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Avoiding History in Afghanistan (CQ)

March 4, 2013
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Research fellow Justin Sandefur is quoted in CQ about US development projects in Afghanistan.

From the article:

During his visit to Washington in January, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was asked how many U.S. troops he wants to remain in Afghanistan after NATO combat operations end in 2014.

“Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan,” Karzai responded. “It’s the broader relationship that will make a difference.”

That’s not what one hears in Washington, where the talk is troop numbers — how many, how long will they stay, how much will it cost — and little else.

“If we don’t get the military footprint right, to continue the NATO involvement, to make economic assistance justified, Afghanistan’s going to fall apart,” says Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “I think that’s just almost a certainty.”

e and some other lawmakers who favor robust defense spending warn that unless President Barack Obama agrees to a sizable residual U.S. force, they will pull their support for further aid to Afghanistan altogether — something that many on Capitol Hill would probably not object to after more than a decade of dubious battle abroad and deepening economic problems at home. But such threats also raise the possibility of a repeat of the 1990s, when the Soviet Union, facing its own economic collapse, cut off aid to an Afghan government it had been propping up since invading the country in 1979. Civil war ensued, bringing the Taliban to power.

The Center for Global Development’s Sandefur says there have been what he calls “a litany of failures” among the international community’s development efforts in Afghanistan. But he also says the most successful aid projects were done in collaboration with the Afghan government.

He points to the Basic Package of Health Services, run by the World Bank in conjunction with the Afghan Ministry of Health. The Health Services program produced extraordinary gains for Afghanistan in public health — from just 9 percent of the population having access to basic health care in 2003 to 85 percent in 2008. The program also was largely responsible for a 26 percent drop in the rate of childhood mortality.

For these types of programs, the Afghan government arranges the contract but the money is paid directly by the donor to the NGO. “The money never passes hands through the government of Afghanistan,” says Sandefur, noting this is a common misunderstanding people have about “on-budget” assistance.

Sandefur notes that USAID doesn’t have nearly the same track record for running these types of programs as other large donors such as the World Bank and United Nations. But USAID officials say they are moving in that direction. “Working directly through Afghan government institutions” that “have been vetted to be accountable to taxpayer dollars — that’s the future,” says J. Alexander Thier, the agency’s lead official on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Development experts say the real reason for much of the waste in Afghanistan aid involved the billions of dollars in “stabilization funds” that the United States has pumped into the country. The money went for infrastructure and other local projects in parts of the country where the military was trying to wrest the loyalty of the local population away from the Taliban. Such projects were launched with little eye to sustainability or oversight, these experts say.

Read it here.

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