Is Afghanistan Winnable?


That's what some analysts are calling Afghanistan, a label of great concern to the aid community as this war has become largely a hearts-and-minds affair.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton are reviewing the security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to put together a new strategy before the next NATO summit in April.

The picture is not pretty.

Four Americans were killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan on Feb. 24, bringing the coalition death toll to 29 this year – more than double the total killed in the first two months of 2008 and the most since the war began in late 2001. Civilian casualties jumped in the past year, while kidnappings, assassinations and other attacks on the teetering Afghan government increased sharply. The Taliban are now established in 72 percent of the country, up from 54 percent a year ago.

In response, President Obama recently approved the deployment of an additional 17,000 troops, which will bring the U.S. total to more than 50,000. But the increased military presence is a risky step. More foreign troops are likely to bring more violence, which will lead to an increase in what David Kilcullen calls "accidental guerrillas" or locals who haphazardly take up arms against an invader, as many southern Afghans do when a battle erupts between coalition troops and the Taliban.

Thus in building schools and hospitals, solidifying government institutions and rebuilding infrastructure, successful aid and development efforts are integral to securing and stabilizing Afghanistan. Fortunately, both the European Union and NATO have in the past week intimated their willingness to boost aid.

But making Afghan aid effective has proven to be a near impossibility. Kickbacks, profiteering and all variety of corruption and incompetence are rampant, not only within the Afghan government but also among aid agencies and subcontractors.

Up to $5 billion has already been wasted, even as hundreds of thousands of Afghans are suffering from a severe drought in the north. Further, a lack of oversight and accountability leads to skimming at every level, resulting in failed and faulty projects. Finally, aid workers are increasingly under threat from attacks and kidnappings by al-Qaida, the Taliban and rogue criminals.

A recent study by a collection of U.K. aid agencies and European non-governmental organizations unveiled another problem:

"The deteriorating violence in Afghanistan does not primarily result from poverty, nor will economic incentives buy support for an opposed military presence or government. Following a long history of aid and military intervention, including during the Soviet occupation, Afghans are familiar with and suspicious of 'hearts and minds' strategies. Furthermore, aid represents a small component of most Afghans' coping strategies in times of conflict and transition. Predominant strategies include communal cooperation on rehabilitation and remittances. Interviewees in Paktia and Uruzgan repeatedly argued that security would be more fundamentally linked to improved governance and the removal of unsavory characters from positions of power."

Such perspectives are all the more convincing coming from Afghans themselves, particularly in light of seven years of fitful progress at best. With the emphasis on aid, an effective Afghanistan strategy must:

1. Incorporate clarified and shared goals. As detailed in a recent policy paper from the Center for Strategic & International Studies, the people of Afghanistan – and Pakistan, for that matter – must believe their security and prosperity are the key concern of all aid and military efforts. To that end, the U.S., EU and NATO allies, along with the development community, must iterate a unified plan with achievable targets, and stick to it.

2. Involve less contracting and subcontracting, and greater oversight. Aid agencies and project implementers must take greater control and responsibility for their work – and be held accountable for it. Such adjustments will not be easy, but they are necessary if aid agencies and NGOs are to ultimately succeed in building a more stable society.

3. Focus on governance and local democracy promotion in a few key provinces. Nothing is holding back progress in Afghanistan as much as a lack of national, regional and civic leadership. Civil society organizations, democracy promotion and community involvement need to be cornerstones of regional development strategies in Helmand, Uruzgan and along the border with Pakistan, from provincial to village levels. An underlying cause of Taliban resurgence, for example, is the drug trade, which remains successful mainly because governors and other officials are given near impunity to oversee poppy farming and opium smuggling. Efforts are being made to cut back production and improve security, but aid projects need to work the other end – removing corrupt warlords and putting legitimate, democratically-elected leaders in place.

A majority of Americans still support a renewed effort to salvage Afghanistan, but U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke predicted "a long, difficult struggle" that will be "much tougher than Iraq." It could be considerably longer and more difficult if the international community fails to implement the security and economic development projects that can provide a foundation for stable democratic institutions.

Posted to Devex.com on February 27, 2009


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