In 2010, the US discovered that Afghan soldiers were being starved to death in a US-funded military hospital in Afghanistan, and nothing was done. Now US lawmakers are losing patience with corruption in the country.
The scandal first broke in September last year, when the Wall Street Journal ran a feature detailing sickening conditions at the Dawood National Military Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, a facility being run on US taxpayer's money.
There was evidence of horrifying scenes - amputees being left to defecate in their own beds, blood draining from patients into open vats, maggots feeding on infected wounds - and all embedded in deep corruption. According to the report, doctors and nurses routinely demanded bribes for food and basic care.
One of the stories the WSJ told was of Afghan policeman Ali Noor Hazrat, who was admitted to the hospital late in 2010 after being injured in a Taliban rocket attack. He then starved to death in the hospital on December 27, while his brother desperately tried to sell off the family's land to pay the doctors to feed him.
The report also said US officers had recorded evidence of such stories at the hospital as early as 2006, and reported it to the Afghan Defense Ministry, who took no action.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent at the Washington Post and author of a new book "Little America: The War Within The War For Afghanistan," noted a distinct contrast in the reactions to the Dawood scandal.
"What's interesting is that this case has actually generated more outrage in the west than it has in Afghanistan," he told Deutsche Welle. "The Afghans look at this and they sort of roll up their eyes. They see it unfortunately as par for the course. They're tired of getting outraged by stuff like this."
This week it emerged that part of the reason why conditions at Dawood did not come to light earlier was the intervention of one senior US officer. Lieutenant General William Caldwell, who was leading a training mission in Afghanistan, blocked an investigation into the hospital because he feared it might effect the 2010 US Congress elections. This was the testimony offered by military officers to a Congress investigative committee on Tuesday.
Colonel Mark Fassl told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he was "shocked" when Caldwell told him in 2010, "How could we do this or make this request with an election coming? He calls me Bill." Fassl said he believed this was a reference to President Barack Obama.
Fassl also described what he saw when he visited Dawood. "There were open vats of blood draining out of soldiers' wounds, there was faeces on the floor," he told the hearing. "There were many family members taking care of their loved ones. The family members were emptying these vats of blood to help their patients out."
But the US lawmakers at the panel made clear that Congress is losing patience with the endless amounts of public money being poured into the task of nation-building in Afghanistan.
Congressman Stephen Lynch told the hearing that the circumstances at this military hospital were part of a pattern of waste, fraud and abuse in a country that has seen everything from banking scandals to trucking contracts that ended up funding the insurgency.
Retired Air Force Colonel Schuyler Geller, who helped make the problems at the hospital public, was quoted in the WSJ saying that Afghan officials "will never see the light until they feel the heat. Only with withdrawal of mentors and money … will there ever be any accountability. In a situation where you tell the Afghans, 'We will not let you fail,' then we have lost all leverage."
Extra money causes corruption
Chandrasekaran believes NATO forces are essentially caught between their twin policies of withdrawal from domestic Afghan affairs and continued financial support.
"Some of this corruption is unfortunately the result of the large sums of money the US and our NATO allies, Germany among them, have pumped into Afghanistan," he added. "In some cases it exacerbated the very corruption we're trying to address."
Congressman Lynch went so far as to make an even darker hint. "After many trips to Afghanistan, I honestly believe that corruption is a bigger danger to Afghanistan than the Taliban," Lynch said. "And as a matter of fact, I think the people are so enraged and so hopelessly challenged by the level of corruption in their government that the government makes the Taliban look good."
Chandrasekaran says there is some truth to this.
"There are some Afghans who romanticize the Taliban reign as a time when there was less corruption," said Chandrasekaran. "Make no mistake about it, the Afghan people have no great love for the Taliban, but nor do they love their government much either. This simply reinforces their fears that their government is corrupt, ineffective, and doesn't serve the interests of the people."
Kevin Francke, researcher with a special focus on Afghanistan at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), says there is no reason to believe that the Afghan people would prefer the Taliban.
"The last survey by the Asia Foundation found that though the Afghans see corruption as one of the main problems, it was clear that the work of the current government is rated higher than that of the Taliban regime," he told DW.
But despite impatient signals from US lawmakers, there is little the US can do. As Francke points out, President Obama signed a strategic partnership agreement with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai in May, reaffirming the financial commitment to Afghanistan even after military withdrawal.
Some have also expressed fears that the Dawood Hospital story could discourage Afghans from joining the security forces. But Chandrasekaran says the security forces remain an attractive option for most Afghans - if only because they have little choice.
"It's attractive insofar as there are few other options," he said. "People are often signing up to the police or the army because they need to provide for their families. Often it's the only job that is available."
As far as Francke is concerned, NATO powers essentially have no option but to cooperate with the Afghan government.
"If we want the Afghan government to decide how the money is to be used, then we have to accept that they might use it in a way we don't like," he said. "What we can't do, and what the Americans shouldn't do, is take all these projects into our own hands and decide what is good for the Afghans. You have to work closely with the government to build in certain control mechanisms."
"You would hope that as the west continues to pour money into Afghanistan to build security forces, it will hold the Afghans to account for how that money is used," said Chandrasekaran. "An example needs to be made out of this case."
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Rob Mudge
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