Afghanistan's Faltering Reconstruction


Sep 12, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in New York Times on September 12, 2002.

Despite the ouster of the Taliban from power last November, the hard struggle to bring stability to Afghanistan continues, as shown by the car bombing in Kabul last week that killed 30 people and the assassination attempt against President Hamid Karzai in Kandahar the same day.

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has publicly warned that reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are lagging because not enough money is being delivered for that effort. The administration has called on European nations to provide more funds to help Afghanistan recover from war.

At the same time, aid organizations and European officials have indicated that reconstruction is lagging because there's not enough security, and they have urged the United States to do more to provide it. The attacks in Kabul and Kandahar are evidence that Afghan reconstruction is faltering for lack of both security and money.

Security in Afghanistan has been better than most people would have expected when Mr. Karzai took office last December. Last spring, the Afghans were able to hold hundreds of local assemblies throughout the country, and then to gather more than 1,000 delegates to a general assembly, a loya jirga, in order to elect a new government. Nearly all the political assemblies occurred peacefully and to a large extent democratically. This was a minor miracle.

But security remains tenuous. Terrorist incidents like those that occurred last week have been increasing. Power in Afghanistan is held by local military commanders, who have differing degrees of loyalty to the central government and whose ability to control subordinates is often limited.

American forces have provided personal security for Mr. Karzai and have also used their influence to tamp down large-scale conflict among the regional warlords. But small-scale violence remains prevalent enough to inhibit the resumption of normal economic activity, and such activity is central to Afghanistan's future. Humanitarian aid workers often risk their lives to help those in need, but the rebuilding of a society cannot depend on rescue workers. Reconstruction depends on the ability of engineers, bankers, shopkeepers, truck drivers and itinerant merchants to circulate freely throughout the country, not just in Kabul.

In a country as poor as Afghanistan, reconstruction also requires international investors, experts and technicians to travel into the countryside where the work of building schools, roads, waterworks and power plants has to be done. But these people are unlikely to want to travel to places where armed escorts are necessary. Although America and its allies are helping build an Afghan national army and police force that can one day provide the security needed for economic growth, the growth won't take place for years.

Last December, an international military peacekeeping force was deployed to Kabul, under British command, which has been largely successful. The Bush administration has recently dropped its opposition to expanding this force to other major regional centers. But the administration will need to become an active proponent of this expansion if it is to occur. In particular, other nations that may contribute troops will need assurances that they will receive American logistic and intelligence support.

Security measures must also be coupled with the delivery of more aid throughout the country. So far, American and European pledges of aid to Afghanistan remain modest by comparison with other recent efforts in post-conflict nation-building.

Kosovo, for example, has a population of about 2 million, while Afghanistan has a population of 23 million. But Kosovo received several times more American and European assistance per capita to recover from 13 weeks of conflict than Afghanistan has received to rebuild from 20 years of civil war. In Afghanistan, the United States has taken the lead in providing emergency food aid, but American funding for reconstruction has been quite limited. Since the installation of the Karzai government, for instance, the White House has asked Congress for only $250 million in additional aid dedicated to economic reconstruction.

That $250 million works out to a little more than $10 per Afghan—much less than what the previous administration sought and received in terms of per capita aid for the immediate post-conflict needs in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Even when European and Japanese aid pledges for this year are added, and assuming this money is immediately made available, the assistance currently offered to Afghanistan is not commensurate with the need or the scale of similar efforts.

The recent increase in violence should cause neither the Afghans nor the international community to lose heart. Unlike Yugoslavia, which fell apart of its own internal ethnic conflicts, Afghanistan was largely pulled apart by its neighbors. Even today, Afghans accept the need to live together within a multiethnic, multilingual nation.

Late last year, as the Taliban regime was driven from power, the United States successfully persuaded Russia, Pakistan, Iran and India—nations that have played meddlesome roles in Afghanistan's history—that a moderate and modernizing Afghanistan could make them all winners. All of these governments contributed to the installation of the Karzai regime. As long as they continue to support it, there is every reason to hope for continued consolidation of the new Afghan government's authority and legitimacy.

Afghanistan has already made tremendous progress over the past 10 months. Without substantially enhanced economic support and an expanded international security presence, however, these gains could easily be lost.

James Dobbins, director of RAND's Center for International Security and Defense Policy, was special envoy for Afghanistan in the Bush administration and special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo in the Clinton administration.

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