This article explores a potential Canadian role in Afghanistan, with a focus on Canada’s development assistance, after the departure of Canada’s combat troops in 2011 (as per our parliamentary resolution). In the absence of any clear objective ever having been conveyed to the Canadian public by our government for its involvement any proposal for future involvement can be based only on an analysis of the primary needs of Afghanistan — a fragile state. Such an analysis will help us to sort out the issues that would require priority attention for meeting some of the most critical objectives of a fragile country striving to attain stability. If Canada’s role after 2011 is to continue, our strategy must meet these objectives.

Admittedly, the state of Afghanistan is fragile and weak, and stabilization measures are necessary to enable it to function in the long run, without the permanent presence of foreigners, foreign troops or foreign advisers, if it is to become a well-functioning nation-state. A review of the needed stabilization measures would help identify the issues that must be addressed on a priority basis for strengthening the state of Afghanistan and facilitating a transition of all domains of current donor activities in Afghanistan to the Afghans. The assumption is that the transition from fragility to stability will provide Afghanistan the ownership, sovereignty and capacity to determine the country’s destiny. This article proposes a strategy to help this transition. If Canada is not interested in meeting these objectives or considers them unattainable, Canada should withdraw its development assistance, together with its combat troops, instead of wasting scarce aid funds, which could be better invested in countries of sub-Saharan Africa or other countries where Canadian aid resources can be more effectively utilized.

Afghanistan displays the classic syndromes of fragility: absence of sustainable economic growth; armed conflicts over three decades; narcotics production and trade; inequity in provision of access to resources for basic life sustenance; and high aid dependency, with the accompanying dangers of the Dutch disease harming long-term growth prospects. These factors result in citizens’ lack of confidence in the state and government. The economy of Afghanistan is ruined as a result of ongoing war and terrorist threats. Terrorism is intensified with income from narcotics trade and support from neighboring Islamic states, with immense destabilizing impact. Poverty reduction and delivery of basic development, governance and security services are but dreams in the absence of sustainable economic growth and institutions capable of service delivery. In the absence of delivery of the most essential services, the legitimacy of the state is continually challenged and warlords, terrorists and drug lords exert inordinate influences. Turning around such a broken state requires building legitimacy through strengthening of state machinery and institutions, institutions that can deliver the required services to the citizens and help the government win the people’s support against the Taliban. Enabling the Afghan government to deliver basic security, governance and development services to its citizens should help the Afghan state to establish its competence and legitimacy in the eyes of the citizens.

Based on these premises, the primary objective of Canada should be to build and strengthen the Afghan state machinery and institutions for service delivery and lay the foundations of state stability. Canada and its international partners have not addressed these issues over the last nine years. Overall, the international presence has yielded insufficient results for the populace compared to the amount of human and financial resources invested.

The promise of “enduring peace and security” is elusive after nearly a decade of Canada’s (and the rest of the international community’s) military, diplomatic and development assistance. The insurgency has intensified, extended and expanded across the country. Service delivery institutions have hardly been strengthened — inadequate delivery continues, ranging from basic-needs services and income to justice and human security. The investment of millions of dollars through the Law and Order Trust Fund for building up the police has failed to develop a competent police force for protection of civilians. It is difficult to determine how many army units are able to act independently, without support of the foreign troops. The elections of 2009 and 2010, in which millions of international funds were invested, were marred by fraud. Despite some improvements in certain facets of health and education, Afghanistan is still ranked 181st out of 182 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index. Forty-two percent of the people in Afghanistan live under the poverty line (income of under $1 a day). Less than half of primary-school-age children have ever been to a class. Eighty-five percent of the women are illiterate, and gender parity in the society is poor by several indicators. The country has the second-highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world.

Afghanistan displays the classic syndromes of fragility: absence of sustainable economic growth; armed conflicts over three decades; narcotics production and trade; inequity in provision of access to resources for basic life sustenance; and high aid dependency, with the accompanying dangers of the Dutch disease harming long-term growth prospects.

This disturbing analysis leads one to question if the objectives of establishing a competent and legitimate government and developing credible service delivery institutions under the auspices of Afghan sovereignty were ever at the base of the rebuilding efforts of Canada and its international partners. Canadian aid is politicized and militarized, as clearly reflected in the prescriptive and self-serving nature of aid supporting political and military objectives of Canada as a troop-contributing country. A disproportionate amount of aid is directed to the province of Kandahar, where Canadian troops have been fighting the insurgency. Development investment concentration in Kandahar has had little impact on legitimacy or institution building, even at the provincial level. Unfortunately, even Canadian efforts to win hearts and minds have failed in rural Kandahar, where our soldiers have operated since early 2006 and where they have never been made to feel welcome.

Virtually unknown is that significant positive results have been achieved to date from international support to Afghan government-led programs in social sector development, especially in rural areas, through the National Solidarity Program. The lessons to be drawn from such successful national programs is that they address the need to establish government’s credibility in delivering services to the people and to help build state legitimacy. Canada wisely funded several such national programs in the first decade of this century. The wisdom was lost with the introduction of “signature” projects, with Canadian stamps on them, for increasing the visibility of Canada in Afghanistan. Without considering how Canada’s visibility in Afghanistan would contribute to institution building or state legitimacy building in Afghanistan, our government committed to spend an estimated 60 to 70 percent of its total development fund allocation for Afghanistan in support of the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team. Even there, the war that Canadian soldiers are waging in Afghanistan is not being won. The counterinsurgency, the crucial attempt to win local confidence and cooperation, is being lost.

From a purely development-focused point of view, the stark reality is that even with the presence of our troops in Kandahar province, the Canadian signature projects have progressed at only a snail’s pace. Canada’s quarterly reports, providing quantitative-outputs-oriented information, are reflecting this reality. These reports rarely provide information on outcome results, disabling any assessment of success in strengthening institutions for delivery of human security or basic services and building of state legitimacy, or in fact in increasing Canadian visibility in Afghanistan for which signature projects were originally promoted. Do we want to take the risk of continuing these projects in Kandahar, one of the most insecure provinces, when our troops depart? Or should we change our strategy, expand our outreach to more secure areas and give the Afghan government greater responsibility and ownership and a lead role in the rebuilding of its country while we assume a supporting role?

The Afghan government has contributed its share to failures of the state in earning its own legitimacy. For starters, corruption is on the rise. The Afghan government argues that aid funds under the control of donors and their contracted agencies are the sole contributors to corruption. But Integrity Watch reports that Afghan citizens are forced to provide illegal handouts (in effect, bribes) to obtain basic public services. Lack of stable planning and implementation and vacillating management act as disincentives for competent and well-motivated civil servants. Adding to the frustrations of the Afghan staff, some of the ministers govern with the advice of exorbitantly highly paid international advisers, sidelining competent Afghan officials and thwarting their initiatives.

Canada should stop financing Canadian-designed and -delivered parallel programs or projects competing with those of the government, because such parallel activities tend to undermine the government’s efforts and its image with its population, and they have the potential to exacerbate the trust deficit.

Serious deficiency is noted in transparent dialogue between donors and the Afghan government (despite a proliferation in expensive international conferences), resulting in declining mutual accountability. The government and the international community hardly ever speak transparently about issues that should be a priority for both parties. The Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board, a platform to promote consultation and coordination between the Afghan government and the international community, has turned into a mutual admiration society, rather than critically evaluating issues of urgent priority.

Meanwhile, the government and the international community are jumping from one conference to another (10 major ones over nine years) without looking back or assessing how much of what was committed in the conferences has been achieved. New hype and new flags are being raised every few months, when the country is in a state of dire emergency, when stabilization of the existing processes is a priority rather than introduction of experiments at the expense of disrupting, stalling and stopping ongoing activities, including the essential annual budget process.

Despite the distressing circumstances, I don’t recommend an exit strategy for development assistance. The longer-term involvement of the international community in fragile situations is essential, with the ultimate aim of transfer of responsibilities and control over development programs from the international community to the Afghan government. Past experience and evidence confirm that the legitimacy crisis of the Afghan state could be abated with the leadership taken by Afghans (such as in the National Solidarity Program) and a coordinated donor strategy supporting such leadership. The end goal of a secure and stable Afghanistan has been shared in the past with the Afghan government by all donors. It is increasing mistrust (what is often called a trust deficit) and risk aversion trends that have changed the context and are increasingly working against donors’ adoption of a strategy of transferring ownership to Afghanistan. These hitches, posing challenges of transitioning from an international-led to an Afghan-led process, must be addressed and overcome, if Canada’s development assistance is to continue after 2011.

Canada can address the risk aversion psyche, cover the trust deficit and deal with concerns surrounding potential corruption if it pursues a strategy of investment in Afghan-led national programs in collaboration and sharing accountability with other international donors. Shared accountability with other donors can be promoted and accountability of the Afghan government can be ensured by adopting a programbased approach through investment in government-designed programs covering a sector (such as education, health or agriculture), and integrating joint accountability for donors and the Afghan government. Several modalities, such as multidonor trust funds and pooled funding mechanisms, widely operational in the international development arena, can be used to ensure both Afghan government and donor accountability in implementation of sector-based programs and other national programs (such as vocational training, area-based development and alternative livelihoods), provided the terms and conditions of accountability are agreed upon between the donors and the Afghan government. In such shared accountability systems, disbursement of funds from a pooled account (jointly managed by the Afghan government and the international donors) should be tied to completion of activities and concrete deliverables that have been jointly planned by the donors and the Afghan government.

Indeed, Canada must not take up an unfocused approach of getting involved in all sector programs and pooled funds. Participation in a limited number of joint program efforts would have better potential for success. The Canadian government has apparently selected four themes based on Canadian niche areas and strengths: children and youth, regional diplomacy, rule of law and human rights, and humanitarian assistance. One may question the effectiveness of Canadian intervention in the form of concrete delivery of results in these areas in Afghanistan in the past. Yet moving from the current unfocused approach to four distinct themes reflects a definite improvement. But Canada should not program in pursuit of any of these themes outside of a joint pooled funding mechanism that would ensure Afghan ownership and leadership but joint accountability for results delivery and financial management.

As a corollary to the strategy of an internationally shared program management and accountability system, Canada should stop financing Canadian-designed and -delivered parallel programs or projects competing with those of the government, because such parallel activities tend to undermine the government’s efforts and its image with its population, and they have the potential to exacerbate the trust deficit. If we continue to finance programs prioritized and designed, implemented and managed by Canadians, using the excuse of corruption or lack of capacity in the Afghan government, the required capacity may never develop; the spirit of accountability cannot be generated and true accountability can never be enforced. The fight against corruption requires a multifaceted approach focused on strengthening Afghan government institutions by allowing them to take leadership in program design, implementation and managing for results, with conditions for release of tranches of financing upon delivery of concrete development results, about which the Afghan government and international donors would have prior agreements.

In this context, it should be understood that program delivery by Canadian private sector firms or NGOs is also fraught with problems. Programs financed by Canadian official development assistance and implemented by Canadian firms are hardly ever cost beneficial, whereas financing through the Afghan government is low cost; quality can be assured with Afghan-implemented programs when quality technical assistance and appropriate monitoring are provided. Capacity building in fragile state institutions is a responsibility of the donors, and sustainable capacity building demands quality technical assistance, which Canada has failed to deliver to date. A demand-driven, quality-assured technical assistance program should be a major component of our aid in the future.

Training of the civilian police and the armed forces falls within the priority of institution building. And if adequate capacity and expertise exist RCMP, Canada could continue to provide training and also mentorship services to the newly trained Afghans. But quantitative targets, as currently used by our government, are inadequate measures of capacity development. To be credible, any future Canadian involvement with the Afghan army and police must establish qualitative measures of skills developed and sustained in these institutions.

No doubt it will be difficult to operate and deliver development in severely insecure areas. In a fragile state, security and development are intricately linked. Without development, security is not sustainable. But in those areas where development delivery is impossible because of the strength of the insurgency, securing the area before development delivery is a necessity. At this time, it is impractical to prioritize insecure provinces, such as Kandahar, for development investment. In light of the need for security for successful development delivery, Canada should, in fact, rebalance its aid investment and resource distribution. It should transform its aid program from a Kandahar-concentrated investment to a more balanced program promoting equitable distribution of resources across the country on programs that prioritize human security and stability, mainly servicing Afghan national programs, designed, implemented and managed by the Afghan government, with donors providing support where required, especially in results monitoring and financial management.

An inevitable question is how Canadian investments and aid workers will be secured after the departure of our combat troops. First, if Afghan forces are appropriately trained, development activities across Afghanistan should be under Afghan protection. Second, armies that make up the International Security Assistance Force have enough capacity to provide security to ongoing development programs, in the short to medium term. While the United States is likely to reduce its presence in Afghanistan, it is also certain to continue to provide security for the short and medium terms. Thus, provision of security for Canadian-financed development activities need not generate serious concerns. Third, the strategy proposed — for Canada to finance Afghan-led programs — should not require a large number of Canadian aid workers or civilian staff demanding complex security arrangements. It has been well proven over the last few years that just an increase in the number of civilian staff does not necessarily lead to better aid delivery or better development results. A limited number of experienced analysts, finance managers and advisers as technical assistants, who can competently manage the pooled program facilities with Afghan colleagues, could be well provided with protection by Canadian military security guards deployed at the Canadian embassy in Kabul.

NGOs involved in humanitarian or other development work in Afghanistan are not enamoured of the idea of protection by armed forces, which they fear might attract more violent attacks on their aid workers and their programs might be locally perceived as driven by foreign political agendas. They would rather forgo delivery of assistance in insecure areas. Most NGOs feel comfortable working with Afghan communities without armed protection, despite having suffered some casualties from insurgent attacks.

The result of this review of the security requirements for Canadian-supported development activities is that, as per the strategy proposed in this article Canadian development activities will not require Canadian armed protection-after 2011.

If Canada does not want to change the strategy of prescriptive and politicized aid and refuses to follow the route of harmonized action with other donors in financing Afghan-led national programs, keeping an eye on accountability, we might as well walk out of Afghanistan. The current strategy is not salvageable, as it ignores the need for Afghan ownership and blocks transfer of responsibility to Afghanistan. The ultimate word is that sustainable development of Afghanistan can be attained only by Afghans with appropriate support of foreign assistance and investments that are based on principles of joint accountability for donors and the Afghan government.

The final condition that must be met for Canada’s continued development presence in Afghanistan after 2011 is that Afghanistan must not violate the basic equity principles on which its constitution is based, protecting the rights of women, children and the poor. Canada should consider a walkout strategy if the Afghan government’s reconciliation arrangements with the Taliban are against Canadian values, which Canada claims shape its foreign policy.

Photo: Sean M. Maloney

Nipa Banerjee
Nipa Banerjee is a senior fellow at the School of International Development and Global Studies (University of Ottawa). She served 33 years in the former Canadian International Development Agency. She was the head of the Canadian government’s aid program in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2006.

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