Ten years into the Afghanistan War, there's still no development aid in the Hindu Kush; the international community doesn't even have a plan for it.
Nearly 10 years ago, on Oct. 7, 2001, the invasion of Afghanistan took place, and the international community has been supporting the nation with developmental assistance ever since. But despite every effort, Afghanistan today is neither politically stable nor economically viable. The areas surrounding the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force and the United States Embassy in Kabul are not even secure, as evidenced by the recent firefights there between insurgents and the security forces.
The international community's strategy is largely responsible for this sobering result. For example, a great deal of the aid was coupled to short-term military goals and timelines because those providing the money wanted to see rapid progress. This strategy is also anchored in the American counterinsurgency strategy: Assistance is meant to consolidate military achievements, according to the guidelines. That concept has not only been completely without merit, it has actually been counterproductive.
While swiftly successful stabilization projects — whether civilian or military — were successful in reclaiming many areas from the Taliban, the same cannot be said about the hearts and minds of the people. On the contrary, even non-governmental organizations were endangered by them because no distinction was made between need-based assistance and military objectives. NGOs had to accept becoming part of the military campaign whether they liked it or not, thereby calling into question their neutrality and independence.
The intermixing of military and civilian tasks began as early as 2002. That was when the United States came up with the concept of so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which ensured the military's leading role in reconstruction efforts in as-yet-unsecured areas. The point at which military-led reconstruction efforts would be turned over to civilian control, however, was never defined from the outset. Nor was it ever determined at what point the PRTs would withdraw — a momentous mistake because the international community has been ready to withdraw its troops for a long time.
It is entirely possible they plan to withdraw civilian assistance and resources simultaneously with the troops. Such a move would greatly endanger future oversight and sustainability of any reconstruction and developmental achievements.
No hasty withdrawal
The international community has been completely unable to keep its promises to rebuild Afghanistan, partially because they cannot afford to do so. Expenditures for international reconstruction assistance in Afghanistan represent a mere fraction of what has been spent on war in the Hindu Kush. In addition, a highly centralized political and financial system was set up under international leadership. Now the chickens have come home to roost: Kabul, ruled by corruption, directly siphons off most development funds, while the provinces have to make do with little or nothing.
That is why it was so important for the Afghan government to delegate broader fiscal and political powers to the provinces, especially with development plans on the provincial level. Local governments could have thus better carried out projects avoiding discontent and overcoming the popular tendency to mistrust the central government and its international partners.
But the donor nations also have to get their finances in order. They need a coherent, comprehensive concept for cooperation with the Afghan government. Government accountability and the protection of basic rights must be considered. It is also important to maintain the support of the donor nations and to develop clear plans for a long-term transition of financing to the Afghan government.
As long as the donor nations subordinate their humanitarian assistance to the struggle against the insurgents, the effects will remain limited. The donor alliance has to ensure that reconstruction and development projects serve the needs of the Afghan people rather than short-term military goals.
It is apparent to everyone that NATO cannot keep troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, but an verly-hasty retreat by the donor nations would destabilize the country, perhaps even force it to the brink of civil war. International aid can only effectively help stabilize Afghanistan if the emergence of a constitutional government is made priority number one. At the meeting of the donor nations in Bonn at the end of this year, the international community must take a very critical look at its activities in Afghanistan.