By Paolo von Schirach
June 8, 2011
WASHINGTON – At his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be the next US Ambassador to Kabul Ryan Crocker essentially held the position that the US should stay the course in Afghanistan. This means continue fighting the Taliban, while continuing to provide massive amounts of aid to Afghanistan in the hope that between now and 2014, the official date for a real US withdrawal, Afghanistan will be more secure and viable as a country.
Optimism not justified
Nice idea. Except that nothing happening on the ground justifies this optimism, that things will turn out this way. The situation, while by no means desperate, is not improving much, while keeping a 100,00 strong US expeditionary force in Afghanistan , led by General David Petraeus (he is about to leave), is costing a fortune. The Taliban is not winning; but they have not given up either. Thanks to the US surge, security may have improved in parts of the country, but it is still tenuous and extremely fragile.
Besides, the vast amounts of US taxpayers dollars spent on the civilian side in order to shore up the government and build a viable economy have not produced good results. 10 years and $ 19 billion later, not much to show for a civilian aid effort costing now additional $ 320 million a month. And this is just the non military part. The military cost is on top of this.
Flawed assumptions about the US intervention
Why such disappointing results? The problem is that we have the wrong strategy. These huge expenditures with inconclusive results are all based on the flawed assumption that this is the best way to protect American national security interests. The official orthodoxy is that, since the 9/11 attacks against the US homeland where hatched in the al Qaeda run camps in Afghanistan, it is imperative to secure Afghanistan; so that it will never again be used as a platform for anti-American terrorism. Leaving it to the Taliban would mean re-opening the door to al Qaeda and other assorted militants.
“De luxe” option
May be so. But in the pursuit of this goal, the US chose the “de luxe” option which includes vast and ambitious interventions at every level of the Afghan society. And this is on top of military actions. A “sanctuary denial” policy against the Taliban, based on targeted actions, as opposed trying to control the whole country, could secure the objective of preventing terror camps from being set up again without a commitment of a complete “re-do” of Afghanistan.
(And in all this let’s keep in mind that al Qaeda can set up operations elsewhere. Maybe not on an open grand scale; but it can. Again, let us remember that effective terror plots do not require thousands of trained troops. 9/11 was implemented by 19 people. We can deny Afghanistan, but we cannot control the whole world. Al Qaeda can operate from other bases).
US Aid programs “not sustainable”
Besides, this “re-do” is not working well; while what is working, according to a recent Senate report, is “not sustainable”. “Not sustainable” is development folks speak to indicate “a castle of cards”. In jargon, they call “not sustainable” any kind of program or project that is predicated on permanent donor support. Which is to say that, once the donor leaves and hands over the keys to an Afghan entity, the whole thing collapses for lack of trained managers, money or both.
This opinion about the overall rather poor record in Afghanistan is not partisan. ”Our current commitment, in troops and dollars, is neither proportional to our interests nor sustainable,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the course of the confirmation hearing for Ryan Crocker.
Exactly right. We have interests in Afghanistan, no doubt; but they could be protected with a different kind of intervention. And, no, we do not have all this discretionary money to throw into Afghanistan.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report
And this was not just an off the cuff remark by Senator Kerry. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee majority staff, that is the Democrats, just came up with a rather gloomy report titled Evaluating US Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan, (June 8, 2011), that shows as a minimum the thinning of support for the war and concerns about what will happen later on, assuming a US 2014 departure. About the efficacy of aid in Afghanistan, the Reports states that:
“Evidence that stabilization programs promote stability in Afghanistan is limited. Some research suggests the opposite, and development best practices question the efficacy of using aid as a stabilization tool over the long run. … The unintended consequences of pumping large amounts of money into a war zone cannot be underestimated.”
Even worse, the Democratic staff report warns that because “an estimated 97 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) is derived from spending related to the international military and donor community presence … Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now.”
US created an artificial economy
In the end, it is like this. We entered an extremely poor country with the intention of helping it. Instead we have made whatever new prosperity there is now almost totally dependent on the aid we provide and on the services sourced there that support the military. We leave in 2014 and the whole thing collapses, with bad socio-economic and political consequences.
It would be wise for the administration to come up –and fast– with “Plan B” for Afghanistan, as this one is not going to end up well. As the development people say, this is one is “not sustainable”.