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The Train is Off the Track

An Appraisal of the International Community’s Delivery in Afghanistan in the Last Decade

Tuesday 13 November 2012, by Nipa Banerjee

The immediate result of the war of October 2001 was the removal of the brutal regime of the Taliban. Adoption of a constitution and establishment of a transitional government were made possible. A handful of visionary and competent ministers began a “state building process” in a country that had almost zero capacity in governance.

State building for a new nation primarily incorporates strengthening of institutions of governance and delivery of basic services. Initial progress was made in provision of certain services- education and primary health; and water, sanitation and roads in rural areas. Reforms in public finance management represented steps to promote a transparent governance process. The election in 2004 was a resounding success. Media freedom made progress.

Commendable are the investments of the donors that provided support to the Afghan national programs. But donors who invested in parallel programs to deliver the same services which the yet- under-developed Afghan institutions struggled to provide, basically undermined the government’s development efforts and its strife for legitimacy. Over the decade, a disproportionate amount of aid (roughly 80%) was invested in donor-driven programs, implemented by donor contracted agencies, snatching opportunities of capacity building from Afghan institutions.

A disproportionate amount of aid was directed to the volatile southern provinces where the insurgency was concentrated. The intent was not to address the development interests of the provinces but to win the hearts and minds of Afghans for protection of the international troops fighting the insurgency. The very poor remote and the northern provinces, not facing immediate insurgent attacks, hardly benefitted.

The international community’s counterinsurgency efforts did not involve the provincial actors and initially neglected to strengthen the capacity of the local forces. The more capable and legitimate the provincial governments and security forces were the better would have been the capacity of the Afghan state in governance and in preventing Taliban aggression. The policy of training of Afghan national army, now at the center of the international community’s exit strategy, was introduced late when the insurgency already strengthened several folds. The belated strategy of transfer of responsibility to trained Afghan forces is rapidly moving towards failure as transition hangs on a thin string.

Heavy inflows of aid, with inadequate accountability structures, fuelled corruption both in internationally led programs and in the government, in effect, delegitimizing the government and introducing destabilizing trends. High volumes of finance flows generated competitions and conflict over aid resources, often along factional, tribal and ethnic lines, curtailing progress towards national unity.

Aid largely by-passed the poor. 42% of Afghans live below the poverty line. Unemployment estimate is 8% and severe underemployment 48%. 40% percent of the people are illiterate, with women’s illiteracy hitting 85%. Many of the Kabul roads are paved, mobile phone companies are advertising on giant bill boards; posh supermarkets and restaurants are catering to expatriate population; and a handful of rich Afghans are shopping for jewelry and latest I-Pads and smart phones and most expensive real estates. Indicators of equitable development are absent.

To reflect on sustainable impact of aid investment, roads built with millions of dollars show gaping craters due to poor quality material used and lack of maintenance. The Kabul-Kandahar road apparently is not safe to travel.

Security deteriorated along with the failure of the security sector reforms. Eleven years after international troops entered Afghanistan, people continue to live in the state of war. Admittedly, non- Afghan terrorists play a significant role in promoting terrorism, allegedly supported by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

News on mediation and reconciliation is confusing, at best, with contradictory news stories emerging every week. To date, a very small percentage of insurgents reconciled, most of them lower level foot soldiers, with little power.

An economic slowdown is predicted by International Financial Institutions. Revenue accrued by the opium constitutes 25% of the licit GDP of Afghanistan. The unrealistically high level of aid ($15.7 billion in 2010) almost equalling the country’s GDP, cannot be sustained. The combined effect of the end of war economy and declining aid will reduce financial inflows to construction industries and labor intensive sectors, which were fed by the war economy and aid financed jobs, with the dire result of growth declining to 5-6%.

A financing gap of 25% of the GDP by 2021/22 is predicted. Operations and maintenance costs and wage bill for the essential security operations will constitute close to 18% of the GDP.

An objective appraisal shows that a large gap between the reality in Afghanistan and claims of international policy makers exists. Over the last decade, the international community experimented with several strategies. None has been successful. Yet, the international community continues to claim advances when the train is visibly off the rail.

Canada must absorb the lessons learnt from the last decade and establish the next five years’ strategy based on these lessons to provide development and military support to Afghanistan so that the Afghan State does not collapse and is able to prevent further Taliban resurgence.

(Nipa Banerjee is a professor of international development at the University of Ottawa. She worked in CIDA for over 30 years. She served as the head of Canada’s aid program in Kabul (2003-06). She visits Afghanistan several times annually).