Predicting and preventing disaster in Afghanistan

Bill Easterly writes:

Maybe I have a biased selection, but it seems like every sensible economist, political scientist, development worker, and journalist that I know thinks our current course in Afghanistan can have only one outcome — disaster. Disaster for Americans, for our NATO allies, AND for Afghans.

Why is nobody listening?

I would argue that more people in positions to do something are listening now than they were in, say, 2002, when the course could have been corrected far more easily.

So, what needs to be done differently?

The following are literally no more than the first few things that popped into my head. Please do not berate me over all the things I left out:


- On the war-fighting end of things, I will simply repeat what everyone has been saying: the damn airstrikes need to stop. For real, this time. McChrystal said they would stop. People rejoiced. Then, just a few days ago, an airstrike in Kunduz killed dozens of civilians. AGAIN. Infuriating.

- Relief and economic development. The basics need to be improved much faster, and in ways that involve and allow credit to go to the Afghan Government. I’m talking electricity, sanitation, food security, and access to the most basic health services. However, fast shouldn’t mean sloppy. Surely the miserable failures of so many “quick impact” projects have taught us that lesson. Programs and projects already proven to work should be expanded and failures should be phased out as soon as possible.

Donors need to crack down on their contractors and punish aid corruption and waste much more harshly than they have so far. Not all NGOs and for-profit development firms working in Afghanistan are corrupt and wasteful, but too many of them are. Extraordinary sums are wasted by aid agency contractors and sub-contractors. Afghans see expats riding in convoys of expensive vehicles, living in lavish guesthouses, charging frivolous expenses to their projects and jetting off to Dubai or Delhi or Istanbul for “professional enrichment” as often as possible,  and it makes them furious. Hell, it makes me furious just hearing about it from afar. Bottom line: aid meant for the Afghan people should reach the Afghan people, and when it doesn’t, somebody should have to pay.

- Justice sector reform. What. A. Mess. Prioritize fixing it, and sack those who’ve wasted millions screwing it up phenomenally thus far.

- Governance. The international community and donors need to be smarter about how they support the Afghan Government. Backing individuals known to be corrupt, culpable for war crimes, tied to illegally armed groups, or a combination of all three needs to stop. Afghans know who their bad guys are  (yeah, they’re all guys) and understandably view the international community as a collection of scheming hypocrites when it bangs on about democracy and the rule of law while  politically supporting rotten elements within the Afghan state.

The United States and its allies need to accept that backing would-be reformers without private armies behind them might not be as easy in the short-term as backing the who’s who of Afghan war criminals, but it is essential to long-term peacebuilding. And it is not as if Afghanistan lacks would-be reformers –you just don’t hear about them because they’ve been sidelined since the first Loya Jirga. It’s time to reverse that.

A few measures that could help, off the top of my head:

- Support for political parties, particularly new democratic parties. Counterintuitive on its face, this needs to happen, and the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit spells out the why and how.

- Committee gender quotas. The overall gender quota for the parliament (a measure supported by the international community from the very start) has increased the participation of women in the legislature, but not their status or impact. The “important” committees are all male. However, female MPs are, on average, more educated than their male counterparts, and many of the parliament’s most vocal reformists are women. Increasing their ability to significantly sway the legislative process could improve the quality of laws coming out of the lower house especially. (Committee gender quotas require a change in the Rules of Order, something a majority of MPs would not likely vote for. However, it isn’t as if the international community takes a hands-off approach to the legislature on other issues. Leaning on MPs to support committee gender quotas would, in my opinion, be an undemocratic means to an ultimately more democratic end. Not ideal, but reality.)

- Instead of hosting and meeting with the same set of old powerbrokers every time, visiting delegations should hold high-profile meetings with MPs who actually have their constituents’ interests at heart. By ignoring the reformists and even dismissing them as “exceptions” to some bizarre (and non-existent) Afghan rule that all politicians must come from the criminal class, the international community sends the message that reformists don’t matter, ideas don’t matter, and only power talks.

- Preparations for the next parliamentary elections in 2010 need to be based on the successes and failures of the first elections. These have been written about and analyzed to death. The necessary improvements aren’t even that complicated. Now is the time for action.

- Redoubled support for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The AIHRC is staffed by some of the most progressive, visionary people in Afghanistan, yet it has been neglected by the international community because its transitional justice strategy, the Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and Justice in Afghanistan,  foresees actions that, while supported by a huge majority of Afghans, aren’t politically expedient for internationals. The Action Plan will expire this December. It should be renewed, recommitted to politically, and, most importantly, well resourced.

And, and, and…

This is a very incomplete list. I wish I had time to expound more today, but I don’t.

Bill’s comment section is heavy on the crazy, by the way.  (“It’s all about oil and natural gas!” SRSLY?)

6 thoughts on “Predicting and preventing disaster in Afghanistan

    • While states –including the US– do all kinds of shitty things for natural resources, the “it’s ALWAYS oil/gas/diamonds/some other resource” argument has become such a fallback for people who either don’t understand the multiple, complex motives of belligerents in international conflicts, or just want to be Lefter Than Thou. When I say, “uh, no” to the Afghanistan oil/gas argument, I often get shouted down and called naive, an apologist for imperialism, or worse. Which is frustrating, because, at least in that case, it’s not a matter of opinion — Afghanistan does not have oil, and if all we really wanted was a damn oil pipeline, we could have just bought off the Taliban (or any other regime) to see it built.

      • Exactly. I’m speaking on this in a couple of weeks re: the Congo, but it’s like talking to a brick wall. To say that rapes and disorder happen not just because there are shiny metals at stake, but also because there are longstanding disputes over land tenure, citizenship, territorial rights, ethnicity, and a total breakdown in governance seems to be controversial, for reasons that completely baffle me.

      • “if all we really wanted was a damn oil pipeline, we could have just bought off the Taliban (or any other regime) to see it built.”
        -That is my favourite argument against the idea that [insert war] is all about the [insert natural resource]. There are almost always cheaper ways to get [insert natural resource] than fighting a war over it. If war is all about the money then surely politicians should care about the cheapest option, right?

  1. You have a nice blog. Saw your comment at Registan.

    I don’t understand how you would implement some of your ideas.

    Let’s start with this:
    -GIRoA annual revenue = $600 million/year
    -GIRoA annual steady state expenditure = $6,000 / year.
    -Afghanistan’s education budget alone is substantially greater than Afghanistan’s annual revenues

    How would you deal with this issue?

  2. Pingback: Won’t shut up about Afghanistan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s