The South Asia Channel

Concerns about the civilian strategy in Afghanistan

By Caroline Wadhams

President Obama's speech on Afghanistan was a welcome reaffirmation of his commitment to Afghanistan and Pakistan and struck the right tone in terms of laying out clear objectives and expectations while also placing these operations within the larger context of our economic crisis and broader U.S. national security concerns.

While the speech was not meant to outline specifics, his civilian strategy sparked some potential concerns for me.

First, there was no mention of justice despite the fact that one of the central ways that the Taliban insurgents have increased their support in Afghan communities is through providing justice (with mobile courts, mediation efforts). Yes, agriculture needs to be a focus (as Obama mentioned), but the United States should be prioritizing one of Afghans' top grievances: a lack of justice.

Second, this line disturbs me: "We will support Afghan Ministries, Governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people." Did he mean to say that we will support governorships, provincial councils, and local institutions? Or does he really mean what he said -- that we are going to funnel money into the hands of individual leaders and bypass Afghan government institutions? The sentence in the speech echoed similar statements I heard earlier in the day yesterday from administration officials that the United States will target assistance to people at the local level who we believe to be effective and responsive, and marginalize those figures who are not.

The sentiment behind this proposal is understandable -- power in Afghanistan has been over-centralized in Kabul, and President Karzai has not proven himself to be a trusted partner. But there are several problems with an approach based on individual power brokers:

  1. One of the fundamental reasons our development assistance has been ineffective thus far is that we have not coordinated our efforts effectively with Afghans and the international community. Further efforts in which the United States (and not Afghan communities) decides who and what to fund may undermine coordination, and thus effectiveness even more.
  2. The United States has not been particularly adept at understanding Afghan society. Do we really have the knowledge or the right to pick winners and losers?
  3. We currently bear responsibility for feeding corruption in Afghanistan by flooding Afghanistan with unmonitored aid and supporting abusive, corrupt (but influential) powerbrokers. Funding individuals may mean that we fall into the same trap.
  4. By personalizing our assistance, we may end up weakening the Afghan institutions that we want to strengthen over the long-term.

The third concern I have is that Obama conditions our civilian support on Afghan performance, but he made no mention of the same with regard to the military part of the strategy. Realistically, designing our support in light of performance applies to both civilian development efforts and military training efforts.

Clearly, if we don't have the civilian side of the strategy right, it does not matter how many more U.S. troops we send to Afghanistan. Let us hope that the Obama administration has a detailed plan in mind for strengthening local government (without causing more harm than good), improving development assistance, and increasing rule of law than he had the time to explain in the speech.

Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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