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WAR--WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

Remember Afghanistan?

October 09, 2005|Neamat Nojumi | Neamat Nojumi, a senior fellow at the Center for World Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, was an Afghan military commander during the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s. He recently returned from Afghanistan.

AFGHANISTAN'S impressive achievements are in danger of being lost. Donor nations aren't giving enough development funds. Western nongovernmental organizations are mismanaging reconstruction. And Pakistan has failed to arrest Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in its backyard. The optimism and hope generated by last October's presidential election and last month's legislative voting will soon fade. Afghanistan could again become a base for global Islamist terrorism.

Four years after the U.S.-led coalition kicked the Taliban out of power, Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants continue to use Pakistan as a sanctuary, training base and staging area for attacks on coalition and Afghan soldiers. More than 50 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Afghans have been killed this year. Reconstruction is stalled in Afghanistan's border provinces because of a lack of security. Last year, groups of five to 10 engaged in the cross-border attacks from Pakistan, according to tribal elders I met in eastern Nuristan province. This year, the attackers number in the 70s and 80s and often wear uniforms.

Despite Pakistani military operations in Waziristan, periodic arrests of militants and announcements that the border has been "sealed," Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and his generals still play both fireman and arsonist in Afghanistan. This will only worsen unless President Bush and Congress stop indulging Pakistan's two-track policy.

The great majority of Afghans I've spoken with believe that the promises of reconstruction assistance from the Afghan government and the international community remain unfulfilled. Several major roads have been built, and many schools have reopened. But four years into reconstruction, most of Kabul lacks electricity, the capital's streets are unpaved and the sewer and water systems don't work.

The lack of reconstruction programs is most evident in Afghanistan's rural areas. A doctor in the Guzara district of Herat province told me that many pregnant women die on their way to hospitals because they lack transportation or the roads are impassable. More than $5 billion in reconstruction aid has not bought one new power plant, even though electricity is a crucial ingredient in agricultural and industrial development. Opium production is at unacceptably high levels, with terrorist groups and warlords reaping large profits trafficking drugs. Corruption is on the rise.

A big part of the problem is the more than 1,000 Western nongovernmental organizations that receive and channel the aid. Too often they perform governmental functions that elected but under-sourced Afghans should be doing. Maintaining the maze of foreign NGOs is also wasteful. Their logistics, personnel, housing and other internal costs eat up more than 60% of the assistance money (some estimates are as high as 80%). Afghans joke that they suffered under the Soviets, then the Taliban and now the NGOs.

Afghanistan's governing institutions remain too weak to be effective. Little progress has been made in preparing Afghans to govern. Afghan judges and legal experts repeatedly told me that resolving the huge upsurge in property disputes left over from 20 years of war is beyond the judiciary's ability.

In judicial as well as other governmental and administrative areas, aid agencies are not devoting sufficient attention to training and deploying a professional Afghan cadre of managers and skilled civil servants essential to administering the country. Weak democratic institutions and an inadequate civil society undercut President Hamid Karzai's ability to deal with Muslim extremists and warlords.

What's to be done?

First and foremost, the United States, bilateral donors and the United Nations must investigate and eliminate the inefficiency and mismanagement rampant within the NGO-administered reconstruction. Government functions performed by non-Afghans should be transferred to Afghan institutions, both public and private, as expeditiously as possible.

To reduce corruption, donors should demand more accountability from the Karzai government. When the new Afghan parliament convenes, it will target this corruption. Karzai would be wise to fire some ministers and implement anti-corruption regulations before that day.

Friends of Afghanistan need to recognize that the successful September legislative elections didn't make the country a functioning nation-state. Continued progress doesn't depend on more foreign troops, but on a smarter, redirected and better-funded reconstruction strategy.

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