Afghanistan on life support

First published at Rabble.ca

Afghanistan appears stuck in a decades old calamity of continuous war, and now Canada and its NATO allies are in the thick of it. Since the initial ouster of the Taliban from the seat of power, things appear only to be getting worse and no clear route to success illuminates the future.

This is not how it was supposed to be.

“The Canadian Forces are making an immense sacrifice to bring freedom, democracy and self-reliance to the people of Afghanistan, all the while protecting Canada’s values and security,” reads a recent statement by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, following the death of yet another Canadian soldier.

Canada’s presence in Afghanistan will cost from C$14 billion to C$18 billion by 2011, indeed a very large commitment. Canada is also committing the lives of its soldiers, and presenting its support of the international mission in Afghanistan as an example of its principles of justice and democracy.

Afghans have no illusions about their government, which has little presence outside of the capital city. The running joke is that President Hamid Karzai is the ‘mayor of Kabul’. So, the US prepares to send up to 30,000 additional troops in order to fight back an empowered Taliban and allow Afghanistan’s central government to expand its influence.

The renewed international focus on Afghanistan suggests that the problem of stability and sustainability stems from a lack of commitment from the international community. That’s why U.S. President Barack Obama has given the green light to continue with the Bush era plan to double the size of the Afghan National Army to 134,000 soldiers.

Yet the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently concluded that “only 2 of 105 army units are assessed as being fully capable of conducting their primary mission.” The local Taliban, with no Western training or funds, continue to grow and fight international forces while the Afghan National Army fails to meet the standard of “self-reliance” expressed by Prime Minister Harper.

The plan to enlarge Afghanistan’s army and police forces are estimated to cost US$3.5 billion annually. Afghanistan’s Minister of Finance, Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, calculates his government’s revenue at US$685 million. Another failure at self-reliance: the country cannot afford to pay for its own security.

This meager revenue from Afghanistan’s ailing economy, destitute from decades of warfare, is supposed to pay not only for security. Development, social services, and civil servants’ wages also compete for this very small till.

Government reliance on foreign funds is not new to the country. Barnett R. Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan, claims that the country has become “a weak rentier or allocation state. From 1958 to 1968 and again in the 1970s the state financed over 40 percent of its expenditures from revenue accruing directly from abroad.” (The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, Yale University Press, 2002)

In the 1980s the government depended on Soviet money, intervention and military occupation. In the 1990s, American, Saudi, Pakistani, Russian, and Iranian money and weapons fueled different factions of a bloody civil war. (Details of this history can be found in Ahmed Rashid’s Descent Into Chaos, Viking, 2008.) And now the government relies on the U.S. and its allies.

The US invasion has not made Afghanistan independent from foreign influence but rather changed the formula of who provides funds and who receives them.

Dr. Rubin states that historically, “the most important effect of foreign aid was to provide both cash and weapons for the accumulation and concentration of the means of violence in a modern army and national police.” This has not required the government of the day to forge a broad-based consensus among Afghanistan’s peoples and political blocs. So, the central government sees foreign donors as one of its most important constituents, the source of much of its treasury. (Rubin, p. 65)

“It has been a disaster. There has been no change in the lives of most ordinary Afghan people,” says the former Planning Minister, Ramazan Bashardost. Now a member of the Afghan Parliament, Mr. Bashardost resigned from the ministry in objection over government and foreign NGO corruptions.

“There is minimum improvement in the lives of the ordinary people. All ministers and key government figures have lost their legitimacy,” he said.

Consider the Louis Berger Group’s contract to build 1,000 schools, each costing $274,000. Ann Jones, who for years worked in Afghanistan as an aid worker, says that Louis Berger, “already way behind schedule in 2005, had finished only a small fraction of them when roofs began to collapse under the snows of winter.”

Sustaining an Afghan government financially on foreign life support requires multiyear planning from all donors involved. This requires that Afghanistan’s needs be incorporated into the budgets of NATO countries, and that many of the political decisions on funding be made by foreign governments accountable to their own people. There is not much room for self-reliance in this scenario.

Eventually international military presence will have to come to an end. There will also come a time when NATO countries will not be willing to commit tens of billions of dollars to Afghanistan on a yearly basis. Already, many NATO countries, wary from years of war without a discernable end, are straining popular support by staying. General withdrawal is on the horizon.

In the past, a sharp drop in foreign grants and loans has resulted in state financial crisis in Afghanistan. Considering the country’s less than billion dollar revenues, it is hard to imagine a different outcome this time around.

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