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The Art of the Ask for Afghanistan

Authors: Jonathan Hillman, and Courtney Lobel
May 24, 2012
Wall Street Journal


With all eyes on President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney as they court Americans in what is expected to be the most expensive election in American history, an international fundraising challenge is going ignored: the campaign for Afghanistan.

As the United States draws down its combat forces, it has launched a desperate effort to secure billions of dollars in pledges to shore up Afghan security forces and fund critical development and reconstruction projects. Put simply, Afghanistan's fate hinges on foreign aid, which accounted for 92% of its public spending last year.

As fundraisers, however, U.S. officials are coming up woefully short. At the end of Monday's NATO summit in Chicago, there was no announcement that coalition partners had cobbled together the $4.1 billion needed annually to keep Afghanistan's security forces afloat after NATO's mission ends in 2014. Attempting some early damage control, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said over the weekend that the summit was "not a pledging conference."

Yet funding was at the top of the summit agenda, and shortfalls have already constrained NATO strategy in Afghanistan. Acknowledging the funding challenges, U.S. officials have proposed cutting Afghan security forces to 228,000 from 352,000 by around 2017, a move that threatens to leave more than 100,000 trained fighters without jobs. To finance this scaled-down force, the U.S. is asking its allies for $1.3 billion annually, a modest sum for a group of nations that are among the richest in the world, despite their considerable economic challenges.

So what went wrong? Partially to blame is the approach taken by U.S. diplomats, who circulated a "Target Asks" list in advance of Monday's summit.

Assigning specific sums to coalition partners, the list is reported to have provoked resentment among U.S. allies. Rather than continue this ham-handed approach to fundraising by decree, U.S. officials must overhaul their fundraising strategy before international donors meet in Tokyo on July 8. When it comes to "the art of the ask," there are some time-honored principles for persuading donors to give big that American officials would do well to keep in mind.

An age-old fundraising maxim rings true for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan: If you want advice, ask for money; if you want money, ask for advice. In other words, donor nations will be more inclined to fund projects that they are involved with devising.

NATO allies were caught off guard in February, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested that the U.S. combat operations would end in mid-to-late 2013, a year ahead of schedule. The U.S. must avoid future surprises if it hopes to keep its allies more than rhetorically invested in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, fundraising is most successful when donors are asked to fund projects that align with their values. Many NATO partners are more concerned with development and governance issues than they are with training Afghanistan's security forces.

The U.S., which already spends roughly $2 billion a week on the war, could offer more than the $2.3 billion it has pledged for Afghanistan's annual security expenses after 2014 if NATO partners agree to provide larger sums for non-security projects.

Most importantly, the U.S. must expand Afghanistan's pool of donor nations. American officials invited more than 30 non-NATO countries to participate in the Chicago summit, but more must be done to persuade regional powers to invest in Afghanistan's security.

In addition to India and Pakistan, which have clear stakes in a stable Afghanistan, China has mining and oil investments in Afghanistan, and Russia has expressed concerns that the drug trade and terrorism could increase after the NATO forces depart. U.S. officials must take a donor-centered approach and make the case that if sufficient funds cannot be raised, these interests will be seriously at risk.

To be sure, U.S. diplomats have a difficult pitch to make. Corruption continues to cripple the Karzai-led government, and Taliban forces have been more resilient than expected. But the international community could pay dearly down the road if U.S. officials can't convince more nations to invest in Afghanistan's future today.

Mr. Hillman is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. Ms. Lobel is associate director for foundation relations at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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