Argument

Let Me Down Easy

Let Me Down Easy

When Afghan voters begin the process of choosing a replacement for outgoing President Hamid Karzai this weekend, they will remove the key impediment to a bilateral security agreement to keep some U.S. forces in the country after 2014. But security isn’t the only important issue on which the United States should reengage with the Afghan government once Karzai’s successor is in place. U.S. decision-makers should also be planning to reduce civilian assistance to Afghanistan only gradually over time, rather than letting aid commitments fall off drastically along with the U.S. military presence.

Since the war in Afghanistan began more than a decade ago, U.S. civilian aid to Afghanistan has largely — if unintentionally — been coupled with military aid. And now that military assistance is on the chopping block, civilian aid is also in jeopardy. "My judgment is no troops, no aid, or almost no aid," James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told Congress in December 2013. "The political support for the aid comes from the military presence."

This shouldn’t be the case. U.S. military spending dwarfs civilian assistance in Afghanistan. During the past decade, the United States spent $51 billion on security related programs and only $17 billion on humanitarian and civilian assistance (this doesn’t include the hundreds of billions spent on U.S. military operations in the country.) Despite this massive imbalance, Congress in January slashed the administration’s civilian assistance request for Afghanistan by nearly half — to only $1.1 billion.

That was a mistake. Even if the United States can’t sustain the current level of $2.1 billion in civilian aid over the long term, it should taper the reduction of assistance so as not to jeopardize the significant gains made by the international community in rebuilding Afghanistan’s economy and society.

The media’s excessive focus on insecurity, particularly surrounding the current election, has overshadowed some real and measurable successes, most importantly in health: Afghan life expectancy is up an astonishing 20 years since the ouster of the Taliban, largely because of a dramatic decline in child mortality achieved through improved access to basic health services. America’s innovative partnership with the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and efforts to boost its capacity deserve much of the credit for these improvements.

While education is far from universal, there are real bright spots here as well. During the period of Taliban rule, girls were not permitted to attend school. Now, 10 million students are enrolled, of whom about 40 percent are female. Women’s rights have also taken vast leaps forward. Women hold nearly 30 percent of parliamentary seats — higher than the rate of female representation in the U.S. Congress — and one of the presidential hopefuls is running alongside a woman. Walking around Kabul — though admittedly less in rural areas — one sees many successful small businesses run by women, including dressmakers, beauty salons, and corner shops. Certainly, there is room for improvement when it comes to robust female participation in political decision-making and in the economy, but the positive trend is palpable.

Not all international assistance has been spent wisely. Infrastructure, for example, is admittedly a mixed bag. While impressive road building and electricity projects have been completed or are in the works, these were often undertaken at enormous expense to the international community, and have frequently not been well-maintained. To make these kinds of expenditures worthwhile, the Afghan government must invest in upkeep — something donors have underscored in recent years.

Slashing civilian assistance now along with military aid would just repeat the mistakes of Afghanistan’s tragic history. When the Soviet Union withdrew from the country in 1989, Soviet aid dropped drastically, and over the course of the 1990s not enough U.S. and international aid was brought in to replace it. The country quickly disintegrated into civil war, and by 1996, the Taliban had seized control. It’s worth noting that the international community followed a very different playbook as U.S. and NATO forces drew down in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and again in Kosovo. In each case, a high level of civilian aid was maintained even after international troops had departed. The investment has paid off: both countries are now independent, largely stable, and not at risk of collapse.

In Afghanistan, it will be harder to deliver aid when the international military presence declines, but not impossible. Afghan forces now lead 95 percent of coalition operations and are doing sufficiently well that aid projects are continuing in most areas of the country, though they have been halted due to insecurity in some regions. The United States has pledged $2.3 billion annually to Afghan security forces going forward, though debate continues about how many troops are needed and at what cost.

As aid budgets understandably decline, the United States will have to ensure that its limited dollars are spent wisely and that oversight continues. By focusing on high-impact, low-cost projects like the National Solidarity Program, which provides small grants to local governments so that they can implement development projects of their choosing, the United States can continue to have a large impact on rural communities.

The Indian government has been a leader in emphasizing aid-effectiveness — using local contractors with minimal overhead — offering a reminder of the importance of partnering with regional players. Measures to encourage increased foreign investment will also help. The Aga Khan Development Network has been a leader in this area, helping to launch the successful telecom company Roshan in 2003, which has since become Afghanistan’s largest taxpayer.

Most importantly, if the United States commits to reducing civilian aid gradually and responsibly, the international community will follow suit. In 2012 in Tokyo, more than 70 countries, including the United States, pledged to continue assistance to Afghanistan up to at least 2015. But as its partners see the United States rushing for the exits, some have already decreased their assistance or failed to commit to a long-term role. 

As Afghanistan prepares for the first democratic power transition in its history, the patient support of the international community is more critical than ever.  Continued civilian support for Afghanistan is a crucial — and not overly costly — insurance policy against renewed war and instability in the region.