Saving Afghanistan

Author Clare Lockhart assesses Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl's advice on Afghanistan.

Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl ("Counterinsurgency Field Manual: Afghanistan Edition," January/February 2009) identify two attributes fundamental for getting Afghanistan right: protecting the population and establishing legitimate state institutions. The authors’ key insight is to link the two — showing that the only way to protect the population in the long run is to enable Afghans to govern themselves.

The key question remains: How do we create effective and accountable institutions that are responsive to the needs of the people? Smart state-building is feasible. There are a number of examples from recent history in which countries managed to reverse challenging and complex situations and forge stability and prosperity, ranging from South Korea to Northern Ireland.

As grim as prospects may seem, the ingredients for success do exist in Afghanistan. During my years there, I found that most Afghans crave law and order. Afghanistan was a stable country well on the way to development in the 1970s, and there remains an older generation with professional capabilities, as well as an enthusiastic younger generation eager for peace.

Efforts such as those by the Afghan National Army and the health service have made great progress. As Fick and Nagl note, the National Solidarity Program gets governance right at the village level. Moving forward requires greater attention to what government will do and the services it will provide at different levels, from the capital to the village.

With the global financial crisis, there is a pressing need to ensure resources are spent carefully. Deploying one foreign soldier can cost the same as 70 Afghan soldiers; one aid-project manager costs the same as 400 Afghan teachers. With an upfront investment in institution-building, the price tag of stabilization can be radically reduced over the long term.

To support this approach and respond to U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for change, new partnerships could be forged to reinvigorate Afghanistan’s agriculture with land-grant colleges; provide renewable technologies, such as solar, wind, and microhydro power, to Afghanistan’s villages; and establish public libraries and medical facilities to provide distance learning and healthcare to villages.

–Clare Lockhart
Institute for State Effectiveness
Washington, D.C.

Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl reply:

Few people are more qualified to think about the way ahead for Afghanistan than Clare Lockhart, who was instrumental in establishing the Afghan government in 2001 and 2002 and has worked tirelessly since then against great odds to ensure it is governed effectively.

Like Lockhart, we believe it is possible to build a better Afghan government that earns the support of its people by meeting their demands for security, economic opportunity, and the rule of law. Although the National Solidarity Program shows real promise, current international efforts to support the development of good governance suffer from a lack of coordination among the many national governments involved; too many cooks spoil the qorma (a traditional Afghan stew).

The command of all NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan has recently been consolidated under one man, Gen. David McKiernan, but there has been no similar coordination of aid and development programs. Even as the United States works to double its military commitment to the conflict in 2009, there is, so far, no corresponding surge of civilian reconstruction and development experts in the works.

The national elections scheduled for this fall offer the prospect of new or revitalized Afghan leadership, giving the United States and the international community new partners with whom to work to build a better Afghanistan — one that can provide for its own security and, in so doing, improve America’s. The process will inevitably be messy and slow, like all counterinsurgency campaigns — but, with smart American and international leadership, it can be done.

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