As an Afghan who has studied in different countries, it was always disappointing to observe the lack of quality education back home. This is despite the fact that millions of children began to attend school after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, prior to which education reached only a limited section of the Afghan society. Naturally, a lot has changed since those days. A review of school books is currently underway in the country, and it is expected that more than 50 million books will be published by the coming year. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has extended USD 20 million towards this project.
Naturally, this is not the first time that we hear about bountiful US donations to Afghanistan, as Washington DC has agreeably enjoyed the largest share of the pie in reconstruction of Afghanistan in the post-Taliban period.
A crucial part of this American aid goes towards supporting Afghan women for entrepreneurship endeavours. Personally, I was astounded to see not only old women from villages trained by USAID-supported projects become successful businesswomen, but also roads being built in areas where there were none before.
The events of the past decade has made it amply clear that the ‘Afghan problem’ has no military solution. Yet, the new administration of US President Donald Trump is now drafting a new strategy for Afghanistan that seems to have a dominant military aspect, a policy decision that could be viewed in light of the rising tide of Taliban victories and seizure of large parts of territory by the group. More critically, it is also negotiating for a new budget that will massively reduce foreign aid and capabilities of the State Department in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. What more, Washington now appears poised to shut down the State Department Office for Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs. Furthermore, the United Nations (UN) too has had to close some of its important local offices in the country, and, like in many other conflict-ridden countries, is dealing with an acute shortage of funding.
Why is a sudden cut in external aid critical for Afghans?
The roots of the instability in Afghanistan lie in lack of economic opportunities, ineffective governance, weak institutions, and underdevelopment. The frustration arising from these, more often than not, mingles with religious-nationalistic motivations, resulting in the growth of extremist pathologies. Today, more Afghans are frustrated than ever before, and if they see a sudden lack of support from the international community, the positive capital gained by global and local actors in the past sixteen years might all vanish into thin air. More and more refugees are returning to the country each day, only to find themselves homeless. Inevitably, the evolving demographics of the country are gradually becoming heavily dependent on humanitarian assistance from the outside.
Besides humanitarian aid, the US has also been contributing towards long-term projects in development and sustainability in Afghanistan. The foreign aid that Washington provides is an investment that Afghans, especially youngsters, are always grateful for. It is not just an aid from the American government, but also from everyday American taxpayers. This is no less than an investment into a sustainable relationship between the people of the two countries. Needless to say, anyone who wants to win in Afghanistan needs the support of its people, and that is precisely why the US must continue to consider non-military means of diplomacy and intervention.
The US has also played a crucial diplomatic role in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. It helped quell new crises or outbursts of violence after the last presidential elections or even the recent confrontation between security forces and protesters following the 31 May bomb blast in Kabul’s diplomatic avenue. After the last election, US Secretary of State John Kerry personally supervised an agreement between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Office (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah. The pivotal role of external actors was also pointedly highlighted by the UN Secretary General’s representative in Afghanistan, Mr. Tadamichi Yamamoto, who in his statement to the Security Council on 21 June 2017 stated that without mediation by diplomatic missions and UN, the recent clashes and protests could have spiraled into far more serious crises.
Afghan government officials and core dialogue partners have to ensure that during any negotiation, the Afghan government’s position takes precedence. Although local security forces have had greater successes in the past than expected, they have also paid a very high price in the form of excessive troop casualties. Even if newly-deployed US troops do not act directly during counterinsurgency operations, their training and advice are of great importance for the Afghan forces. Observations show that causality figures of Afghan National Army (ANA), which has received robust professional training from American advisors, are much lower than that of the Afghan National Police (ANP), which has received limited training.
It is understandable that the new US administration wishes to reform the aid structure and ensure greater effectiveness at the impact level. It is also fair to criticise the reckless use of the allocated budget for unnecessary projects. Yet, a wholesale retrenchment of aid would be disastrous for the Afghan polity, society, and economy, at least in the short term. Notwithstanding that, it is too early to talk about the exact impact of aid reforms on Afghanistan or drawing judgments about the merits of the new strategy. Yet, it continues to remain crystal clear that all external actors, including the US, must do more to gain the trust of all Afghans – a complex process that is patently not possible through a troops-only approach, but rather through effective diplomacy.
Views are the author’s own.
Jawad T is a young student from Afghanistan, and has lived in several conflict-ridden countries. His interests lie in international relations, conflict resolution, and institutions of global governance.