At the Bonn conference earlier this week, Afghan president Hamid Karzai told Western donors that Afghanistan "will need your steadfast support for at least another decade" --perhaps even until 2030. I propose a deal: The West agrees to stay for the long haul, if Karzai promises to retire from politics before the 2014 election.
It has becoming increasingly difficult to make the case for large-scale civilian assistance in Afghanistan. First, foreign aid has become a victim of budgetary politics. Second, public support for the war is fading fast. Third, American troops will soon begin to withdraw, with all 100,000 of them to be gone in three years if the Obama timeline holds. Fourth, we have far too little to show after spending almost $19 billion in aid there over the last decade. Fifth, on his bad days, President Karzai prefers the Taliban to NATO. And his good days aren't very good either.
In consequence of all that, the Afghan aid budget has been slashed, with spending by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Afghanistan halved from $4 billion last year -- and it's sure to sink further. Forget 2030, the United States may be a marginal presence by 2015.
Karzai is hardly the only one to blame, though he has been blameworthy enough to make for an excellent scapegoat. President George W. Bush, of course, didn't believe in nation-building -- one of the few mistakes to which he confesses in his memoirs. Much of the civilian assistance under Bush consisted of funds doled out by military commanders to local warlords and to jobs programs designed to keep young men busy building roads and irrigation canals -- at least until the American troops moved on. This created a new, massively corrupt elite, and did nothing to help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet.
Barack Obama tried something very different, endorsing a counterinsurgency strategy in which a large cadre of civilians sought to develop the country's agricultural economy, to build up provincial- and district-level government, to make central ministries more effective and self-sufficient, and to help establish the rule of law. Along with the American civilian presence, the Obama administration vastly ramped up the volume of aid -- supporting the premise of counterinsurgency theory that improving governance will make military gains sustainable, because citizens will ultimately choose the state over the insurgents.
That hasn't happened. A former senior civilian official in Kandahar says to me, "There's more economic activity, more education, improved health outcomes. We thought those would be ingredients of stability, but the total seems to add up to less than the sum of the parts." And a report released in June by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concludes that "the evidence that stabilization programs promote stability in Afghanistan is limited."