Members of the provincial reconstruction team in Farah, Afghanistan, including a U.S. Navy officer and a representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development, visit a hospital in the area. Photo by: USAF SrA Alexandra Hoachlander / CC BY-NC-SA

There is no need to pour salt in the wound that is the U.S. operation in Afghanistan right now. Following the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. incursion, there are loads of bad news stories and few, if any, positive assessments or outlooks. While all hope is not lost, the reality is that everyone seems to be lowering expectations about what is actually achievable in this languishing, volatile, and war-torn country.

Ambitious plans are now being replaced by more practicable strategies and tactics. Much of today’s debate focuses on the capability of the Afghan security forces and how they will step in to secure the country as U.S. combat troops begin to pull out to achieve the Obama administration’s target of a complete withdrawal by 2014. Indeed, questions and doubts on the military side of the stabilization equation are rife and valid. To date, however, there has been far less scrutiny over the future of the civilian-led U.S. reconstruction and development effort and the shape it will take beginning in 2012.

Setting realistic expectations and milestones is critical for any large-scale reconstruction and development program. Last June, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) released a report titled, “Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan.” If you did not read the report, you probably saw the headlines. If you missed it completely, the gist of the assessment was as follows: despite some admirable development successes in Afghanistan at a cost of $18.8 billion over 10 years, the U.S. aid program in Afghanistan is missing some very critical marks and should be re-evaluated and recalibrated.

The most fundamental and palpable recommendation from the report was that moving forward all U.S. assistance projects should “focus on sustainability.” The report even laid out a simple rule, “Donors should not implement projects if Afghans cannot sustain them.” That is to say that the focus of American assistance should shift primarily to building government capacity so Afghans can lead the reconstruction and development effort.

This is a fine recommendation, but the scrutiny has stopped there leaving open the question: How is sustainability really going to be achieved?

Back in 2010, before the SFRC report findings were publicized, the U.S. government was already stressing sustainability. The “Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy,” for example, presents several cross-cutting themes, most of which directly or indirectly support the sustainability theme. An “Afghan first” principle was intended to transition procurement to a more local level. The theme of “true partnership” would put Afghans at the center of design, procurement, and implementation of U.S. assistance programs. These goals and targets were reaffirmed by the U.S. Mission in Afghanistan’s 2011-2014 Performance Management Plan (PMP) – the U.S. government tool to assess and report progress in Afghanistan.

Most critically, an overarching U.S. priority was and still is “increased direct assistance” meaning that foreign aid should be channeled directly through Afghan government institutions. In fact, the goal is to channel at least half of all U.S. aid money for the country through the Afghan government’s core budget within two years – or by 2012.

All of these moves were to be induced first by the military surge that would establish a protective layer of security, and then a “civilian surge” which would build the required Afghan institutional capability. In tune with that strategy, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development increased the number of civilians in Afghanistan from 531 in January 2009 to some 1,300 as of this year. The number of civilian development workers is expected to peak at roughly 1,450 by the middle of 2014.

The U.S. government spent approximately $4.1 billion on non-military Afghanistan assistance in 2010. In 2011, it will spend about $3.9 billion. The FY2012 budget requests stands at about $3.2 billion – a still tentative amount, but one that will be largely protected from any congressional budget slashes because much of it is derived from the overseas contingency operation (OCO) account.

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If the 2012 budget request is approved and the American development strategy still stands, that would conservatively mean that about $1.6 billion of U.S. foreign assistance is to be provided as budget support (non-earmarked) and sector support (earmarked for use in a specific sector) directly to the Afghan government by next year. In other words, that Afghan government ministries, as executing agencies, would be chiefly responsible for the planning, administration, and execution of development projects.

The philosophy and logic behind any increasing shift to budget and sector support is simple: encourage the recipient country to take charge of its own development. While there is no conclusive proof that this strategy translates into better development, a large segment of the donor and global development community advocates and employs it in various parts of the world in an effort to boost aid effectiveness by reducing transaction costs, aligning development efforts funded by multiple donors, and strengthening domestic accountability.

In the Afghanistan context, the aggressive shift to budget and sector support is clearly designed to further reduce the U.S. footprint, relieve dependency on international advisers, and achieve the elusive principle of sustainability. Some development professionals we spoke to in Afghanistan stress the shift is really the only option if the U.S. is ever going to transition governance and development to local administration. They point to the fact that the U.S. simply cannot keep parallel institutions in place indefinitely and the transition needs to start now in order to leave behind more capable national and local Afghan institutions by 2014. Acknowledging absorptive capacity limitations, experts also say the optimum way to provide assistance and support sustainability is to channel smaller amounts into weak Afghan institutions while simultaneously investing in capacity strengthening efforts.

It is easy to make a case for changes to the U.S development approach based on poor past performance that did little in terms of fostering sustainability. According to the Commission On Wartime Contracting In Iraq And Afghanistan – the independent, bipartisan group which concluded that at least $31 billion and possibly as much as $60 billion has been lost to contract waste and fraud in both countries – “Requirements and acquisition strategies for projects to be handed over to a host nation have often lacked a detailed assessment of long-term cost and of host nations’ ability and willingness to fund them.” In its final report to Congress, the Commission asserted that American funds squandered as a result of the inability to sustain projects could easily exceed the contract waste and fraud already incurred. These are clear indictments of the U.S. development and reconstruction approach throughout the last decade.

Yet, while there is strong evidence that U.S. contracting and procurement practices in places like Afghanistan and Iraq have been ineffective and wasteful, direct budget and sector support alternatives are equally risky. Before stepping down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last month Adm. Mike Mullen warned publicly that, “If we continue to draw down forces at pace while such public and systemic corruption is left unchecked . . . we risk leaving behind a government in which we cannot reasonably expect Afghans to have faith.”

Other development experts with in-country experience agree and are quick to express their apprehension over channeling so much money through a corrupt and unqualified Afghan government which lacks the mandate, people, process, and technology to make good use of the money. They point to the Kabul Bank controversy and Gardez-Khost Highway construction fiasco as two prime examples of the patronage politics, institutionalized corruption, and security vulnerabilities that has wreaked havoc on the international development effort. There are many others.

There are also fears that budget and sector support will mainly benefit city centers such as Kabul instead of it trickling down to the most rural and impoverished provinces. The danger here is that imbalanced development or outright neglect can cause disenfranchised Afghans to join or rejoin the insurgency.

The U.S. will be challenged by providing assistance in a way that supports sustainability and transition without wasting American taxpayer money in an increasingly tight foreign aid budget environment. To be fair, as the Afghan government ministries are infused with American aid dollars, the U.S. government will do everything in its power to provide stringent oversight and implement accountability mechanisms to maximize the American investment. This will done through Provincial Reconstruction Teams which are responsible for many development projects at more local levels – a model that was carried out with some success in Iraq. Nevertheless, the 1,450 American development personnel to be deployed to the country by the middle of 2014 represents less than half of the approximately 3,200 government employees that will reportedly be deployed under the American ambassador in Iraq by the end of this year. Undoubtedly, there will be major limitations to proper oversight and the enforcement of accountability once the aid money is formally transferred to the Afghan government, opening up troubling opportunities for malfeasance.

There are no easy answers to the sustainability quandary, but now is the right time to reassess and appreciate precisely how the enormous amount of U.S. assistance will be applied in Afghanistan.

About the author

  • Troilo pete%2520head

    Pete Troilo

    Former director of global advisory and analysis, Pete managed all Devex research and analysis operations worldwide and monitors key trends in the global development business. Prior to joining Devex, Pete was a political and security risk consultant with a focus on Southeast Asia. He has also advised the U.S. government on foreign policy and led projects for the Asian Development Bank and International Finance Corp. He still consults for Devex on a project basis.