By Gethin Chamberlain
Corrupt police and tribal leaders are stealing vast quantities of reconstruction aid that is intended to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans and turn them away from the Taliban, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt.
In some cases, all the aid earmarked for an area has ended up in the wrong hands. Defence officials in the United States and Britain estimate that up to half of all aid in Afghanistan is failing to reach the right people.
Nato forces in the south of the country say some Afghan police are guilty of corruption and will steal aid if it is handed out. Tribal and mosque elders have also been accused of seizing goods, including building materials and fuel, and selling them in markets. A Pentagon official said thousands of cars and trucks intended for use by the Afghan police had been sold instead.
Within six months of starting my job as finance minister, my best people had been stolen by international aid organisations who could offer them forty to a hundred times the salary we could," Ashraf Ghani says.
Last week, the US and European Union announced plans to spend an additional £7 billion on assistance to Afghanistan, of which £1.5 billion will be earmarked for reconstruction. A committee of MPs is to investigate the corruption, which has dogged operations in Afghanistan since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001.
James Arbuthnot, chairman of the Commons defence select committee, said the matter needed to be urgently addressed. "Corruption is something we will be examining," he said.
Nato commanders in southern Afghanistan are deeply concerned at the level of corruption but have resolved to press ahead with reconstruction projects in the hope of winning over the local population and improving security.
In one recent example in Kandahar province, aid distribution went ahead despite fears that it would be stolen. Sergeant Major Denis Tondreau, in charge of delivering Canadian army aid to the Pashmul area, said the Afghan police unit in one village was known for corruption and extortion. "I have been told that if I bring aid to Pasab the police will steal it," he said. "They are just a bad, bad unit… extortion, corruption and use of drugs."
But people in the area said tribal and mosque elders were also guilty of stealing aid. In the nearby town of Panjwaii, workers said aid distributed by Nato's provincial reconstruction teams had not reached the ordinary people.
Abdul Ghany, 20, said: "When the soldiers came here they gave things to the rich people. The elders took things for themselves and we received nothing."
Noor Ullah, a police intelligence officer in the neighbouring Zharey district, said tribal leaders had to be persuaded that the aid was not intended for them alone. At a heated meeting he warned them: "The equipment is not to rebuild your own homes, it is for the mosques and the whole village. It is not for individuals, it is for the community. It is not for you to take and sell it."
Aid and reconstruction work are seen as key elements of the Nato strategy in Afghanistan, and were cited by the British Government as the main reason for deploying thousands of additional troops last year.
On Friday, Nato foreign ministers signalled that they would boost their military and economic contributions amid calls for more investment in development projects to win the support of the Afghan population. Liam Fox, the Conservative defence spokesman, said he had heard first-hand of corruption affecting the reconstruction programmes when he visited Afghanistan last summer. "There is increasing corruption from top government officials down, which is making efforts to get reconstruction off the ground much more difficult," he said.
Charles Heyman, a defence analyst and former British Army major, said millions of pounds earmarked for reconstruction were being siphoned off. "It almost comes with the programme," he said. "You have to build in an element of that into any programme because you know it will leak into people's pockets."
A joint report by the Pentagon and the US state department, circulated to congressional committees last month, concluded that the Afghan police force was corrupt to the point of ineffectiveness. One Pentagon official told The Sunday Telegraph that police officers had stolen and sold at least half of the equipment supplied by the US, including thousands of cars and trucks.
The Department for International Development said progress had been made. "We work closely with local people, the governor and representatives of the national government in drawing up projects, to make sure that what we do meets the needs of local people," said a spokesman.
Among the projects funded by the department are the purchase of uniforms and winter coats for the Afghan police, a hospital generator and a mortuary.
But it confirmed that some of the £2 million allocated to projects intended to help internal refugees had been diverted to build vehicle checkpoints.