The Bush administration reportedly is considering major adjustments in its approach on Afghanistan's reconstruction, a reflection of the surge in Islamic militant activity in the country. The government reassessment is coming at a time when some experts are saying that drastic changes in approach are needed to prevent Afghanistan from reclaiming "failed state" status.
The Bush administration is conducting a series of top level meetings this week that are aimed at recalibrating its Afghan reconstruction strategy, according to a report in the New York Times. A major question that the administration is grappling with is the rapidly deteriorating security situation. Taliban-related violence in Afghanistan has risen 30 percent so far in 2008 over the previous year, threatening to wipe out much of the stabilization progress made since the US-led coalition drove the Islamic militant movement from power in Kabul in late 2001. The top US military official in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, is pressing for an additional 15,000 American troops to be deployed in the country. The Bush administration has not yet given its approval.
The economic aspect of reconstruction is also in dire need of reevaluation, US experts contend. One of them, Ashraf Ghani -- the current chairman of the Institute for State Effectiveness, and a former Afghan finance minister -- cautions that immediate and resolute action is needed to change the existing framework in which economic reforms are struggling to gain traction.
Ghani warned during a September 12 presentation at the Washington, DC-based Center for American Progress that Afghans are in the midst of a crisis of confidence about the future, while the government in Kabul appears to lack the will to meet the challenges head-on.
"What is becoming dangerous is that loss of trust [among Afghans] is not about the person or group [in power], but about the process" of policy making and policy implementation, Ghani said.
Indicators of the Afghan government's lack of desire to tackle reconstruction dilemmas included the ongoing and pervasive criminality and corruption in the country, Ghani said. He stressed that many experts doubt the Afghan government can make progress in stemming the Taliban insurgency unless it makes a clear "commitment to good government."
The Taliban's revival is a direct result of the weakness of President Hamid Karzai's government, Ghani contended. "This population knows what the Taliban brought to the country," Ghani said. "They are taking an insurance policy because they cannot be made to feel safe, but they are not ideologically committed" to the insurgents.
Reversing current trends in Afghanistan will require Afghanistan's foreign supporters to narrow their focus and harmonize opinions on a wide variety of reconstruction issues. "The international community lacks a common definition of the problem. There are many, many competing definitions and competing priorities," Ghani asserted. The civilian community needs to follow the recent example of the US army and establish a common doctrine, tailored to local conditions, to govern its activities in the country. "On the civilian side, we are still in the usual business of proposing solutions that we know, rather than devising measures that fit the situation," he said.
Despite these problems, Ghani cautioned against undue pessimism. "We think Afghanistan has always been unstable and the direction was going wrong. But actually, if you look at the situation between 2001 and 2005, the direction was the opposite." Ghani, who served as Afghan finance minister from 2002-2004, believes the downturn resulted when both Afghans and the international community abandoned "a strategy of state-building that was on course."
International assistance mechanisms constitute one area of the reconstruction process in urgent need of reform, as Ghani cited a problem with "dual bureaucracies." Various systems established by foreign governments and agencies to oversee the disbursement of development assistance now operate largely beyond the control of the Afghan government, he added. By paying much higher salaries to staff members, these foreign bureaucracies tend to attract Afghanistan's best and brightest, thus undermining the Afghan government's technical capacity.
Another problem has been the "salami slicing" of international aid, whereby foreign subcontractors and managers take multiple cuts of any disbursement before it reaches the ultimate Afghan subcontractor. In the case of US aid, "the net result [is that] out of one dollar generously allocated to support stability in Afghanistan, up to 80 cents can come back ? to Washington," Ghani said. "So a dollar is actually worth 20 cents--and then if 10 cents of that goes to security, then it's worth 10 cents."
The "project-centered approach" employed by many international actors has also disrupted reconstruction because it promotes "so-called 'quick and fast projects.'" Ghani related that, when he and his colleagues reviewed 400 of these projects in 2002, "we found eight to minimally meet the standards of the World Bank, and those are not very high standards."
At present, there is a severe lack of accountability among aid organizations, Ghani asserted. "Outsourcing now has reached a point where the regulators cannot regulate the outsourced organization," Ghani said.
Despite the current unfavorable circumstances, Ghani suggested there are grounds for optimism. A major reason for hope was that, as underscored by the Bush administration's reevaluation plans, governments and aid agencies generally recognize that the current approach isn't working. People now better recognize that "the necessary time horizon" for Afghanistan's reconstruction is "10 to 20 years" because "state building cannot be done on the cheap or in a rush," he said.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.