New York Times columnist David Brooks not too long ago wrote a column titled Smart Power Setback, criticizing the way the international aid system functions in Afghanistan. While acknowledging a few significant achievements in education and healthcare, he argued that “the influx of aid has, in many cases, created dependency, fed corruption, contributed to insecurity and undermined the host government’s capacity to oversee sustainable programs.”
He’s absolutely right. These unintended consequences of pumping large amounts of aid into Afghanistan could have been avoided, if only the country’s nation-partners had listened to the Afghan people. In conference after conference since 2002, President Hamid Karzai appealed to the international community to help build the capacity of the country’s post-war state institutions. The idea was that, over time, these institutions would gradually gain the needed capacity to absorb international aid, and be able to design and implement their own aid programs. This concept continues to be overwhelmingly supported by the Afghan people.
Common sense dictates that Afghans need to be able to stand on their own. The donor community can’t stay engaged forever. US President Barack Obama highlighted the fact that international fatigue is already setting in by announcing the phased withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, the president stated that the United States and its foreign allies “won’t try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government.”
In an op-ed for The Washington Times in 2006, I lamented a lack of aid resources, as well as the absence of a firm international commitment to state-building in Afghanistan. I noted that between 2001 and 2005 the basic institutions of centralized government were established in Afghanistan. But law enforcement institutions, which constitute the face of any government, had been neglected from the beginning. Judicial and police reforms—reforms that should have been the foundation on which other state institutions were built—were not implemented and were shelved indefinitely, due to a lack of resources. Consequently, I concluded that a security vacuum had widened in areas where state institutions were either absent or too weak to protect people, particularly in the south and east—areas that had seen little or no assistance until 2005.
From 2005 on, the donor community has continued to replace, but not build, Afghan capacity. English-speaking Afghan professionals, who should be helping to staff government agencies, instead have been lured away by the relatively high salaries of donor-related parallel organizations. For instance, if an Afghan civil engineer was earning $150 a month working with the government, he would immediately quit that job to take a cook’s or driver’s job with a private contractor, UN agency or non-governmental organization (NGO). Such seemingly menial positions offered monthly salaries of $800 or far more. Government salaries couldn’t, and still can’t compete. Consequently, the international aid community has helped starve the Afghan government of competent professionals.
Almost a decade since the Taliban was driven from power in Kabul, the Afghan government remains either weak or absent in much of Afghanistan. Corruption is still a major problem, yet the international donor community hasn’t helped address continuing problems. Instead, they’ve helped perpetuate the situation by operating like states within a state. When international organizations leave the country, their ad hoc parallel structures—which have bypassed and deprived the Afghan government of scarce resources for state-building—will wither and create an unsettling gap in Afghan society.
There is no way forward in Afghanistan, unless the international development community rethinks the way it operates in the country. Genuine capacity-building efforts must be undertaken, and to ensure a greater probability of success, such initiatives must be conditions-based. Only when the country is on a sustainable reconstruction path, can the sacrifices and memory of so many people, including NATO and Afghan forces that have fallen in Afghanistan, be properly honored.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the Deputy Assistant National Security Advisor and Senior Policy Advisor of Afghanistan’s National Security Council.