As President Barack Obama delivers an assessment of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, and an update on his own year-old strategy for winning the war, the strategic outlook in the country remains bleak. Although the United States and its allies have scored important tactical gains over the past 12 months -- decimating insurgent networks and securing once-violent districts in southern Afghanistan -- they have no clear plan to either defeat insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan or address the corruption and predatory behavior of Afghanistan's political class, which threatens to undermine U.S. and allied military successes.
I fought in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2004 and returned to serve on Gen. Stanley McChrystal's initial assessment team in 2009. Over the past two weeks, I have been traveling around Afghanistan interviewing U.S., NATO and Afghan commanders, Afghan police and politicians, NGO workers and journalists, and local Afghans.
While the daily tactical battles in Afghanistan might seem distant, and the strategic challenges daunting, policymakers in Washington are not helpless. In fact, they can support the efforts of Gen. David Petraeus and his troops in Afghanistan in five key ways.
1. Cut Funding for the War
This may seem a bit counterintuitive, to say the least. But right now, the massive amount of money flowing into Kabul is fueling the conflict. In a bizarre way, both the Taliban and the Afghan government currently have an interest in perpetuating this conflict: Both parties are making millions of dollars from the aid and development money saturating the country. These funds are distorting incentives and presenting ample opportunities for kickbacks, bribes, and other forms of corruption. It is little wonder Transparency International rates Afghanistan the world's third most corrupt nation.
The United States and its allies should only spend the money in Afghanistan they can properly manage and oversee. They should also focus on developing ways to spend resources more wisely in Afghanistan. One way to do so -- and here any congressional aides reading this should grab a notebook and pen -- would be to allow aid and development funds not spent in one fiscal year to roll over to the next. Well-constructed aid programs, such as Afghanistan's National Solidarity Program, have trusts established that allow funds not spend in one year to be spent later. But within the U.S. government, that's not the case: Money not spent is lost from year to year.
Military officers, for example, are familiar with the concept of the "SPENDEX," where all ammunition not used in the course of the year is fired -- sometimes wildly -- at the end of a fiscal year, so ammunition allotted for the next year is not cut. The same principle applies to aid -- but instead of wasting bullets, the organizations waste dollars. Rather than face the prospect of reduced development funds in the future, development and military officers are under pressure to spend every penny they are given. But doing so simply feeds the Afghanistan's distorted economy, which only benefits the insurgency and corrupt Afghan officials. We must first fix the perverse incentives in our own system in order to fix those in Afghanistan.