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Afghan Aid Under the Microscope

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report Assesses U.S. Aid to Afghanistan

SOURCE: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Former President George W. Bush, left, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrive for a joint press conference after their meetings, Monday, August 6, 2007, at Camp David, Maryland. Bush was eager to give Karzai a pass for much of his misbehavior because he viewed him as a key strategic ally, but the weakness and rot of many Afghan institutions have made it all that much harder to achieve both our development and security objectives.

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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a very thoughtful report Wednesday looking at U.S. assistance to Afghanistan just as the Obama administration fiercely debates the speed with which to draw down troops in Afghanistan and a growing bipartisan chorus of members of Congress thinks U.S. involvement in Afghanistan needs to be rethought with the death of Osama bin Laden. (My colleagues Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman are releasing a brief shortly on issues related to the drawdown debate.)

The Senate report called for our aid to Afghanistan to be far more sustainable, while questioning whether many of the programs the United States has conducted under the broad banner of “stabilization” have actually made Afghanistan more stable or secure. Its findings are consistent with many of the themes we here at CAP have been stressing for some time.

Afghanistan aid is a major U.S. investment, one of our highest foreign policy priorities, and how the money is spent matters. The State Department, USAID, and the Department of Defense have spent more than $51 billion aiding Afghanistan since 2002, or more than $472 million a month. Some 97 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP currently comes from spending related to the international military and donor presence.

The report, prepared after two years of staff work by the committee, poses all the right questions. The authors recognize the importance of development programs and correctly praise the administration for completely overhauling the development strategy in 2009 after recognizing that the approach taken by the previous administration just was not working. USAID has also put tighter controls in place over contractors and established clearer ways to measure if programs are achieving their desired impact.

Yet the report also challenges some of the key underpinnings of how development assistance has been used as part of our counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Citing a Tufts University field study, the report notes that many diplomatic and military leaders assume poverty and the limited presence of the Afghan government are the key drivers fueling the insurgency, when in fact the lack of security and poor governance are of greater concern to local citizens.

The distinction makes a huge difference in how programs are designed. Instead of pouring money into rapidly disbursing aid programs at the local level over the last decade that have often proven unsustainable, we likely would have been better served by putting institution building first and acknowledging that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government was weak, corrupt, and not particularly reform minded.

President George W. Bush was eager to give President Karzai a pass for much of his misbehavior because he viewed him as a key strategic ally, but the weakness and rot of many Afghan institutions have made it all that much harder to achieve both our development and security objectives.

Simply put, we can spend all the development funds in the world and it will not substitute for an actual functioning Afghan government.

The report also notes that more and more decision making on development issues in Afghanistan has been placed in the hands of diplomats and military officers rather than development and postconflict experts. This helps underscore why there continues to be too much emphasis on spending money fast rather than spending money effectively.

To have development programs be sustainable usually means engaging in genuine consultation with the people on the ground that will own and manage projects and programs long after donors and aid workers are gone. That kind of partnership can be slow and laborious in the best of settings, and work in Afghanistan is clearly more challenging than most.

Unless the Afghan government is able and willing to take real ownership of efforts to create jobs and improve the lives of its own people, all of our investments in Afghanistan will ultimately be castles made of sand.

John Norris is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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