect the results of the audit. If not, it is the duty of the international community to ensure that the legitimate winner takes power in a peaceful manner. The U.S. has a big role to play in this peaceful transfer, as the resources it provides Afghanistan (security, economic development, humanitarian, etc.) should provide considerable leverage.

As I said before, whoever ends up as the President will surely have their hands full; Afghanistan has a long march towards modernization. Transferring power peacefully through legitimate democratic elections is only the beginning of what is sure to be a difficult and nonlinear modernization process.

Update: It appears both candidates have agreed to a “power share” deal, where the losing party in the audit will get substantial positions within the government. It sounds good in theory, I hope they both stick to this plan when the results come in.

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Transparency Thursday: “Ghost Money” Flows From the U.S. to Afghani President Karzai

A true transparency piece, aimed at making common knowledge formerly secret financial transactions between the C.I.A. and Afghani President Hamid Karzai, was released last Sunday:

“For more than a decade, wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s president — courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.

All told, tens of millions of dollars have flowed from the C.I.A. to the office of President Hamid Karzai, according to current and former advisers to the Afghan leader.

‘We called it ‘ghost money,’’ said Khalil Roman, who served as Mr. Karzai’s deputy chief of staff from 2002 until 2005. ‘It came in secret, and it left in secret.’”

“…there is little evidence that the payments bought the influence the C.I.A. sought. Instead, some American officials said, the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords, undermining Washington’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.

‘The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan,’ one American official said, ‘was the United States.’”

“…the C.I.A. has continued to pay, believing it needs Mr. Karzai’s ear to run its clandestine war against Al Qaeda and its allies, according to American and Afghan officials…’We paid them to overthrow the Taliban’, the American official said.”

 “The cash does not appear to be subject to the oversight and restrictions placed on official American aid to the country or even the C.I.A.’s formal assistance programs, like financing Afghan intelligence agencies. And while there is no evidence that Mr. Karzai has personally taken any of the money — Afghan officials say the cash is handled by his National Security Council — the payments do in some cases work directly at odds with the aims of other parts of the American government in Afghanistan, even if they do not appear to violate American law.”

“While intelligence agencies often pay foreign officials to provide information, dropping off bags of cash at a foreign leader’s office to curry favor is a more unusual arrangement.”

“Afghan officials said the practice grew out of the unique circumstances in Afghanistan, where the United States built the government that Mr. Karzai runs. To accomplish that task, it had to bring to heel many of the warlords the C.I.A. had paid during and after the 2001 invasion.

By late 2002, Mr. Karzai and his aides were pressing for the payments to be routed through the president’s office, allowing him to buy the warlords’ loyalty, a former adviser to Mr. Karzai said.”

“Some of the cash also probably ends up in the pockets of the Karzai aides who handle it, Afghan and Western officials said, though they would not identify any by name.

That is not a significant concern for the C.I.A., said American officials familiar with the agency’s operations. “They’ll work with criminals if they think they have to,” one American former official said.”

Leaving out the little bit about how Iran was also attempting to buy influence, this seems like it may pretty much be common practice for the C.I.A.

I am admittedly torn on this issue.

The money is not a big deal in terms of the U.S. fiscal position. Tens of millions of dollars, over the course of a decade, amounts to a little more than a drop-in-the-bucket for American defense and intelligence expenditures.

If this money has gone to financing fighting that would otherwise have involved U.S. defense forces, it may well have saved money and American lives. From the American point of view, we may have been backing the lesser of two evils:

“Mr. Salehi, though, is better known for being arrested in 2010 in connection with a sprawling, American-led investigation that tied together Afghan cash smuggling, Taliban finances and the opium trade. Mr. Karzai had him released within hours, and the C.I.A. then helped persuade the Obama administration to back off its anticorruption push, American officials said.

After his release, Mr. Salehi jokingly came up with a motto that succinctly summed up America’s conflicting priorities. He was, he began telling colleagues, “an enemy of the F.B.I., and a hero to the C.I.A.”

 The fact that we have to buy influence in Afghanistan, on top of billions in official aid, shows just how costly and unsustainable nation-building can be, especially when that nation does not particularly want us there. What happens when the money stops, does the Karzai government lose control of the factions it was paying? Does the U.S. lose whatever little influence it does have over Afghani politics? Does the C.I.A. continue paying President Karzai indefinitely until the intractable “War on Terror” is won or abandoned?  

These are not easy questions; one thing I am sure of is that future payments to Karzai will come with stricter conditions of anonymity.

While the practical side of me says perhaps this money was needed, and indeed may have saved money and American lives compared to not paying it, the political and developmental economist in me is unabashedly opposed to this money.

Any time a government collects “rents”, be it from natural resources, official development aid, or secret financial transactions, that government further tightens its grip on the country. Similar to the “natural resource curse”, this money insulates the government from having to invest in human capital and infrastructure needed to raise the standard of living and productivity of the average Afghani, and put the country on a path to long term sustainable human development. Most governments, like the U.S. government, rely on tax revenue to operate, which is why the U.S government has stake in investing in the American peoples’ productive capacities (beyond the obvious moral and ethical considerations).

If the desired end result is true democracy in Afghanistan, then this money undoubtedly undermined U.S. interests. If the desired end result is a geopolitical ally who we know we can pay off, then the money has arguably served its purpose (although you can certainly argue U.S. influence in Afghani politics is minimal, considering how much we have invested in the country).

How do you feel about this? Do the ends justify the means, or is the U.S. thinking way too short-sighted and simply financing the next autocratic-anti-American regime in the Middle-East? I look forward to hearing some of your thoughts on the matter in the comment section.


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Transparency Thursday: Deriving the True Cost of “The War on Terror”

The “War on Terror” has been costly in a number of ways. The first thing we think of when we think of the cost of any war is the human death toll. The total number of deaths for U.S. military personnel is estimated at 6,518 . When considering casualties (deaths and wounded soldiers), that number balloons to 48,430. This means, according to estimates, a whopping 41,936 soldiers returned to the U.S. wounded from battle (physically or psychologically).

The number of deaths of indigenous people resulting from “The War on Terror” (which included military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) is estimated to be between 272,000 to 329,000.

From a death toll standpoint, the Americans escaped relatively unscathed. According to these numbers, there were 42 foreigner deaths to every American soldier killed. Not to discount those brave men and women who lost their lives fighting in “The War on Terror”, but it was historically one of the least deadly wars in U.S. history (in terms of the total % of U.S. population killed, .002%, and U.S. deaths per day, 1.72).

Human life is the hardest cost to quantify, because there is no numerical value that can be ascribed to a person’s life. Surely, more money was invested in each American soldier that died than in each Middle-Easterner killed, as the U.S. invests more in human capital (education, healthcare) and soldier training than the average Iraqi, Afghani, or Pakistani receives. But many of those killed in The War on Terror were innocent men, women and children. How do you value a life? Based on a person’s skill, or their age, or what they could have accomplished? The answer is that there is no answer, every death is personal (to a family / community), and leaves us wondering “what if”. The U.S. compensates families as best it can for those lost in war (although it can never bring that person back), whole most of the people who had loved ones die at the hands of U.S. soldiers receive nothing and are left trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

Compared to the human cost, the dollar value of war is relatively straightforward:

“The 2011 study said the combined cost of the wars was at least $3.7 trillion, based on actual expenditures from the U.S. Treasury and future commitments, such as the medical and disability claims of U.S. war veterans.

That estimate climbed to nearly $4 trillion in the update… the costs left out trillions of dollars in interest the United States could pay over the next 40 years.

The interest on expenses for the Iraq war could amount to about $4 trillion during that period, the report said.”

If “The War on Terror” ended today, the bill could total 8 trillion dollars when future interest payments and veterans benefits are considered. To put that in perspective, the U.S. national debt clock currently reads $16.7 trillion. Of all the debt the U.S. government owes, a little less than half of it is due to “The War on Terror” (and one has to wonder how much of the unknown cost of the war is included in the “debt clock” figure, and if that figure should not be adjusted higher as more information on the monetary cost of the war becomes available).

What is less straightforward is the social cost of “The War on Terror”. Since the fighting occurred overseas, everyday U.S. life was generally uninterrupted. Those in the Middle-East were not so lucky:

“Excluded [from the 272,000 to 329,000 estimate] were indirect deaths caused by the mass exodus of doctors and a devastated infrastructure, for example…”

“The war reinvigorated radical Islamist militants in the region, set back women’s rights, and weakened an already precarious healthcare system, the report said. Meanwhile, the $212 billion reconstruction effort was largely a failure with most of that money spent on security or lost to waste and fraud…”

That is not to say that there was no social cost for the U.S. As the above numbers indicate, an estimated 6,500 soldiers died in the war, while an estimated 42,000 more were considered casualties of war. The families of the deceased must be compensated, while those lucky enough to be alive face the challenge of living with a physical or psychological handicap. Those lucky enough to escape with their lives and without injury must still receive the benefits they are entitled to, and these numbers add up over time:

“The report also examined the burden on U.S. veterans and their families, showing a deep social cost as well as an increase in spending on veterans. The 2011 study found U.S. medical and disability claims for veterans after a decade of war totaled $33 billion. Two years later, that number had risen to $134.7 billion.”

As forces are pulled out of Afghanistan, we can only expect that number to rise exponentially. So now that we have a rough idea of the human, social, and dollar costs of war, we must ask ourselves “why did we do this?”  To that question, there is unfortunately no good answer.

The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2001 in response to the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. The rationale behind this invasion was that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”. Over time, this claim has been proven false.

When France began involvement in Mali, and while President Obama mulls over his options in Syria, it would be prudent to heed this warning (which I have stated before): be cautious of anybody trying to sell a quick and painless military intervention:

“‘Action needed to be taken,’ said Steven Bucci, the military assistant to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the run-up to the war and today a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think-tank.

Bucci, who was unconnected to the Watson study, agreed with its observation that the forecasts for the cost and duration of the war proved to be a tiny fraction of the real costs.

“If we had had the foresight to see how long it would last and even if it would have cost half the lives, we would not have gone in,” Bucci said. “Just the time alone would have been enough to stop us. Everyone thought it would be short.”

Due diligence must be taken more seriously. The estimated dollar costs of war fail to take into account the human and social costs, and even still tend to be overly optimistic. The price of fanning the flames of hatred in Islamic countries has also yet to be fully realized.

Whenever there is a question of domestic spending in the U.S., a long debate ensues, the specter of “moral hazard” is evoked, and quick action rarely takes place (if at all). Why then were our same tax dollars spent so liberally on these unneeded wars?

Is this what President Eisenhower was referring to when he famously warnedwe must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex”? A future where military spending was out of control, where money was spent on defense without proper due diligence while simultaneously taking money away from crucial domestic programs? I would say it certainly is; military spending accounted for 24% of the 2012 Federal Budget (education accounted for 4%). Eisenhower made this famous warning in his farewell address in 1961, yet it seems that over 50 years later we still have not heeded his words.

What we see now is people saying we didn’t know what we thought we knew, both in terms of the duration of the war and the reason for invading in the first place (weapons of mass destruction). Would a misappropriation of trillions of dollars on domestic programs be tolerated? Of course not. We should therefore take this as a lesson learned and reconsider how the U.S. intervenes in foreign affairs.

I have argued for a substantial downsizing of U.S. D.o.D. spending, with some of the money being reallocated to the D.o.S. (and to USAID specifically, to tackle the humanitarian roots of conflict which provide breeding grounds for terrorist activities), and the rest of the money going to underfunded domestic programs (or paying down the deficit).

Other countries do not want our help in the form of military intervention. While the costs of “The War on Terror” were much higher than initially believe, the benefits have been much lower (and in time may prove to be non-existent). The U.S. holds little sway over Iraqi policy since we pulled out in 2011, and recently Afghani President Hamid Karzia has taken up anti-American rhetoric to prove he is not a puppet of the west as the U.S. begins winding down its military efforts in Afghanistan.

Hopefully a lesson (albeit a costly one) has been learned. You cannot impose democracy through war. Democracy must occur organically through a process of empowering the citizens of a country. Less money, spent more carefully through the D.o.S., would go a longer way in achieving the goal of creating strategic regional allies.

We must also work more closely with existing strategic regional allies (in the Middle East, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia come to mind) and our allies in Europe and around the world, to ensure a multilateral approach is taken when intervening in another country. This would reduce both the high (monetary) costs and  anti-American sentiment associated with unilateral U.S. military intervention. It should also increase the meager benefits that have come to define “The War on Terror” by creating lasting allies instead of simply running costly “babysitting” campaigns.

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