What next in Afghanistan?
By Imtiaz Gul
Friday Times, Sep 26, 2014
After weeks of sparring over results, Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah finally demonstrated the kind of pragmatism that the war-wounded country needs for reconciliation and security. That marks another big step in Afghanistan’s chequered transition from war-ravaged tribal culture to a quasi democratic process. Mutual acrimony, motivated speculation, accusations and counter-arguments accompanied the entire process but – at least for now – better sense seems to have prevailed. The initial blueprint for the unity deal came from the US Secretary of State John Kerry following Abdullah’s rejection of results and intent of setting up a parallel government. Given the history of deep ethnic divisions and bitter political hostilities the power-sharing may not be smooth though.
What, however, is certain that some rancorous realities ie adverse economic conditions and extremely volatile security concerns may possibly have forced both leaders – albeit unwillingly – to settle for an honourable exit from their stated positions.
The compulsions facing the new Afghan leadership were best summed up by John F Sopko, Special Inspector General for Reconstruction of Afghanistan (SIGAR), in a speech he gave at Georgetown University Washington, DC (September 12, 2014):
“Unfortunately, Afghanistan is a case study in projects and programs set up without considering sustainability… The bottom line: It appears we’ve created a government that the Afghans simply cannot afford.”
The sheer size of the US government’s reconstruction effort, Sopko said, has placed both a financial and operational burden on the Afghan economy and its government that it simply cannot manage by itself.
Quoting the Afghan government revenues of a little over $2 billion in 2013, Sopko said these potential revenues are not even one-third of the approximately $7.6 billion that the Afghan government needs stay afloat.
Currently, more than 60% of the Afghan national budget comes from the US and other international donor sources – which is over and above the countless reconstruction programs and projects that currently operate off-budget.
Looking at the Afghan National Security Forces, it’s clear why this problem is so immense. The latest independent assessment, by the Center for Naval Analysis, concludes that the ANSF will require a force of 373,000, according to Sopko, would cost roughly $5 billion to $6 billion per year, at a time when the Afghan government struggles to raise $2 billion a year.
“At these levels, if the Afghan government were to dedicate all of its domestic revenue toward sustaining the Afghan army and police, it still could only pay for about a third of the cost. Moreover, all other costs—from paying civil servants to maintaining all roads, schools, hospitals and other non-military infrastructure—would also have to come from international donors.”
“It appears we’ve created a government that the Afghans simply cannot afford”
While paying for Afghanistan’s security forces will be challenging, the cost of ongoing non-military development aid is also a major contributor to the ballooning expenses the Afghan government is responsible for. Each new development project that the US and our allies funds, increases overall operation and maintenance costs that the Afghan government will ultimately be responsible for.
In this rare but candid admission, the US SIGAR clearly takes a dig the litany of failures and consequences of misplaced priorities since the US combat mission began unfolding under the ruse of the war on terror in October 2001.
He argued that the current political instability and economic problems are rooted in an over-bearing, security-centric, non-transparent and unrealistic model of intervention.
Sopko identified four major problems – issues that are and will remain central to the continued instability and uncertainty in Afghanistan:
a) unrealistic reconstruction/development initiatives,
b) the unusually large size of ANSF,
c) corruption, and
In what appears to be scathing indictment of the way the US government and the military has spent the money in over 12 years, John Sopko said this way “we’re jeopardizing our mission of creating a self-sustaining Afghanistan that can keep insurgents down and terrorists out.”
He also bemoaned the fact that the over $104 billion spent on Afghanistan’s reconstruction and the trillion dollar mark for the security sector funding by the US-NATO coalition, more than what the US spent did to rebuild Europe after World War II under the Marshall Plan. The reconstruction funding for 2014 will also be more than what US gives to Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and Iraq—combined, SIGAR said, beside contributing the major chunk of the $5.1 billion that will be required to maintain the Afghan National Security Forces at least until 2017.
SIGAR also questioned the way development and security funding has been flowing into Afghanistan without enough transparency on undesirable projects which he infers has encouraged massive corruption.
Quoting General James Dunford (“Corruption directly threatens the viability and legitimacy of the Afghan state”) Sopko identified corruption as the biggest threat to Afghanistan’s future – an even bigger threat than the Taliban.
He said SIGAR has continually pointed out that the United States lacks a unified anti-corruption strategy in Afghanistan, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and a country that the United States is spending billions of dollars in.
He also takes a dig at the US counter-narcotics strategy saying that despite having spent nearly $7.6 billion to combat the opium industry production and cultivation are up, interdiction and eradication are down, and financial support to the insurgency is up. I was astonished to find that the counter-narcotics effort isn’t a top priority during this critical transition period and beyond. For example, the latest US Civil-Military Strategic Framework for Afghanistan, which articulates the “vision for pursing US national goals in Afghanistan,” barely mentions counter-narcotics.
“…One audit saved nearly a half a billion dollars for American taxpayers because SIGAR was able to identify areas where there was duplication and unnecessary expenditures.”
Sopko also expressed surprise over how “some ambassadors and generals and nameless, faceless bureaucrats and contractors are unhappy with the fact we get press coverage, because we want to place information to the public for the sake of transparency.”
Abysmally low domestic revenues, rampant corruption, narcotics and extremely volatile governance structure including the sustainability of the ANSF are some of the factors that might have forced both Ghani and Abdullah to rethink their strategy.
The fear of ANSF disintegrating into tribal and ethnic militias in case foreign funding dried up might also have worked as a persuading factor if both Ghani and Abdullah want to fend off the Taliban threat. This now places huge responsibility on both to reach out to the Taliban and try to resume the stalled reconciliation process. The international community will hopefully stand by them if it feels both are working effectively to neutralize the Taliban threat as well as keep the country together. Both shall also have to jointly chalk out revenue generation strategies to gradually reduce reliance on foreign funding – an extremely hard task in view of the heavy civilian and military infrastructure that the US-led coalition has put in place, as pointed out by the US SIGAR. Unless they clear the mess of the last decade or so – the legacy of the joint venture of Karzai, the US and NATO – and unless they ensure a transparent, people focused dispensation by truncating the warlordism, an Afghanistan under Ghani and Abdullah will remain on the precipice.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies