Saving Afghanistan

It can be done, but only if the international community truly invests in democracy.

In the year 2000, well before the tragic Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent liberation of Afghanistan, a secret meeting took place in northern Afghanistan, one of the few areas not conquered by the Taliban. A man named Hamid Karzai, as part of a delegation representing the former king of Afghanistan, flew in to meet Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the anti-Taliban United Front, and me to discuss the future of the country.

Our conversation might have seemed presumptuous, focused as it was on outlining a post-Taliban government. We discussed plans to exert pressure on the government of Pakistan to halt its support for the Taliban, who were now despised by the Afghan people, achieve military gains in the resistance against the insurgency, create an interim Afghan administration, convene a constitutional loya jirga to approve a constitution, and lastly to call for elections based on a simple idea: One person equals one vote.

Following 9/11 and the global response, these ideas became the structure for the future Afghan government. But today, despite incredible amounts of blood and treasure and unprecedented support from the United States and the international community, Afghanistan is perceived as on the brink of collapse, with the shadow of the 2014 withdrawal date casting a pall on everything from soldier morale to the economy.

Despite the overwhelming list of challenges, however, from corruption to an economy dependent on foreign aid, Afghanistan can still experience a successful political transition in 2014. For this to happen, all the stakeholders involved must stop thinking strictly in terms of military means.

Afghanistan arrived at this point through a tragic combination of errors, some internal and some external. The initial mistake was to entrust President Karzai with the sacred duty of securing the fate of our embattled nation. His lack of faith in his fellow countrymen is perhaps best exemplified by his request that the CIA, even before he was officially inaugurated as president, provide bodyguards to protect him not from al Qaeda but from the Afghans who helped install him in power. Despite high hopes, he has rarely pursued local support for his policies and alienated many U.S. and international partners with his xenophobic pronouncements, thus tainting any opportunity for genuine leadership.

Karzai's lack of trust led directly to the ill-conceived policy of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, best described as Iraqi-style de-Baathification but in practice targeted against those who had fought as U.S. allies against the Taliban. The end result was a power vacuum that pitted a government with limited resources and capability against a nascent but determined and foreign-supported insurgency. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's fateful decision to continue to view elements of the Taliban, and Islamic extremism more broadly, as a strategic asset for use in Afghanistan set the stage for the current conflict and fed the insecurity, while the United States became more focused on Iraq, Iran's nuclear program, and the rise of China. 

Yet other obstacles to success in Afghanistan are much harder to quantify. The tolerance of the Afghan government and foreigners alike toward high-brow corruption has today become a significant threat to a stable Afghanistan, along with the Taliban. It would be a tragic mistake for the international community to conclude that democracy doesn't work in Afghanistan, while the only thing that doesn't work is democracy as Karzai's government understands it. The Afghan government has done little to ensure that the institutions of democracy, from our parliament to our courts and civil society, are supported and nurtured. Instead, it has confused the Afghan people by being passive toward corruption and pursuing an inconsistent and ambivalent policy regarding reconciliation with the armed insurgency. As the current Afghan government has repeatedly made clear, a red line of reconciliation with the Taliban must be their acceptance of the Constitution -- and Karzai needs to illustrate his own commitment to this same standard. No wonder Afghans feel no connection to this government and understand democracy to be code language for anarchy.

Because of these countless psychological and structural missteps, influential, democratically minded Afghans -- and those who support them -- must focus more sharply on a political transition, without which any "military transition" will ultimately be meaningless. And for a successful political transition, Afghanistan needs every country involved in its rebuilding effort to send a clear message to today's Afghan leadership demanding a democratic transition of power based on the principles of free and fair elections. Instead of abandoning democracy because it hasn't worked under a kleptocracy, Afghanistan and the international community must clean it up.

Can this be done in just over a year? Yes. The time until the 2014 elections must be used to implement procedures that support democracy. Our international partners, in particular the United States, should ensure the positioning of foreign observers to keep a clean tally of the votes. Karzai and the Afghan parliament should approve new voter registration procedures to ensure that every voter's voice -- new and old -- is heard. Our parliament needs to mandate the vetting of all election officials who will oversee election centers, rather than accepting them as a result of presidential decree, as they are now. There needs to be an independent body to resolve all electoral disputes -- an independent Electoral Complaints Commission whose members are selected transparently and with meaningful consultations among Afghan political opposition groups, parliament, civil society, and others.

Karzai must clearly illustrate his willingness both to step down when his constitutionally limited time is up and to promise not to interfere in the election process, addressing the top two concerns of the Kabul political elite. Taking into account our recent presidential and parliamentary elections in 2009 and 2010, state resources should not be used to influence the outcome of the elections.

The political transition, based entirely on credible and transparent elections, is of paramount importance because it will restore the Afghan people's faith and sense of ownership in their government. Despite all the fraud and mismanagement in previous elections, it is, remarkably, not yet lost. And if the government obtains this mandate from the people, it can act with confidence on issues from dealing with the Taliban to stabilizing the economy and receiving long-term assistance from the West and the international community that will ensure Afghanistan's security, stability, and prosperity. By playing a constructive role in facilitating necessary electoral reforms and overseeing a credible and legitimate transfer of power in 2014, Karzai can still take advantage of this unique opportunity and moment in Afghan history to be remembered as a reformist.

The structure of Afghanistan's political process, which was discussed in that meeting in 2000, further implemented in the 2001 Bonn agreement, and painfully built over the past decade, is still the right one. But work remains on that central point -- ensuring that every person gets the opportunity to choose his or her government. With a push from the international community, and in particular, the United States, to help Afghanistan conduct free and fair elections, Afghanistan can be saved -- and move into the next decade from a position of strength. Together with our international partners, the Afghan nation has come a long way in our transition toward democracy and stability. We must march on forward.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)


Can India Defeat Poverty?

A bold new program may show the world the way.

Is the solution to poverty as simple as giving a little bit of money to a large number of people? We may be about to find out. On New Year's Day, India, the world's largest democracy, launched what may become the most ambitious anti-poverty program in history. Called the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), the initiative will directly provide cash to poor families -- at first more than 200,000 people, then potentially hundreds of millions -- via the banking system. India's finance minister has described it as "nothing less than magical." While there is no "magic" solution to development, DBT could revolutionize assistance to India's roughly 350 million people living on less than 56 cents a day, the country's official poverty line.

The move to cash transfers comes after decades of hand-wringing about India's huge and wasteful system of in-kind subsidies. The government spends roughly $14 billion a year, or nearly 1 percent of its GDP, to buy food, fertilizer, and petroleum and distribute them to stores, where the eligible poor can purchase them at discounts, or to government offices, where products are handed out.

This outdated and inefficient system has been used for decades, largely because most of India's poor lacked proper identification or bank accounts. But confusing rules on eligibility, poor administration, and corruption have made it a failure. A 2010 Asian Development Bank study found that not only did the subsidies bring little reduction in poverty, but shockingly, 70 percent of the beneficiaries were not even poor. A 2008 study by the University of Pennsylvania's Devesh Kapur found that if the money spent on in-kind transfers in India were transferred directly India's poor, it would lift them all out of poverty for that year.

And India's poor really do need the leg up. In 2001, 54 percent of all Indian children were stunted; despite a decade of rapid economic growth that saw per capita income expand from $460 to $1,489, this number has only dropped to 48 percent. Twelve percent of children work. Roughly a fifth of girls are married by age 15. India's long-term economic growth cannot be sustained without improving living standards for the poor.

Opposition politicians, however, are complaining that the government is moving too quickly. Sharad Pawar, the minister of agriculture and president of the opposition Nationalist Congress Party, mentioned problems with eligibility regarding outdated poverty lists; his party allies have said that because the documents are "based on old lists, half the poor will be written off." Others accused the government of enrolling beneficiaries only in districts that support the ruling party. The government has very slowly started phasing out parts of the in-kind subsidies program, but the current scale of the DBT might be too small to generate the bureaucratic momentum and visibility necessary for lasting policy change.

The new system will nonetheless be a huge improvement over the old. The simplest reason: Direct cash transfers work. In diverse settings, poverty-targeted cash transfers have been proven to reduce poverty, improve child nutrition, increase school attendance, and increase the purchase of productive assets such as fertilizer and tools. Evaluations of large cash-transfer programs in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Malawi show that the programs can be effective in increasing consumption, schooling, and nutrition, regardless of whether they are tied to such conditions as mothers keeping children in school. And a soon to be published study by Tufts University professor Jenny Aker shows that cash transfers in the near anarchic Democratic Republic of the Congo are both cheaper and better spent by the poor than in-kind subsidies.

Cash-transfer programs have been around since the mid-1990s; while not perfect, innovations introduced around the world have boosted their success rates. To prevent corruption and electoral politicking, the cash-transfer program in Mexico is prohibited from holding public events, enrolling new beneficiaries, or changing program designs during the six months prior to national and state elections. In Brazil, an overseeing body regularly cross-checks databases and randomly audits administrators and beneficiaries to remove ineligible and "ghost" beneficiaries from the rolls.

India's new biometrics-based ID system makes a cash-based transfer program especially promising. The system assigns a unique number to Indian residents based on physical traits. Unlike many national identification projects, India's does not require proof of citizenship or an application fee -- barriers to entry that can exclude the poor. As of December 2012, 240 million Indians have received an ID number that allows cash-transfer payments through the banking system. It's unknown what percentage of that group qualifies for assistance (and only 21 percent of Indian poor currently have bank accounts), but as expansion continues it will reach more and more of the country's poor.

India already has successful conditional cash-transfer programs operating nationwide, the biggest of which is Janani Suraksha Yojana, which means "Women Protection Initiative." The program provides cash to pregnant women who deliver their babies in health-care facilities. A 2010 study found that the program, which reached 9.5 million women and had a budget of $342 million in 2009-2010, increased antenatal care by 11 percent and in-facility births by 44 percent -- another system that shows that the best way to let poor people have more money is to give it to them.