Haji Layeq says an American company failed to pay a construction company he has ties to; photo by Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

Much of the world, despite what many Americans think, does not trust the United States intentions in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Both countries have seen corruption and favoritism at the highest levels. In theory “America” stands for citizens’ rights and equal treatment under the law, but in practice such principles may conveniently be ignored in war zones. Such a case was reported on yesterday in The New York Times by Carlotta Gall. She writes:

The failure of American companies to pay for contracted work has left hundreds of Afghan workers unpaid in southern Afghanistan, and dozens of factories and small businesses so deep in debt that Afghan and foreign officials fear the fallout will undermine the United States-led counterinsurgency effort to win the support of the Afghan people.

One American firm using U.S. funding was Bennett-Fouch, which Afghans accuse of leaving the country without paying off the local subsidiary that actually did the work in building a police-training center. It used to be that the “Ugly American” image was limited to a guy in short pants refusing to speak anything but English and complaining about the plumbing, but now ugliness has a direct economic impact. By hiring and not paying Afghans to rebuild their own country, we are inviting them to oppose us. It is bad enough that corruption is rife in the Afghan government. If American aid is no different, and American companies are allowed to simply walk away from their debts, how can we expect “American” to have a positive image? And pity the next American contractor who comes to the area.

Some politicians, especially our former President, blamed the problems we face with terrorist groups like al-Qaida and now the Afghan Taliban as due to their hatred of our freedom. Do you think anyone in Afghanistan cares about what Americans think or do in their own country? The issue is not freedom in some abstract sense, but the pragmatics close to home. When American troops accidentally kill civilians, it does little good to say that accidents will happen. When the corruption of a government installed by outsiders is worse than that of a previous dictatorial regime, it is hard to say “Look how much better things are now.” My point is not that America has an evil intention to take control over either Afghanistan or Iraq, at least in the political sense, but the values we think our country stands for must match those on the ground for even a modicum of success.

Rebuilding Afghanistan is a noble idea. But how does development work when there is insecurity and when much of the population has little reason not to believe what the Taliban leaders are saying? Soldiers are trained to use guns, not tell the locals how to use plowshares. Winning the hearts and minds of the locals is a platitude that makes little sense on the ground. There are a number of reasons why the American presence is not popular in either Iraq or Afghanistan, even by those who stand to gain from our presence. But one of these is that military occupation seldom breeds anything but contempt. Think of Palestine, not Japan.

Imagine if BP refused to pay for any damages caused by its recent oil fiasco. This is how many Afghans feel when their property is destroyed, loved ones are lost, or salaries are not paid. It is the kind of payback that serves no one.

Daniel Martin Varisco