The Road Ahead for Afghanistan

Karl W. Eikenberry (Ambassador to Afghanistan, 2009-2011)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Eikenberry’s and Erik Jensen’s April 8, 2015 interview with In Asia.


On the eve of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s March 22–25 visit to the United States, the Stanford University Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule Law, the United States Institute for Peace, and Chatham House convened a two-day conference in Washington on lessons learned for strengthening the state in Afghanistan. The conference brought together some fifty U.S., Afghan, and other international policy experts with extensive experience in state-building efforts in Afghanistan since 2002. The Asia Foundation’s Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who commanded the NATO coalition forces there, and Erik Jensen, director of Stanford’s Rule of Law Program, helped organize the event, and they sat down with In Asia for a conversation about the road ahead for Afghanistan.

In the policy note that you prepared for the conference, you observe that a narrative of failure has drowned out some of the successes in Afghanistan. Can you say more?

First, as participants at the conference noted, the ultimate measure of success in Afghanistan was peace. Peace was not realized, and, in fact, the security situation declined from 2006 onward. 2014 was the bloodiest year in the post-Taliban era.

Second, perceptions of failure were magnified by the multiple objectives of the mission: counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and the subordinate task of state-building. For example, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams deployed in Afghanistan were engaged in state-building as an instrument of counterinsurgency. Indeed, promoting good local governance, rooting out corruption, and reforming the justice sector were at the heart of the counterinsurgency strategy to fight the Taliban. But when state-building goals conflicted with counterinsurgency and counterterrorism goals, the latter always trumped the former.

Third, the metrics for success in development assistance were too short-term and wholly unrealistic. They reflected political pressure from the capitals of Western donors rather than a professional assessment of the actual time it would take to build institutions. And while slow progress in the development of institutions did occur, efforts to sync development progress in Afghanistan with the political cycles in Western donor countries were bound to fail. After 2006, the influx of funding was too great to be effectively absorbed by development programs on the ground. The growth of funding spurred a vicious cycle of increased political scrutiny that shortened the already unrealistic timeline to meet development objectives; which in turn led to a mind-numbing proliferation of metrics seeking to demonstrate progress; which, ironically, fueled corruption and undermined the state. Meanwhile, the larger narrative of a bloody and ongoing civil war always attracted more media coverage than the more modest, but nevertheless significant, development successes.

President Ashraf Ghani was just in Washington, DC, as was Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. Ghani seems to have a very strong set of relationships, and he struck a very positive tone about the road ahead in public comments during his U.S. visit. You are both often on the ground in Afghanistan. Does Afghanistan have the capacity to carry out President Ghani’s plans and vision?

Afghanistan has undergone a massive social, economic, and political transformation since 2001. While it is still a poor country with low rates of literacy, Afghanistan’s youth enjoy levels of education never before witnessed, access to health care is unprecedented, and democracy is now widely accepted as a principle of government. A foundation of institutions and human capital is emerging that will help President Ghani achieve much. Still, the country is recovering from decades of warfare, severe societal disruption, and global isolation. Afghanistan will need sustained, international capital and technical assistance to continue to advance economically and politically. Most importantly, Afghanistan’s neighbors must agree not to interfere in its internal affairs. For example, President Ghani has taken extraordinarily important steps to improve diplomatic relations with Pakistan. His effective interaction with Pakistani leaders is crucial, because peace in Afghanistan will require rapprochement with Pakistan. Also high on the agenda is the need for agreements to help develop Afghanistan’s resources and open its borders to trade. Finally, Afghanistan must address its very serious problems of corruption, a threat the new Afghan administration clearly recognizes and plans to address.

Last week we saw a recommitment of resources and military support to Afghanistan. Did you get a sense at the conference of how the levels and direction of foreign development assistance will differ from the previous decade?

International donor assistance has decreased over the last several years, a trend we expect to continue. Still, the amount of aid that Afghanistan will receive is considerable, with nations at the December 2014 London Conference reaffirming their commitment to sustain support through 2017 at or near the levels of the past decade. We anticipate changes in the relative priorities of development assistance, the sources of assistance, and the manner in which assistance is delivered. The emphasis will be infrastructure development, health care, education, and civil society – with important contributions from the United States on women’s empowerment.

With the substantial withdrawal of foreign military forces, much less money will be spent on quick-impact projects aimed at enhancing stability in local areas. The United States and its NATO partners will also spend more than $4 billion annually to help sustain and further develop the Afghan National Army and Police. U.S. salience as Afghanistan’s largest international donor will decrease (except in the security sector), while it is likely that China’s profile, and perhaps India’s, will rise. Lastly, a higher percentage of assistance will be provided through Afghan institutions, a change that actually began in 2010.


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