Quid Pro Go

Quid Pro Go

At the Bonn conference earlier this week, Afghan president Hamid Karzai told Western donors that Afghanistan "will need your steadfast support for at least another decade" –perhaps even until 2030. I propose a deal: The West agrees to stay for the long haul, if Karzai promises to retire from politics before the 2014 election.

It has becoming increasingly difficult to make the case for large-scale civilian assistance in Afghanistan. First, foreign aid has become a victim of budgetary politics. Second, public support for the war is fading fast. Third, American troops will soon begin to withdraw, with all 100,000 of them to be gone in three years if the Obama timeline holds. Fourth, we have far too little to show after spending almost $19 billion in aid there over the last decade. Fifth, on his bad days, President Karzai prefers the Taliban to NATO. And his good days aren’t very good either.

In consequence of all that, the Afghan aid budget has been slashed, with spending by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Afghanistan halved from $4 billion last year — and it’s sure to sink further. Forget 2030, the United States may be a marginal presence by 2015.

Karzai is hardly the only one to blame, though he has been blameworthy enough to make for an excellent scapegoat. President George W. Bush, of course, didn’t believe in nation-building — one of the few mistakes to which he confesses in his memoirs. Much of the civilian assistance under Bush consisted of funds doled out by military commanders to local warlords and to jobs programs designed to keep young men busy building roads and irrigation canals — at least until the American troops moved on. This created a new, massively corrupt elite, and did nothing to help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet.

Barack Obama tried something very different, endorsing a counterinsurgency strategy in which a large cadre of civilians sought to develop the country’s agricultural economy, to build up provincial- and district-level government, to make central ministries more effective and self-sufficient, and to help establish the rule of law. Along with the American civilian presence, the Obama administration vastly ramped up the volume of aid — supporting the premise of counterinsurgency theory that improving governance will make military gains sustainable, because citizens will ultimately choose the state over the insurgents.

That hasn’t happened. A former senior civilian official in Kandahar says to me, "There’s more economic activity, more education, improved health outcomes. We thought those would be ingredients of stability, but the total seems to add up to less than the sum of the parts." And a report released in June by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concludes that "the evidence that stabilization programs promote stability in Afghanistan is limited."

So if it’s not working, why not just go home? Because, of course, we don’t want Afghanistan to become a failed state and thus a nursery and launching pad for al Qaeda and other violent extremists. Okay; but why do we think development assistance will help stave off that prospect? I posed this question to Alex Thier, the director of USAID’s office of Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs. Thier insisted that stabilization "does work under the right conditions," but also pointed out that aid in Afghanistan was succeeding according to other, very important, metrics. According to the just-published Afghanistan Mortality Survey, over the last decade or less, average life expectancy has shot up from 42 to 62 years while maternal and infant mortality have dropped precipitously. Thier also noted that 8 million children are now in school, with over a third of them girls, as opposed to 1 million soon after the war began, with almost no girls. The goal of civilian assistance, said Thier, "is to build a sufficiently resilient Afghan state and Afghan society so these gains will be sustainable." He had just returned from Bonn, and he said that he had been heartened to find "a robust commitment from the international community to continue supporting Afghanistan post-transition."

Thier lived in Afghanistan in the 1990s, was a sharp critic of the Bush administration, and an important source of understanding for journalists like me. I take what he says seriously, though I don’t know whether congressional Republicans wielding the budget knife will feel the same way. But even those of us who believe in development assistance have to ask whether the gains Thier describes can survive the withdrawal of U.S. troops. After all, the reason stabilization hasn’t worked is that, for all the schools and clinics and irrigation ditches, the Afghan people continue to view their own government as corrupt and unaccountable. When Afghan troops replace U.S. and NATO ones in Kandahar or Helmand, they will be trying to protect a frightened and deeply cynical people, but with much less firepower and professionalism. They may simply be overwhelmed, as the army of South Vietnam was when American troops departed.

By 2014, Afghanistan will not only have very few foreign troops, if any, it will also have vastly less foreign money. According to the World Bank, about 97 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) derives from spending by the international community. Even if Thier is right about the level of sustained international commitment, in a few years, Afghanistan will be facing a security crisis, a fiscal crisis, and an economic crisis. The country will need not only much better management than it has had so far, it will need a government which the Afghan people actually believe in. The international community has done about as much as could reasonably be expected to increase the Afghan government’s feeble capacity to deliver services, and to expand its meager presence at the provincial and district level; but capacity, in the end, is less important than legitimacy and accountability.

And this, of course, is where Hamid Karzai comes in. Critics of the civilian program in Afghanistan suggest a focus on "governance" rather than just on jobs and infrastructure — on national institutions like the Parliament and the Independent Electoral Commission, and "sub-national" ones like district-level government. The most thoughtful development officials, including those at USAID, have always stressed democratic accountability over capacity. Nor are these hopeless causes; Afghanistan now has a thriving civil society and an increasing number of competent provincial governors. But Karzai has consistently blocked efforts to create checks and balances in Kabul, or to push authority down to the provincial or district level. He has protected corrupt officials and punished those who were foolhardy enough to go after them.

In that fateful year of 2014, Afghanistan will also be holding a national election. The last time I was in the country, this summer, the great fear of Karzai’s political opponents was that he would either stand for re-election once again or would rig the process on behalf of one of the warlords with whom he surrounds himself. And that would be a gift to the Taliban of incalculable proportions. It won’t do any good to build more schools if Karzai wreaks that kind of havoc.

Thus my proposal. Perhaps it’s time for the Harvard Kennedy School to inaugurate the President Hamid Karzai Fellowship — with President Hamid Karzai as the first beneficiary.