Afghanistan Needs More Than Money

Greater U.S. Leadership Is Needed to Fix Development Problems

The upcoming International Conference in Support of Afghanistan represents an opportunity to renew U.S. commitments to the country.

An Afghan girl holds bread in her hand as she is carried by her mother  in Kabul. The International Conference in Support of Afghanistan in Paris tomorrow represents an opportunity for the United States to make good on its pledges to the country. (AP/Rafiq Maqbool)
An Afghan girl holds bread in her hand as she is carried by her mother in Kabul. The International Conference in Support of Afghanistan in Paris tomorrow represents an opportunity for the United States to make good on its pledges to the country. (AP/Rafiq Maqbool)

More than 80 countries and organizations will participate in the International Conference in Support of Afghanistan in Paris tomorrow to shore up political and financial support for Afghanistan. At the conference, Afghan President Hamid Karzai will publicly present the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, or ANDS, described as “an Afghan-owned blueprint for the development of Afghanistan in all spheres of human endeavor.” Afghanistan is expected to ask for $50 billion for the next five years from countries and aid groups, half of which is intended for security and infrastructure, with the remainder going toward agriculture, education, health, and other development projects.

While this money is necessary for reconstruction and security in Afghanistan, past experience has shown that dollars alone will not solve the country’s development problems. As French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner put it, “International aid has not fully yielded fruit since 2001. We must review our tools and our approach.” The United States, in particular, needs to assume greater leadership in coordinating international assistance and making good on its own pledges for Afghanistan, which to date have fallen short.

An Urgent Need for Assistance

After three decades of conflict and political instability, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. The percentage of the population with access to basic necessities like safe drinking water, electricity, and sanitation is among the world’s lowest, and less than 30 percent of Afghans are literate. The current rise in world food prices has created further pressure on the limited income of Afghanistan’s poor. Weak governance capacity, corruption, a poor environment for private sector investment, and the deleterious effects of a thriving narcotics industry prevent the Kabul government from developing a strong tax base, leaving it dependent on foreign assistance for over 90 percent of its spending.

In addition to widespread poverty, the country faces continuing security threats from violent insurgents. While the Bush administration and many conservatives continue to place a greater priority on U.S. operations in Iraq, top intelligence and military officials have issued frequent warnings that the operational core of the Al Qaeda terrorist network has in fact reconstituted itself in safe havens along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The Bush administration’s neglect of the strategically critical situation in Afghanistan has contributed to a gradual slide in security, with analysts reporting that May 2008 was the most violent month in the country since the arrival of U.S. forces in 2001.

A Failure to Deliver

The current level of U.S. aid to Afghanistan pales in comparison to previous reconstruction efforts. In the two years following the initial international intervention, Afghanistan received only $67 in annual per capita assistance, while Bosnia and East Timor received $249 and $256 per capita respectively. This discrepancy is a partial remnant of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “light footprint” approach, which emphasized low troop commitments by American and NATO forces, and “doing more with less.” It is also a reflection of the administration’s overwhelming focus on operations in Iraq, which have received at least $526 billion as of April 2008, compared to the $140 billion spent in Afghanistan since Fiscal Year 2002.

While this lack of funds is worrisome, a further challenge facing the Afghan reconstruction is the way in which money is being spent. Funding comes from some 80 different countries and aid groups, each with its own agenda. The result is that aid funding to Afghanistan is uncoordinated and inefficiently allocated. What’s more, less than one third of all the aid the country has received has gone through the Afghan government’s national budget, a key requirement if the Afghan government is to ever develop the management and governance capacity to stand on its own.

Development programs like the National Solidarity Program, or NSP, which takes a community-managed approach to rural infrastructure and reconstruction, thereby limiting corruption and empowering citizen participation, are suffering funding shortfalls as the United States has failed to support the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund—the source of NSP’s funding. The NSP had completed some 30,000 small aid projects at the local level as of November 2007, and established more than 18,000 community development councils out of the 25,000 villages in the country. However, the program will face a $160 million shortfall in its second phase, and U.S. contributions to the ARTF fell from $74 million in 2006 to $50 million in 2007.

What’s more, only a fraction of the aid promised by the international community has thus far actually been delivered to the country. According to a recent report by the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, a coalition of 94 Afghan relief organizations, donors pledged $25 billion in aid from 2002 to 2008, of which only $15 billion has actually been spent. The United States, providing a third of all developmental aid to Afghanistan, has dispersed only $5 billion of its promised $10.4 billion.

The report also states that some 40 percent of that $15 billion has ended up back in consultants’ salaries and company profits. “Vast sums of aid are lost in the corporate profits of contractors and subcontractors, which can be as high as 50 percent on a single contract,” the report said. The recent deterioration in security and persistent lack of development outside the capital has shown that this top-down approach is not working. Failure to carry through on the reconstruction process leads to resentment among the Afghan people and opens the door for insurgents to challenge the Afghan government’s legitimacy.


The current state of security and reconstruction reflects the poor quality of assistance to Afghanistan to date, but the upcoming conference in Paris represents an opportunity to renew our commitments to the country. The international aid community should use this conference to coordinate expenditures under unified goals, and commit a larger portion of funds to go through Afghan government channels. U.N. Special Envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide has emphasized this need for greater unity of effort, saying that his goal for the conference is to see “a partnership coming out of Paris where the international community says ‘yes, we will spend our resources better’ and the [Afghan] government says ‘yes we will fight corruption more vigorously.’”

The United States should set an example for other partner nations by making a strong commitment to delivering on its previous aid promises in full, including the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund. While $50 billion over the next five years is a significant step up from the current level of aid, it is still meager compared to the $36 billion the U.S. military is spending annually in Afghanistan—itself only a fraction of what is spent in Iraq. Afghanistan represents a real opportunity to defeat extremist forces and establish a functioning democracy in a volatile but strategically critical region. The right kind of spending can make Afghanistan, the region, and the rest of the world safer.

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow

Colin Cookman

Policy Analyst