Originally posted to the Foreign Policy AfPak Channel
In the last decade, Afghanistan has made some dramatic development achievements. Access to basic health services has rocketed from nine percent to 64 percent. Under the Taliban, only 900,000 boys and almost no girls were enrolled in schools, while today, more than seven million children are enrolled in schools, 35 percent of whom are girls. Afghanistan has averaged 10 percent per year economic growth, is using a single, stable currency, and government revenues have grown to $1.65 billion, with a 400 percent increase in customs revenues since 2006 alone. With gross domestic product (GDP) per capita doubling since 2002, some five million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. In 2002, Afghan government institutions were barely functional. Most ministries did not have telecommunications, electricity, or even basic office supplies like pens or paper. Today, several ministries, like the Ministry of Public Health, which is led by a female doctor (who would not have been allowed to work, let alone lead, under the Taliban), are heading the development charge. Much of this progress has been possible due to the generous support of American taxpayers.
But Afghanistan remains insecure, and its progress fragile. As we embark on the path of transition – the process by which our Afghan partners will truly stand on their own feet – we are ensuring that our efforts are sustainable, durable, and realistic. This was the primary message of the recent report on U.S. assistance to Afghanistan from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) majority staff. We do not endorse all the conclusions in this report, but we appreciate the report’s recognition that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has performed admirably in a very complex and insecure environment.
This progress is a critical component of President Obama’s strategy to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe-haven for extremists. Two years ago, President Obama outlined a whole-of-government approach designed to reverse Taliban momentum and build resiliency into Afghanistan’s government, society and economy. This approach called for an ambitious civilian-military campaign which included a sharp, calibrated, influx of human capacity and resources. This surge was designed to put the insurgents on their heels and set the stage for a broader political settlement – the key to enduring regional stability.
USAID is an essential component of our critical national security strategy in Afghanistan. Over the last 18 months USAID has tripled its staff in Afghanistan, aligned our efforts with our military and civilian partners, and demanded far greater accountability of ourselves, our contractors, and the Afghan government and local Afghan institutions. The results we are achieving attest to this progress. While rightly pointing out the myriad challenges of working in a war zone, the SFRC report fails to recognize the successes of these efforts and how much we’ve changed the way we do business in Afghanistan.
USAID is committed to sustainable impact through Afghan capacity building. We spend approximately 38 percent of our funds working directly with the Afghan government so that they can increasingly fund and deliver critical services on their own. We have been successful by focusing on a few key Afghan institutions – such as the Ministries of Finance, Public Health, Agriculture, Education, and Rural Rehabilitation and Development. Programs like the enormously successful National Solidarity Program, which has reached over 22,000 Afghan villages, is funded through the government. But we only invest in government when we can do so with fully accountable and capable partners.
We are aligning our resources with critical foundational investments in economic growth, infrastructure, and human capital that will speed a sustainable transition. These foundational investments will create the economic and governance tools to allow the Afghans to manage, and fund, their own future.
We have also taken a number of steps to improve accountability for U.S. assistance. The Agency has created a new division to oversee implementing partners and fight fraud, waste and corruption. This division has already completed more than 40 suspension and debarment actions against programs that were failing to provide transparent and accountable assistance. And we also launched the Accountable Assistance for Afghanistan initiative last fall to help ensure that the Agency is taking the necessary steps to prevent the likelihood of our assistance falling into the wrong hands.
This strategy appears to be paying off. Once shuttered bazaars in Kandahar and Helmand are now thriving, and former opium fields are planted with high-yield seed. The economy, food security, literacy, employment, and life expectancies all continue to rise, the government is more capable, and the democratic system more resilient. Afghan women’s access to education, health care, economic opportunity, and political representation continue to rise. Millions of Afghans are seeing the possibility of a better, stable future.
We are under no illusions about the challenges we face in Afghanistan. Every day our staff and our partners are under threat. Security increases our costs, and we must spend significant effort to safeguard taxpayer funds. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be there.
The results we’ve delivered thus far will enable the president to carefully draw down U.S. resources in Afghanistan, handing responsibility over to a more stable, increasingly prosperous country. And it is this progress that will help bring American troops home more quickly. Civilian assistance has been central to these gains and will only increase in importance as Afghans take the lead in forging their own future.
Alex Thier serves as assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.