As confirmed by yet another U.S. government report, this one prepared by the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, America's nation-building mission in Afghanistan has had little success in creating an economically viable and politically independent Afghan state.
The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung writes:
The report also warns that the Afghan economy could slide into a depression with the inevitable decline of the foreign military and development spending that now provides 97 percent of the country's gross domestic product. [Emphasis added]
U.S. leaders could look at that statistic and justify prolonging the mission. In fact, the report suggests, "Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now." Ironically, "proper planning" is the problem. The belief that outside planning can promote stability and growth has the potential to leave behind exactly the opposite.
While no one would deny that Afghanistan looks a lot better than it did in 2001, there's a reason why American leaders might be sorely disappointed with the outcome when the coalition begins handing off responsibility to Afghans. As the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan warned last week in a separate report, "the United States faces new waves of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan." Without adequate planning to pay for ongoing operations and maintenance, U.S.-funded reconstruction projects in both countries will likely fall into disrepair.
The core problem is that top-down development strategies often deepen, rather than strengthen, a foreign country's dependence on the international donor community. My colleague, development expert Ian Vasquez, once wrote, "Providing development assistance to such countries may improve the apparent performance of foreign aid, but it may also help to create dependence and delay further reform, problems that have long plagued official development assistance." [Emphasis added]
Indeed, complaints about America's presence in Afghanistan typically focus on troop levels; rarely discussed is the way in which foreign-led development schemes can deprive locals of the experience of planning projects, managing funds, and procuring goods: what they call in the industry, "building local capacity." As my friend Joe Storm and I wrote a while back: "US-government contractors are mired in mismanagement and failure, perpetuating dependence at best. Even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee admits, "Donor practices of hiring Afghans at inflated salaries have drawn otherwise qualified civil servants away from the Afghan Government and created a culture of aid dependency."
Dependence, of course, is only one of many problems. According to the report: "Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government's ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity."
Because development is plagued with inadequate oversight, many development contracts are dispersed independently of the quality of services provided. During a trip to Afghanistan some time ago, I heard story after story about development projects being abandoned before completion, American-built schools without teachers to staff them, and billions of dollars charged to American taxpayers for unfinished work that leave Afghans disillusioned. Naturally, turning our mission in Afghanistan into one of limitless scope and open-ended duration perpetuates this massive fraud and waste.
So, who's at fault? Ourselves. Recall the December 5, 2001, Bonn Agreement, which proclaimed the international community's determination to "end the tragic conflict in Afghanistan and promote national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability and respect for human rights in the country." We've set the bar so incredibly high for a country that lacks the fundamental criteria intrinsic to the Westphalia model: (a) a legitimate host nation government (b) that possesses secure and internationally recognized borders, and (c) wields a monopoly on the use of force. None of these criteria exist. So far, we are 0-3: 0 wins, 3 losses.
With this latest report from members of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we are reminded yet again not only of the importance of scaling down lofty expectations, but also recognizing the unintended consequences produced by the noblest of aims. Sadly, given the corruption and dependency we'll leave in our wake, without an introspective self-critique of our policies, America could turn Afghanistan into Central Asia's Haiti.