Recently in Washington there is a lot of talk about what has gone wrong in Afghanistan. It is now considered the longest war in U.S. history. The American public is growing wary about the war, and their support for the military presence in Afghanistan has dropped sharply. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 69 percent of Americans think that the U.S. should not be at war in Afghanistan. Also, the recent Quran burning incident and the Kandahar massacre by staff sergeant Robert Bales have angered the Afghan population. Anti-U.S. sentiment in Afghanistan is at an all-time high.
There are several arguments as to what’s gone wrong in Afghanistan. Some believe the war in Iraq shifted the focus from Afghanistan, which allowed the Taliban to re-group and come back stronger. Others blame President Obama’s counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy for the lack of success in Afghanistan. Critics argue that in the absence of a reliable partner in Kabul, the COIN strategy is too costly and potentially self-defeating. While the U.S. military strategy is at the core of every argument, failure of the U.S. foreign assistance strategy in Afghanistan is completely ignored. What has gone wrong in Afghanistan is not that the U.S. has failed militarily, but it has failed to develop a sustainable local economy for Afghans – a reliable economy that could have convinced the Taliban to lay down arms and make a better living by contributing to the overall economy.
When the U.S. went into Afghanistan in 2001, the country did not have an economy. There were no roads, no airports, no electricity, and no water. Basically, there was no infrastructure – thanks in large part to the four decades of constant war. There were no institutions to support the Afghan economy. The government barely had money to fund its activities, and most importantly, everyone lacked access to basic needs in schooling, health care, sanitation, and nutrition. There were lots crucial development projects that the aid money could have been used for and it would have helped the Afghan economy.
Instead, the United States came in and spent billions of aid dollars on projects without having a clear strategy for the country’s economy. Aid money was spent inefficiently on projects without strong oversight or any involvement from the Afghan government. Portion of the fund ended up in hands of the Taliban, in exchange for protection in remote areas controlled by the insurgents. The effectiveness of aid was seriously impaired by a lack of active oversight. The aid money went into pockets of corrupt leaders, warlords, and the Taliban, while the majority of the people did not see any benefit. It undermined the central government, empowered the enemy of the state, and gave rise to corruption. Therefore, the aid money has not produced tangible results on the ground in Afghanistan. The Afghan economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid, according to the World Bank report. The decrease in foreign assistance post-2014 is likely to cause the economic bubble to burst, plunging the country into an economic recession.
Afghans are hardworking people and ready to act, both individually and collectively. They are prepared to struggle to stay float and to get ahead. They have a very realistic idea about their conditions and how to improve them. But they are too poor to solve their problems on their own. So, too, is the Afghan government. Had the U.S. come up with a Marshall Plan based on the country’s needs, Afghanistan would have had a reviving market economy today. The Taliban would have laid down arms and made a prosperous living by contributing to the overall economy. The country would have played a crucial role in connecting regional markets through the Silk Road, which would have contributed to the stability of the region.
In short, what has gone wrong in Afghanistan is not the failure of U.S. military strategy, but the lack of an effective foreign assistance strategy – a blueprint for spending aid money on projects that are relevant to the Afghan economy. It is not too late to design such a strategy and finance projects important to the country’s economy, so that the future is more sustainable, and the already achieved success is durable.