A few pieces today talk about our spending habits in Afghanistan and how miserably imbalanced they’ve become. In the NYT, Nick Kristoff writes critically about the decades-long trend of the militarization and weaponization of U.S. foreign policy, tools which he argues have limited efficacy in eradicating foreign extremism and transforming the societies in which it thrives. What does work, says Kristoff, is education:
For the cost of just one soldier in Afghanistan for one year, we could start about 20 schools there. Hawks retort that it’s impossible to run schools in Afghanistan unless there are American troops to protect them. But that’s incorrect.
CARE, a humanitarian organization, operates 300 schools in Afghanistan, and not one has been burned by the Taliban. Greg Mortenson, of “Three Cups of Tea” fame, has overseen the building of 145 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and operates dozens more in tents or rented buildings — and he says that not one has been destroyed by the Taliban either.
Aid groups show that it is quite possible to run schools so long as there is respectful consultation with tribal elders and buy-in from them.
Though building and operating new schools is great, I’m not sure how it answers the hawks’ fears that it’s not sustainable unless there are American troops around to protect them. After all, there are 100,000 U.S. troops there now. After the U.S. is gone will the Taliban’s subsequent consultation with those tribal elders be quite as "respectful?"
Sustainability of all these programs is a very serious issue. The U.S. has spent $345 billion on the war in Afghanistan, including $72 billion this year alone. The trouble is, Afghanistan’s entire GDP is only about $10 billion, with somewhere between a third and a half of that coming from the illicit opium trade. Their whole annual government budget is only around $1 billion. And next year we’re spending $14 billion alone on training and equipping the Afghan security forces. We’re paying first world prices for third world results. It’s obviously a bad deal and one that can’t be sustained without maintaining a massive flow of foreign investment and subsidy for decades to come.
But as Kristoff notes, while we’re certainly spending a boatload, perhaps our spending priorities are woefully out of whack.
In the New Republic, Peter Bergen makes the humanitarian case for staying, and he cites polling that shows a majority of Afghans both hate the Taliban and support a U.S. troop presence in their country. He also highlights the need for more non-militarist solutions and a better spending balance going forward: Asked what were the greatest challenges confronting them, one-third of Afghans answered poverty and unemployment. In response Bergen argues for a renewed and more effective committment to job-creating reconstruction projects. He’s particularly interested in high-profile and vital infrastructure like unfinished roads, dams, and aqueducts. Sadly, much of our reconstruction aid thus far never reaches the Afghan people. Instead:
[T]he funds have been consumed by the various international organizations whose four-wheel drives clog the streets of Kabul. A 2008 report by the British charity Oxfam found that around 40 percent of aid to Afghanistan was funneled to donor countries to maintain home offices in the West and pay for Western-style salaries, benefits, and vacations. Another study found that less than 20 percent of international aid ended up being spent on local Afghan projects.
This is unbelievable to read after nine years of war. These infrastructure projects represent tens of thousands of jobs as well as the only possible chance we have of helping to foster or inspire some sort of stable civil society that can outlive us after we’ve gone. The level of corruption and graft in the Afghan government is deservedly legendary, but as this CAP report notes, a huge majority of the foreign aid Afghanistan receives (77%) is outside of its government’s control; we should be able to get some of this stuff done before the drawdown begins.
But the question remains: will it matter? Is there anything we can build now that can’t be destroyed or coopted or run into the ground by the forces of theocratic reaction or official incompetence and malfeasance? Who thinks the nefarious influence of Pakistan’s ISI will magically abate once we’ve gone? Will Karzai and his minions awake one morning and stop ciphoning off the life and wealth of their country in order to line their own pockets?
These are very consequential questions with very pessimistic answers. I haven’t yet reconciled myself to the equanimity and stoic resignation required when faced with a situation where doing the right thing may just be impossible. This is no consolation, but I don’t think our leaders have either.