Alex Thier is the Director of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs and Assistant to the Administrator at USAID.

In Afghanistan a few weeks ago, I encountered two programs that are emblematic of the challenges and triumphs of civilian assistance efforts in Afghanistan. The first, the National Solidarity Program (NSP) is an Afghan government-run, internationally-funded, and, most importantly, locally-owned effort that has brought community development programs to over 22,000 Afghan villages. The lasting benefits are not only physical – but NSP has improved governance and conflict resolution as well, contributing to the critical effort to stabilize the country. NSP has been one of the largest recipients of USAID’s development assistance under the Obama administration, as we have prioritized sustainability and local ownership in our efforts.

The second program is one, designed in 2007, to build provincial roads in eastern and southern Afghanistan. As the program took off, two serious problems emerged. First, security deteriorated dramatically – some 127 have been killed and 258 injured in 928 attacks. The program approach of requiring extensive community engagement became increasingly difficult. Second, the attempt to rely on the capacity of local industry foundered. Seeing a troubled program, we ordered an assessment in 2010, and ordered the program scaled back by nearly 50 percent.

What connects these programs is the way we answer the same fundamental questions about what we need to achieve in Afghanistan over the next few years to ensure a durable transition to Afghan self-sufficiency, and how we do it. In order to answer these questions across our portfolio, and ensure an efficient, cost-effective, Afghan-owned portfolio, USAID has launched a new Sustainability Guidance for Afghanistan. This guidance captures USAID’s strategy for achieving the conditions required for a successful, sustainable, Afghan-led transition, including achieving basic levels of security and stability, and building the confidence of the Afghan people so that there is positive movement toward capable, inclusive, and pluralistic governance.

This new guidance is significant in several respects. First, the guidance aligns with principles of sustainability and durability outlined in President Obama’s December 2010 review of US policy in Afghanistan. By committing ourselves to promote sustainable development in support of transition, USAID will be directly contributing to the United States’ national interest to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.

Secondly, this guidance is consistent with recommendations from the World Bank, Oxfam, U.S. Institute for Peace, the U.S. Congress, and others who have called for an increased focus on sustainability in assistance efforts, and growing concerns about how the Afghan economy (and therefore Afghan stability) will weather the drawdown in international resources over the next four years.

Finally, as we begin to implement this new guidance, we are actively reviewing every single one of our projects through a lens of sustainability, which we measure through the extent to which programs contribute to transition, build Afghan confidence and capacity, and are supported by the Afghans in the long-run. Based on this analysis, USAID is making shifts in its portfolio. We will end, postpone, or modify projects that do not align with these principles of sustainability, as we have already done in numerous cases. There will be many hard decisions to make as we go through this exercise, but we will make them in order to support the Afghans in their quest for long-term development.

Take, for example, USAID’s education portfolio in Afghanistan. It is a well-known fact that, thanks to support from USAID, over seven million children are enrolled in school today in Afghanistan, 37 percent of which are female. There were an estimated 900,000 boys enrolled in schools when USAID entered the country in 2002. A lesser known fact, however, is the degree to which the Afghan Ministry of Education is playing an increasing role in achieving this progress. Since 2006, USAID has provided in-service training to over 53,000 teachers and school administrators through a direct, non-Afghan USAID contract. Thanks in part to increased capacity at the Ministry of Education, USAID is now shifting this assistance “on-budget” – that is to say, going directly through Ministry of Education systems. Not only will this shift result in significant cost-savings for the U.S. taxpayers, but it will also contribute directly to the sustainably of this programming by building and reinforcing the capacity of the Afghan government to manage such programs in the future of its own initiative.

Development in a war zone, as is the case in Afghanistan, is painstakingly difficult. We recognize that there are trade-offs inherent in these solutions, but we also recognize that transition absent Afghan capacity and leadership is not transition. Long-term development in Afghanistan requires patience and stability, a popular will to change, and respect for sustainable and legitimate governance. Our hope is that through concerted application of this guidance and through our continued efforts in Afghanistan, we are empowering Afghans to take control of their own development future.