Discussions with a number of Afghan specialists indicate broad agreement on the need to set individual development projects into a larger framework. One area specialist, Fred Starr, for example, in a note on Give Economic Strategy a Chance, laments that during the 2010 policy review, "no economic strategy was considered because none existed. (p.9)"
But there actually is an Afghanistan Economic Strategy, and it is in great detail. It was originally published in 2008 as the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS), after extensive discussions within the Afghan government. So there is a reasonable basis for its claim that it is reflective of the aspirations of the Afghan people. After the 2010 Kabul Conference, ANDS was expanded with a Prioritization and Implementation Plan; Volume 1 (PIP1) provides an overview of the implementation plan and Volume 2 (PIP2) provides program summaries and prioritization. The strategy does have some significant shortcomings:
- The overall strategy is necessarily very general, even in the PIP2 prioritizations, so it can be awkward to assess specific low-level programs in the ANDS framework
- The documents are very complex and have little appeal to the grass roots level. It is also difficult to set some potential investment efforts into the general framework.
- ANDS does not demonstrate any real sense of urgency. So Fred Starr, for example, identifies the first requirement of an effective economic program as bringing "tangible and substantial benefits to large numbers of ordinary Afghans." ANDS fails in this respect. With an estimated 40% unemployment in a country of 30 million, Afghanistan needs to develop at least five million jobs. But in its three priority areas of Economic Development, Agriculture, and Human Resources, ANDS envisions developing only about a million and a half jobs in three years. This is simply too slow a pace and is a major deficiency of the strategy.
- ANDS does not highlight trends or ongoing achievements, so it is harder to demonstrate continuity of efforts.
The problem is not the lack of a comprehensive economic strategy, but the US reluctance to accept it because of a very ambivalent attitude toward Afghan development. As Fred Starr discusses in depth, development efforts have been regularly labelled as "nation building" - a toxic political phrasing implying an open ended commitment of large sums in an intrinsically futile effort to build some one else's nation.
What can the United States do?
The first requirement is a clear statement of its strategic objective in Afghanistan.
- It has to acknowledge that al Qaeda in Afghanistan is stategically irrelevant, even though this phrasing resonates well politically and helps buttress US actions - and budgeting. But it is very unlikely that the Taliban will ever again control all of Afghanistan, and their support of a global al Qaeda program is questionable. If the Taliban comes to control some areas, they will certainly have enough challenges consolidating this control without accommodating some al Qaeda presence. At any rate, Afghanistan is a poor base for the only real al Qaeda strategic threat, acquiring access to weapons of mass destruction.
- It also has to acknowledge that nation building is indeed a core element of the strategy. The current articulation of seeking a stable Afghanistan is meaningless without significant economic development. It is of course true that the United States cannot build Afghanistan, but the United States can provide support that is critical to this development. ANDS helps to demonstrate that Afghans are committed to their own development and have a vision of what that could be.
- The central challenge for the XXI Century IS nation building, in fact, world building. Globalization insures that the United States cannot prosper in the traditional world of widespread inequalities. A more prosperous world is essential for US prosperity. The United States obviously cannot do this alone, but is the only nation positioned to provide the necessary global leadership. This is the same leadership requirement the nation faced after World War II when the Marshall Plan supported nation building on a continental scale. Now such nation building is doubly important with the struggle to better integrate the Muslim World into a global economic system. Despite being a very backward country in a remote area of the world, Afghanistan has become the visible demonstration of US relations with the Muslim World. Helping to build real prosperity in Afghanistan will severely undercut the appeal of a radical Muslim agenda; failing to do so will validate it.
The United States needs to embrace and wholeheartedly support ANDS as the Afghan basis of Afghan development, the Afghan vision for Afghanistan, and integrate it into US strategic planning. It is this economic development that will vanquish the Taliban - they are racing against time to seize some measure of control before development sweeps them aside. The development effort - nation building - needs to become the primary effort. Military operations need to be systematically scaled back while economic efforts are broadly expanded in areas that are currently more open to development. Development needs to be concentrated and investment focused in provinces which ave more immediate potential for economic advancement. This can give local leaders and citizens strong incentives to take charge of their own programs and create conditions that do not support any local Taliban presence. It can also provide examples of how prosperity can come to individual areas and how NATO forces are working to support the Afghan's own vision.
ANDS identifies its top priority National Priority Plan objective as developing a regional transport network - just what Fred Starr is proposing in his review. US efforts have already provided significant support to road and other infrastructure projects. Now is the time to start building the logistic support elements that would energize the network into a real economic engine. This is an attractive area for implementation of an Afghanistan Development Corps effort which would provide immediate jobs and training for currently unemployed young males. More importantly, it would not only provide training but would also help to build the very facilities and other elements that would then provide long-term jobs.
The number two priority for ANDS is exploiting Afghanistan's extensive mineral deposits for the benefit of the nation as a whole and of individual areas where this mineral wealth is located. ANDS several times refers to the need to avoid the "resource curse" - mineral wealth being exploited for the personal benefit of national leaders, with the local population often receiving only widespread environmental degradation. This exploitation effort actually got off to a very bad start, with a tender for development of an extensive copper deposit at Aynak being awarded to a Chinese company apparently on the basis of a large bribe and with only modest direct benefit to the local community. ANDS stresses the need for openness in any future bid processes and the United States can help by keeping attention on this important topic.
The United States can help address the shortcomings of ANDS, particularly the need for faster job creation. There is a need for more differentiation among the various internal regions and the United States is doing that with efforts to support local governments. Provincial Reconstruction Teams regularly use commander's funds to support local projects. And a Performance Based Governors' Fund has systematically provided $25,000/month to the governors of all 34 provinces so they are better able to meet operational and community outreach needs, enhance their relationships with citizens and improve their overall management capacity. Such programs get funds directly to the grass roots level. But there is still a very large shortfall in funding government infrastructure: health, education, water and sanitation. It is in such efforts that the proposed Afghanistan Development Corps could be particularly effective, providing immediate jobs while constructing the basis for long-term economic development.
Afghan development has to be systematically justified to a skeptical US public as a demonstration of a US commitment to promoting global prosperity. This development has to be shown to be building on prior achievements, which have both been considerable and been largely invisible to the US public. Demonstrating these trends in real development is also important for building commitment and enthusiasm within Afghanistan toward development, important to undermining residual Taliban appeal and providing incentive for local communities to embrace development efforts.
Afghan development cannot take place in a vacuum and the United States is already working with other regional governments in support of Afghan development. Regional cooperation is obviously important for building a new Afghan transportation network, as well as expanding trade opportunities.
But the most important requirement is to acknowledge that economic development in Afghanistan is indeed a central US objective and better integrate it into overall strategic planning.