For Afghanistan, a Glimmer of Hope – and Further Complications

WASHINGTON – Afghanistan’s fate is once again under the spotlight with the recent unfolding of three critical developments. Last week, the United States apologized over the strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November, a move that helped reopen NATO supply routes via Pakistan to Afghanistan after eight months. On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – on an unannounced visit to Kabul – designated Afghanistan a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) as part of the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement signed last May. And one day later, world leaders convened at a major donors’ conference in Tokyo, aiming to draw aid pledges to prop up Afghanistan’s graft-ridden and donor-drunk economy.

After Pakistan’s closure of supply routes following last year’s confrontation, the United States and its NATO allies had been forced to depend on the more expensive and logistically challenging transit route through Central Asia known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). Islamabad’s decision to reopen the Pakistani routes after the apology has a number of implications for the future of the Afghan mission. Many in Pakistan view the apology as a sign of weakness by the Obama administration, one that will undoubtedly be exploited. It reinforces the narrative that Pakistan is indispensable to the Afghan war effort and that the United States was motivated to back down by the high transport fees in Central Asia and hindrances to its counterterrorism operations in Pakistan. With Pakistan’s right-wing Islamist parties taking to the streets to protest the deal and the Taliban threatening to attack NATO supply trucks and kill drivers, the next phase of the Afghan war will likely be much more complicated, despite the advantages rendered by lower transportation costs.

The MNNA designation, meanwhile, which some believe to be purely symbolic, allows Kabul greater access to U.S. military training, defense supplies, expedited military financing and equipment loans, and training exercises. A U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Commission will also be initiated later this year to ensure that all aspects of the two countries’ bilateral commitments are effectively implemented. While it joins an exclusive club of key U.S. partners, Afghanistan is by far the least developed country in this category, with fragile security institutions susceptible to internal and external challenges. However, the status change represents the first and most important signal by the Obama administration that the Afghan populace will not be abandoned as coalition forces scuttle for the door.

And on aid, it is clear that without a continued high level of international assistance – Afghanistan has received over $55 billion in aid since 2002 – an economic tailspin is inevitable. At Tokyo, donors pledged another $16 billion in civilian aid through 2015. But despite Kabul’s sign off on the Tokyo Framework of Mutual Accountability and President Hamid Karzai’s recent campaign to tackle Afghanistan’s culture of corruption, no high-level corruption case has yet been prosecuted. The weak political will of Afghan leaders, coupled with financial mismanagement, prevents aid money from reaching those in need at a critical time, particularly when any meager gains in education and health services could easily be lost.

However, Afghans are not the only ones to be blamed for the wastage of development aid. In the past, the bulk of aid money has been channeled through private contractors, subcontractors, and foreign NGOs rather than the Afghan government. Donor agencies often function as parallel governments, overlooking the needs of the Afghan people and benefiting from salami slicing at both the national and international levels. To ensure future aid effectiveness, the United States must commit to funneling at least half of its assistance through the Afghan government and aligning such funds with Afghanistan’s National Priority Programs, focusing on job creation, human development, and revenue generation through increased investments in the country’s energy, mining, and agriculture sectors. Nonetheless, despite donors’ weariness and the West’s own financial woes, the recent reassurances in Tokyo signals a diplomatic success for the United States that has long asked for increased international support for Afghanistan.

Afghanistan faces several transitions and many challenging years ahead as foreign troops gradually withdraw. Looking to the future, Kabul has the choice of either repeating the last decade of dysfunctional governance and financial mismanagement or adopting a robust reform agenda that addresses graft and invests in the economy’s most productive sectors. Focusing on these things will go a long way toward salvaging U.S.-led efforts over the past decade and will undoubtedly support the inevitable transition to self-reliance.

Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.

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