UK aid to Afghanistan entrenched corruption and injustice, report finds

<span>Photograph: Jalil Rezayee/EPA</span>
Photograph: Jalil Rezayee/EPA

The UK’s £3.5bn aid to Afghanistan between 2000 and 2020 was implicated in corruption and human rights abuses and failed to achieve its primary objective of stabilising the country’s government, an assessment by the UK government’s aid watchdog has found.

Describing the two-decade aid project as the UK’s single most ambitious programme of state building, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) says decisions to spend aid on counterinsurgency operations were flawed, adding that efforts to reduce gender inequality are likely to be wiped out by the Taliban.

Money was spent on meeting the US’s excessively short-term objectives, the report finds. It suggests, on the basis of extensive interviews with senior UK government officials, that the UK had little influence on US strategy, even though it disagreed with the US decision to exclude the Taliban from any political settlement at a point when the Taliban were relatively weak.

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The damning new ICAI report says: “Unwilling to challenge the US approach, the UK became publicly committed into a narrative of imminent success.”

It adds: “The commitment to aligning with the US left the UK locked into investing large amounts of aid into a state-building process which its own analysis suggested had limited prospects of success. As one senior official told us, ‘If we’ve invested in a state-shaped object that cannot command the loyalty or support of large parts of the population, it will amount to nothing.’”

The report says the UK spent £3.5bn in aid over the 20 years to 2020, of which £2.5bn was spent between 2014 and 2020.

The review says: “In complex stabilisation missions, large-scale financial support for the state should only be provided in the context of a viable and inclusive political settlement, when there are reasonable prospects of a sustained transition out of conflict.”

It adds: “UK aid should not be used to fund police or other security agencies to engage in paramilitary operations, as this entails unacceptable risks of doing harm. Any support for civilian security agencies should focus on providing security and justice to the public.”

The review finds that the UK spent £252m funding the salaries of the Afghan national police, describing this as a “questionable use of UK aid”, because the police were primarily assigned to counterinsurgency operations rather than civilian policing. Overall, the UK spent £400m over six years to help the Afghan security services. Efforts by UK aid officials to stop the funding were overruled at the highest levels of government, the report found.

“Channelling funding in such high volumes through weak state institutions distorted the political process and contributed to entrenched corruption,” the review finds. “The creation of a parallel institutional structure to manage international aid drew capacity away from the Afghan administration.” Between 2017 and 2020 the number of consultants in the ministry of finance only fell from 780 well paid staff to 585, the report reveals.

It adds the UK was mistaken to spend so much aid on US-designed objectives that entrenched corruption and human rights abuses, including semi-paramilitary objectives. It says the US was itself aware of its errors, with officials admitting: “The ultimate point of our failure was not an insurgency but endemic corruption.”

UK government documents cited by ICAI and written as late as 2019 “describe the situation as an extreme form of state capture, which benefited a narrow group of Afghan political elites at the expense of the population at large”.

“In these circumstances, there was little prospect of meaningful institutional development. One year on, in 2020, the Department for International Development assessed that central government institutions were largely unable to deliver on their mandates, despite years of financial and technical assistance. Afghan leaders saw them as fiefdoms for patronage, rather than mechanisms for promoting the public interest.”

The UK, the report says, “took a largely technocratic approach to building the capacity of state institutions, focusing on their internal systems and processes, rather than their relationships with Afghan society. It also left UK aid subordinate to rapidly changing objectives and short planning horizons in the security arena, leading to unrealistic assumptions about what was achievable.”

The scale of the aid and the way it was delivered meant by 2021, 98.7% of Afghans described corruption as a big problem for Afghanistan as a whole – up from 76% in 2014.

The report finds the UK was aware of the problems in the design in the aid programme, but “the UK’s determination to provide unconditional support to the US meant that there was no attempt to reconsider the approach to state-building, even as its prospects of success receded”.

The review finds the sheer scale of the aid resources funnelled through central state institutions was distorting. The Afghan state spent approximately $11bn each year, but raised only $2.5bn of its own resources, the report finds. Echoing previous studies it suggests it would have taken 35 years for the state to become self funding, leaving the Afghan state locked into an open-ended dependence on external aid.

The report finds: “Ultimately, the US decision to conclude an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, setting a timetable for the unconditional withdrawal of US troops, made it necessary to abandon most of the objectives of the UK aid programme, despite heavy sunk costs.”