Afghan Realities

Afghanistan, a critical nation, remains essentially on life support.

Article created by The Century Foundation.

Last week, Condoleezza Rice joined leaders from Afghanistan and 60 donor nations in London for what may have be America’s last best chance to get its strategy on track for Afghanistan, a critical nation that remains on life support.

Afghanistan’s problems are a symptom of a single key issue: the nation’s government is exceedingly weak, over-centralized, and incapable of providing security, collecting taxes, or delivering services, especially in the provinces where people need them most.

This is a big reason the Taliban are stronger today than at any point since they were ousted. Strongmen, smugglers, and narcotics traffickers have consolidated their fiefdoms and used September elections to further entrench themselves. Reconstruction and economic growth have been confined to a few urban areas and Afghans continue to experience some of the worst poverty and health standards in the world.

Before the conference, Rice had promised “a significant new contribution to Afghan development” but in London it became clear that no increase was planned: the $1.1 billion in development assistance proposed for next year is the same amount the United States gave last year.

There may still be time to correct the course, but donors will need to boost their aid dramatically and make the development of Afghan capacities their top priority.

Reconstructing a fractured society is a monumental task which requires substantial resources and an approach that balances security and development. A RAND study, which cites per capita aid flows in the early years of nation-building, is illustrative: relative successes were achieved in Bosnia ($679 per capita), Kosovo ($526), and East Timor ($233). On the other side of the coin is Afghanistan, which received a scant $57 per capita.

The two previous donor conferences (2002 in Tokyo and 2004 in Berlin) delivered less than half of the $28 billion promised, and of that only $4 billion went to rebuilding projects. (During this period, drug revenues overshadowed reconstruction funds by a two-to-one margin, tilting power further toward criminals and strongmen.)

Could donors have afforded to bring Afghan funding out of the cellar? The irony here is that there was significant money being spent in Afghanistan—it was just going toward a narrow but expensive military campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Experts warned that Afghanistan could not be stabilized without sufficient reconstruction aid or provincial security, but the administration preferred to restrict its engagement and to focus its efforts through the Pentagon. Since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service, the United States allocated $66.5 billion dollars to the Department of Defense—more than ten times U.S. combined spending ($5.7 billion) on reconstruction, humanitarian aid, economic assistance, and training for Afghan security forces.

Every initiative, from counterterrorism to counternarcotics, from human rights to girls’ education, is contingent upon strengthening the Afghan state. The plan to rebuild the Afghan national army to 70,000 troops and the police force to 62,000, for example, is only realistic if the Afghan government dramatically increases revenues—after all, armed men are only “security forces” when they receive salaries. Yet billions are funneled to security forces even as programs to expand the economy and strengthen the government’s anemic tax-collection are shortchanged.

Major counternarcotics spending will go to waste without realistic investments in legal reform and alternative livelihoods. Elections, on which hundreds of millions were spent, will prove meaningless unless elected officials, including those in the provinces, can deliver services to their constituents.

The London Conference was a critical opportunity for donors to right their course, and they did, in principle, put the Afghan government in the driver’s seat by focusing on a national development strategy that reflects Afghan priorities. But the moment of truth will come when it’s time to honor these pledges and fully support the priorities of the Afghan people. It will take a paradigm shift, for example, to phase out a distribution system that undermines the government by channeling three-quarters of aid through outside contractors and NGOs.

Despite its many problems, Afghanistan has come a long way in four years, and a timely investment could help it to harness a skilled diaspora, favorable trade location, and competitive investment climate to achieve strong economic growth. The planned NATO expansion could provide a transformative boost in security.

But unless current trends are reversed, Afghanistan’s future may well be governed by narcotics traffickers and militia leaders, many of whom subscribe to the same ideology of radical Islam as the Taliban and al Qaeda. If so, the United States will have won every military battle and still lost the war.