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The Misplaced Priorities of US Reconstruction Efforts in Afghanistan

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The Pulse

The Misplaced Priorities of US Reconstruction Efforts in Afghanistan

The United States’ aid approach to Afghanistan has the wrong priorities.

The Misplaced Priorities of US Reconstruction Efforts in Afghanistan
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

KABUL – There is a lot of talk these days about corruption in Afghanistan, a notion that is often largely associated with the country’s internal system and politics. Afghan officials, according to many among Washington’s foreign policy elite, are ultimately the ones running the mills of this corruption. Over the years, it is also perceived that Afghan politicians are ultimately the ones to gain from corruption. This is to say that if the reconstruction aid in Afghanistan does not show results on the ground, it is because of corrupt Afghan political system. However, this, by and large, is far from the truth.

Let’s look at the reconstruction aid that has gone into Afghanistan so far. The United States has spent a solid $107 billion on Afghan reconstruction since 2001. When you visit the country, this barely shows. Even in the country’s capital,Kabul, where most foreigners invested into setting up NGOs and other businesses, the infrastructure and social development is still lacking. Yet other parts of the country that are increasingly becoming no-go zones for foreigners due to security reasons are even in worse shape.

The mention of $107 billion devoted to Afghanistan, a number that comes up often in meetings and documents from Washington to Kabul, have not been spent on helping the Afghans recuperate from the destruction that years of war has left behind. The reconstruction has not been efficient and there is considerable evidence of miscalculations and poor planning.

Amidst all of this, the conflict against the Taliban continues to play out across Afghanistan, with about 10,000 foreign soldiers helping the Afghan army and local security forces to fight the ongoing insurgency.

Reconstruction, of schools, hospitals, educational and other basic social development institutions,would have played a crucial role in giving alternative opportunities to the people of Afghanistan. These services represent a worthy investment into a society that is desperate for revitalization after decades of war. Why did so much of the money spent in Afghanistan end up essentially wasted? And who should be blamed for this? Before we zero in on Afghan politicians, perhaps we should also examine the United States’ role in all of this.

Upon scrutiny, the “reconstruction aid,” in many cases, has in fact been injurious to the people of Afghanistan, and not just “useless.” Most of the money being spent on security-related projects not only hinders reconstruction but is also inconsistent with practical security needs in Afghanistan.

About 70 percent of all aid has been spent on security while only 30 percent has been allocated to  reconstruction. This has blown up the Afghan national security apparatus. People need jobs and they are eventually driven to sectors that offer them a sustainable livelihood. In Afghanistan, nearly 400,000 men are now part of the security apparatus.

John F. Sopko – who was sworn in as Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in July 2012, and who has been fighting corruption in Afghanistan since – has made tremendous revelations about the “wasted” aid of the U.S. government.In many interviews he has raised worrying questions about specific projects. For example, “Why did [the U.S.] buy $600 million worth of aircraft that don’t fly?” Sopko’s question referenced the purchase of Italian-made military aircraft, known as the G222. These aircraft have been sitting in Kabul and can be put to no use.

Similarly, most of the aid that has been spent on counter-narcotics operations has little to show in the way of results. Clearly this is no secret: Afghanistan is now famously called the “narco-state” for a reason. What’s alarming is how little these revelations have impacted the efficacy of ongoing investigations.

When I met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesperson, Nazifullah Salarzai, last month, he expressed an urgent concern on one issue on behalf of the President: “There is a ghastly gap between what Afghanistan has asked the U.S. to invest in and what they have chosen to invest in. We have been grateful for the intentions of U.S. aid, but we are frustrated with how all the money gets wasted on the ground. It hasn’t been useful for us.”

There has been too little pressure on the U.S. to be accountable for its spending in Afghanistan. Even the little amount that has been spent on reconstruction, in schools and hospitals, ultimately does not help the people of Afghanistan.

The U.S. claims, for instance, that school enrolment numbers have increased. In reality, they only increased in some areas, and most of these schools continued with old and outdated textbooks that in some cases essentially continue to encourage children to idealize Jihad. Why did the U.S. not look into what is being taught in these schools when it directly benefits the enemy it is trying to fight?

Due to a lack of infrastructure and jobs, more Afghans ultimately are driven to work in the armed forces. Meanwhile, those in the country’s rural areas with sympathies for the Taliban are at risk of being pulled into that group’s fight against the Afghan government. For Afghanistan, the inefficiency of U.S. aid is perhaps the greatest “death trap.”