U.S. Troops Drawdown in Afghanistan and USAID’s Selective Amnesia
By Fiorenzo Conte
Last week I listened to an NPR interview with the USAID Administrator Mr. Rajiv Shah, who discussed the implications of the troops drawdown for American assistance in the country. Three quotes summarize his argument.
- I think it’s important to note that we are drawing down from a position of strength. We’ve, in fact, achieved significant gains in security, in development and in governance that allow for this draw down and allow us to envision a future where Afghanistan has the security and safety to protect and govern itself without our active involvement.
- But I would look back on the last eight or nine years and look at a record of significant progress. Afghanistan has – with U.S. assistance, and with assistance from more than 20 other donor countries on the civilian assistance side – helped generate real economic growth at nearly 10 percent, in annual terms, for a decade.
- if I look across the portfolio of work that we do in Afghanistan, it is part of an integrated civilian and military effort that includes the military surge, the civilian surge. (..) And these things all work together and will save the United States, you know, billions of dollars and significant lives as we accelerate the drawdown of American troops.
Each of these points are in my view partly inaccurate, misleading and problematic. As to the position of strength and of improved security, other actors involved in Afghanistan have a very different opinion. James Traub on FP questions the claim that military gains have made the Taliban more prone to sitting at a table and initiating political negotiations. According to this reasoning, the US would have waited to tip the balance of power before starting to think about a political transition and hence a drawdown of troops. The reality in Afghanistan does not mirror this claim. Military successes in the southern provinces have been counterbalanced by a growing Taliban influence in the Eastern province and mounting violence in the North. Similarly, the Afghan security force trained by America appears incapable to take over the task to police the country once the U.S leave. And as the former ambassador of the Taliban government in Pakistan points out “for every Taliban killed, five more will come”. In sum, significant gains in security can hardly be put forth as a motive for leaving Afghanistan. The growing unpopularity of the war at home seems to have played a much bigger role in determining the timing of the drawdown.
As to the argument that the economy is robust, it is true that progress has been made but it is also true that such progress appears to be fragile and contingent upon a continuous massive inflow of dollars. And as the flow of money is set to decrease, the situation could reverse. An article in the NYT warned that there is widespread concern amongst American and Afghan officials that as the American military and civilian presence and hence spending diminishes the already weak Afghan economy will crumble. The fact is that many Afghan civilians are employed by US-funded projects and as these funding run out so will salaries for these people. Opium remains the most remunerative crop in Afghanistan and this means that although considerable amount of dollars spent to create alternative source of income for farmers, progress is “very slow” as a senior US official admits. And this points to one of the omission of the USAID head: progress has been slow because a lot of mistakes have been made. One striking example: in the early stage of the occupation the coalition convinced some people in Helmand to switch from poppy to wheat cultivation on the premise that high price would ensure higher profits. At the same time USAID started to distribute free sacks of flour that depressed the price of maize. Result: farmers readily switched back to opium. These kind of mistakes have not been uncommon and have undermined and counterbalanced progress in other areas.
Last but not the least, is the claim that development, diplomacy and defense go hand in hand. There is general consensus that the decision to link up development efforts to military operations have in fact backfired. The construction of a road can be problematic for a community if that road is built and utilized by American troops and hence every person that uses it is branded as a traitor and collaborator by the Taliban. As de Bellaigue on the London Review of Books puts it “There is a fine line between providing humanitarian assistance ( a road leading to market, say) and establishing military infrastructure ( a road leading to a US base), and the coalition has made the distinction harder to spot. The Americans and their allies are trying to fight a war and build a country at the same time, and they find it convenient to use the same forms of organization for both.” As the line blurs civil interventions become the target of the Taliban.
In sum, all the three claims stem from an overly optimistic take on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. What I find troublesome is the decision to selectively omit all the things that have gone wrong. This selective amnesia is part and parcel of the development industry, which is unwilling to admit its past wrongs. The dire consequence is that because of this amnesia no lessons are drawn from past mistakes.