- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 6, 2008


The Atlantic Council says we’re not winning in Afghanistan and they are right. In the last year, violence has spread to additional areas of the country. The Afghan government remains weak, plagued by inefficiency and corruption with limited reach into the countryside. And calls for faster economic progress are increasingly shrill among Afghans and donors alike.

Democratic Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and John Kerry of Massachusetts have joined the demand for an international coordinator to bring order to efforts by donor nations aiding Afghanistan. Many nations want a new international strategy to drastically improve effectiveness.

These policies have merit but exaggerate their potential results. Existing strategy could more quickly provide a basis for improved coordination. And real performance could improve soon given practical changes in staff and procedures.

Why? Changing policy alone has limits in what it can achieve. Money takes 18 months — a long time in war — to move from an administration decision through proposal, congressional votes and contract bidding until ground is broken for a new project. No wonder Afghans criticize us. Troop and economic donors are sovereign nations who will not simply follow orders.

A common strategy will be at a level of generality that neither produces automatic action in the field nor overcomes the political obstacles that cause nations to limit their troops’ areas or functions. These problems may be mitigated over time but the idea a new policy will automatically jump the political hurdles is a fantasy. And a super coordinator may do more harm than good if the approach is wrong.

More donor coordination is needed. But how we work with the Afghan government is a separate issue. Building a stable state with a functioning government is the only way to heal the fragmentation of Afghanistan that otherwise will again become a base for attacks on us and a breeding ground for extremism.

The famously xenophobic Afghans still welcome efforts to help them build their own future. But if foreigners appear to be in charge, it will undercut the legitimacy of Afghan institutions and hand the Taliban a major propaganda victory.

A super coordinator can try to “bash heads,” to use Lord “Paddy” Ashdown’s phrase, but it must be clear it will be foreign heads. Fairly or not, naming the now rejected Lord Ashdown as U.N. envoy was seen in Afghanistan as designed to give orders to Afghans; that was a mistake.

The international agreement of 2006 (The London Compact) provides an ambitious political and economic road map until 2011. We would accomplish more by focusing the current calls for policy change to improved coordination of the strategy already agreed upon. Better implementation can add much to comparatively rapid improvement if we and others would only pay attention.

What then can we do? My embassy was able to stimulate donor consensus and solve problems with the Afghans in energy, removal of some (not enough) corrupt police commanders, and several other issues by working behind the scenes to suggest approaches, letting the United Nations lead in bringing the required donors together and involving Afghans in decision-making. This approach sometimes took months, money and quiet pressure but it produced results. This strategy could be significantly expanded, but the United Nations in Afghanistan needs more senior staff to handle the task.

Our own USAID needs the senior staff to manage strategic evaluation and crisis response, not just program implementation as in a normal developing nation. In one of the most difficult operating environments in the world, we expect USAID to manage twice the dollars per contract officer that they have in normal countries.

USAID needs the flexibility and staff to assign many contracts at the provincial level quickly, without the complex bidding procedures that force us to take months to assign a contract and then work through, and pay for, large foreign contractors.

NATO needs its own funds, as U.S. military commanders have, to bring humanitarian aid in rapidly after military engagements and promptly pay compensation for civilian damage and loss of lives. NATO nations need closer coordination between their individual aid agencies and embassies that report to separate ministries. If they cannot do it on a national basis, why expect a coordinator to succeed multilaterally?

Taken together, these measures will not substitute needed increases in troop levels, equipment, funding or political will in the Afghan government to improve honesty and effectiveness. But they would significantly help. Without them, performance will continue to disappoint foreign and Afghan expectations — with all the potential crumbling of political support such failure entails.

Ronald E. Neumann is the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria and Bahrain. He is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and has authored a forthcoming policy brief about Afghanistan aide coordination for the Stanley Foundation.

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