There’s a Winnable War in Progress

Published on November 23, 2011 in Eurasianet

Reporting out of Afghanistan is decidedly downbeat these days, intimating that the United States is entangled in an unwinnable war. The focus tends to be on what is not working in the country. This is perhaps understandable given that foreign correspondents often cover violence, death, and destruction in Afghanistan. But they aren’t seeing, for a variety of reasons, what is working.

The skewed content of news reports and commentaries is bolstering the Taliban’s anti-government war propaganda. It is also adding fuel to a political blame-game among key stakeholders, who must work together as partners to address Afghanistan’s multidimensional problems. For example, loud and public criticism of corruption within the Afghan government is counterproductive. It only pits the international community against Afghan leaders, preventing both sides from actually addressing the problem. The challenges posed by corruption must first be contextually defined, or else it will remain a buzzword — used and abused by anyone wanting to vent frustration and shift blame to the Afghan government.

On the Afghan side, corruption is a systemic problem of weak governance due to a lack of international investment in building checks and balances into nascent Afghan political institutions. Without capacity and resources, Afghan state institutions are going to continue having difficulty in ensuring security, the rule of law, social protection, and a sound economic environment.

On the international side, donors have wasted tens of billions of dollars to prop up parallel structures for unsustainable service delivery in Afghanistan. Audits authorized by the US Congress and other oversight bodies of the donor community show that a significant amount of funds is improperly allocated because of a dependency on a tangled web of private contractors and multiple sub-contractors. The continued channeling of aid resources through such parallel structures undermines the very Afghan state institutions that international agencies profess to be trying to help.

Public opinion, both in Afghanistan and in donor countries, is easily misled when all people read in the papers or watch on television is a heavy dose of sensationally negative news about every aspect of international engagement in Afghanistan. Afghans are gradually led to believe in conspiracy theories, asking why the best armed and equipped forces of more than 40 countries have failed to contain insurgents. Meanwhile, taxpayers in donor countries tend to question whether their respective governments are spending public funds wisely on the war effort, given the perception that there has been little progress in Afghanistan in the past decade.

It is the Taliban and the radical movement’s supporters in the region that stand to gain from a continued miscommunication of facts and the mismanagement of expectations in Afghanistan.

Despite the current perceptions, all is not lost in Afghanistan for the forces favoring democratization. It must be acknowledged that Afghanistan is very much a work in progress. The country has traveled a great distance over the past 10 years, but it still has a long way to go in order to consolidate reconstruction gains.

Once the status of Afghanistan as a work in progress is accepted, genuine efforts must be made to learn from the mistakes of the past 10 years. Afghans should be empowered to grow a productive economy. And when this process slowly takes off, the resilience and enterprising genius of the Afghan people will help deliver their country from its past miseries. In particular, economic development should help to incrementally diminish corruption.

Finally, the international community must renew its commitment to dealing with the root causes of the Taliban insurgency. In particular, key actors in the international system, led by the United States, must pursue a collective long-term policy of helping Pakistan end institutional support for extremism and terrorism in the region. When this genuinely happens, Afghanistan will automatically be secure and soon on its way towards full integration with the community of democratized states.