Afghanistan Exit Strategy Must Focus on Development

U.S. should empower local councils to maintain security and build infrastructure in post-withdrawal Afghanistan.

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Mike Honda is a Democratic U.S. representative from California and Michael Shank is the U.S. vice president of Institute for Economics and Peace.

With NATO's meeting in Chicago two weekends ago building consensus on critical next steps vis-a-vis anticipated withdrawals and deadlines, discussion of the development agenda post-withdrawal in Afghanistan must not slip from our radar screen.

The truth is that development in Afghanistan is currently in the wrong hands. Tens of billions of dollars of American taxpayer money have been spent over almost 12 years in Afghanistan on development projects which were largely managed and implemented by foreign contractors and with little regard for long-term localized viability. It is now clear for anyone intimately involved in the reconstruction and stabilization process that the key to building a strong state lies not in foreign contractors, but rather local village efforts connected to a Kabul command.

To achieve a crucial state of regional stability, Afghans need peace, security, and the right to self-determination based on their own social, cultural, and religious values. In this spirit, it is problematic that the Afghanistan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development's National Solidarity Program—out of which the highly effective Community Development Councils- are run—remains stunted due to limited financial capacity, despite having been a darling of Washington for some time and having received ample laudations by members of Congress from both parties.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Operating on a budget of under $1 billion a year, (that's less than what the U.S. military spends in 3 days in Afghanistan), the locally-elected, locally-administered, and Kabul-funded councils are superior to most foreign development approaches. They are bottom-up approaches which ensure local participation and maintain the trust and credibility of local communities—a rare and precious commodity given the increasing protests by Afghans against U.S. military presence and private contractors.

Trust is perhaps the biggest factor in furthering or fettering development projects in Afghanistan, which is why the Afghanistan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has been mandated to go beyond the rebuilding of one village at a time and is now focused on even bigger national issues like peace and reintegration.

Rural communities, the majority of Afghanistan's population, have been devastated by decades of war, but it is not just their village infrastructure that must be rebuilt. Peace for their psychosocial wounds is paramount and must be prioritized. Reintegration of former insurgents into productive members of Afghan society is also paramount lest fighting continues unabated. The ministry, which works with the most vulnerable of populations, from the displaced to the disabled to the demobilized combatants, is capable of harnessing this Afghan social capital in a way that no foreign agent can.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

America's recent interest in reconciliation is ultimately necessary for a negotiated political settlement but given that some Afghans do not perceive the United States as an honest broker, any deal could remain tenuous. America's interests could best be served by supporting one of the few Afghan government agencies capable of ensuring that Afghanistan does not end up like Iraq after U.S. troops left—a country still plagued by poverty and violence, with electricity and basic services that are roughly on par with pre-invasion levels.

The ministry's plan for national rebuilding between 2014-2024 is focused on every aspect a state needs to function effectively—providing basic infrastructure for drinking water, irrigation, power, transportation, and telecommunications.

[See photos from President Obama's secret trip to Afghanistan.]

The United States must focus on funding development initiatives in line with the needs of the local community that will help ensure stability and security of Afghanistan. Without economic opportunity, the many unemployed or underemployed Afghans can easily turn against state actors, either national or foreign. One key to countering any insurgency is to give them a greater incentive to integrate, or reintegrate, into society than the incentive currently offered them by opposition leaders.


Corrected on : Corrected on 5/31/2012: A previous version of this article misstated the date of the NATO meeting in Chicago. It occurred two weekends ago.