- - Thursday, June 7, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan

Is there a right time to leave Afghanistan? The United States has two options: Leave sooner or stay longer. Either way, we make a wrong choice. By leaving sooner, the U.S. and its allies would cut their losses, win at home but lose here.

According to one recent poll, 69 percent of Americans oppose continued U.S. involvement in the fighting here while Afghans need us to stay but would love us to go.

By staying longer, the United States and its allies throw good money after bad, including the estimated $1.2 billion per year the U.S. alone spends here on “soft power,” a development policy that is failing to thrive.

In contrast to the glow cast by success stories delivered through the U.S. diplomatic prism, the day-to-day development world where I work is stark and surreal. Wielding ideas, we’re necessary but no more welcome than the guys toting the guns. Why?

Sincere effort backed by money can succeed if and only if sincere effort is returned. I see no such return. Small wonder. The problem today dates from 10 years ago when the United States installed an inept regime at the time of its invasion.

In search of a criminal, the U.S. found itself in the middle of a gang fight and, in need of a safe zone from which to operate, struck a deal with the preferred gang, while the other, never defeated, withdrew. The mostly Tajik warlords became ministers overnight in a government presided over by a Pashtun president. The bookies in Las Vegas would give the Sharks and Jets from “West Side Story” better odds of forming a government.

The hunt for the criminal elements gradually morphed into a nation-building exercise totally alien to a tribal culture and sustained by customary U.S. naivete. Misdirected U.S. foreign policy has struggled to spend its way out of its mistakes ever since. The Afghan side offers more of the same empty promises, the international side, led by the United States, provides money in exchange, with ever-elusive reform hanging in the balance.

What are the reasons for the failure to install a better government? There are two guilty parties, and the failure comes in the many discreet attempts to implement change at the point of interaction.

First, the “no carrot, no stick” strategy, used by the international community and led principally by the U.S. hasn’t worked on the cast of mostly venal characters in positions of power. They can ignore, deny, refuse to do the “right thing” for themselves and the country, and do so with impunity, many getting rich in the process.

Second, as much as the international community complains, it is complicit, acting in part out of its own self-interest in a world where Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka. Here, the “good guys” do the wrong thing to be safe and the “bad guys” do the right thing despite knowing they’ll be sorry.

Virtually any solution assumes an acknowledgment of a problem: The test is how to argue a point to reach a conclusion that benefits the ministry served. Too many consultants in positions of influence here are short on talent and tact, but long on fear, and therefore are not up to the challenge. Better to avoid a problem or glide past it on a wave of completed, simple tasks, so much the better to preserve relationships and secure contracts with “the donors” who don’t want to report a failure. Hence, the steady stream of success stories.

So what happens to those good “bad guys” who violate the unholy alliance and unspoken code? Some leave, willing or not; others stay, buoyed by some sense of obligation or idealism tinged with self-doubt, maybe in part out of respect for the occasional decent, competent Afghan somehow aloof from the cronyism. I know such a man and work for him. Born in Helmand, orphaned at 6 and taken to Russia at age 11, he returned to Kabul with a doctorate in economics, rising on merit and without family or connections. He is the exception.

Development agencies necessarily support the country’s “money engine,” the collection of taxes. Everyone knows the coming withdrawal of troops and diminished aid will leave a void that only investment can fill.

Tax policy will influence investors for better or worse, so now is the time to begin thinking and acting in ways conducive to retaining domestic capital and attracting foreign direct investment. Investors don’t expect perfection, but they do insist on rules fairly applied and disputes fairly adjudicated.

At the same time, the country’s tax authority lacks a professional staff able on its own to manage collections and deliver service. Reason? Failure of civil service reform after 10 years and counting.

The average civil servant earns $200 to $300 per month and lacks rudimentary skills, qualifications and, worst of all, motivation. Wonder why a case manager waits forever for files to be retrieved for a meeting with a taxpayer? Those managing the file room are functionally illiterate. They cannot be fired. If you are the case manager and care, what do you do?

If Afghanistan can’t reform all of its government, reform some of it. Establish a stand-alone tax authority as a pilot program, allow advisers to manage the transition, offer current and new staff appointment for those who qualify based on a competitive exam, reward them with a market-based salary, and buy out the rest. My Afghan friend deserves that much honesty as do the donors who support us with money and good will. While Alice awoke to reality, we dream on.

William Cleary writes from Kabul. He has worked in 25 countries.