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Deconstructing Afghanistan

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
August 24, 2006


Afghanistan's post-conflict troubles are often overshadowed by Iraq's. Shortly after the fall of the Taliban, some limited reconstruction work began. Bridges were rebuilt and roads were repaired. The introduction of so-called provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs)—small, civilian-military units typically comprising around one hundred to 200 personnel—achieved some success in expanding security and stability, spawning plans to introduce the same concept to Iraq’s regions. But the bulk of the humanitarian funds in 2002 and 2003 still went toward emergency food and shelter, not long-term reconstruction projects, reports the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) (PDF).

That has changed, according to a more recent GAO report on Afghan reconstruction. Of $720 million spent on non-security-related assistance in 2004, over three-quarters was devoted to reconstruction. More recently, the distribution of reconstruction aid is based on the Afghanistan Compact, a five-year plan signed in January that focuses on security, rule of law, and development. In addition to roads, hospitals, and schools, a nascent banking sector has been slowly built, with eight or more private banks now in existence in Afghanistan, according to Amirzai Sangin, Afghanistan's minister of communications, speaking at CSIS. He also points to Afghanistan's growing telecom industry; more than 1.5 million Afghans now own phones (most of them mobile phones), a figure expected to double in the next three years.

Yet, as the country's security situation increasingly worsens, so too does its pace of reconstruction (NYT). Former U.S. ambassador Peter Tomsen believes reconstruction in Afghanistan is now worse than in Iraq, particularly along the border with Pakistan. "Our overall reconstruction in Afghanistan in the south and east has been a lot of promises and very little product to show for it," he says in this Backgrounder.

Part of the problem, Tom Koenigs, UN special representative for Afghanistan, tells Der Spiegel, is the lack of money and personnel. He says the West invested ten times as much per capita in Kosovo. That has left Afghanistan's police force grossly undermanned and undertrained. It has also left the country bereft of adequate schools, forcing families to send their children to madrassas across the border in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's economy remains a basketcase, with "levels of poverty, hunger, ill health, illiteracy, and gender inequality that put [the country] near the bottom of every global ranking," writes Barnett Rubin in this CFR Special Report. To reverse these downward trends, experts say a strong, effective state must emerge where none traditionally had existed. "Delivery of services is the primary means of gaining broad popular respect," while "development aid is still one of the major assets the central government possesses," according to this August 2006 CSIS report. The Afghan government must also rein in the growing drug trade. Roughly 87 percent of the world's heroin poppy is produced in Afghanistan, Harriet C. Babbitt of Hunt Alternatives Fund told CFR last November.

Still, security remains the most daunting impediment to reconstruction. The decision to deploy additional NATO forces to provinces under the sway of the Taliban is a positive sign, experts say. Yet the training of the Afghan National Police has fallen well short of expectations. According to the CSIS report, there is talk in Kabul of even reestablishing village militias to secure the country's restive provincial towns, the latest indicator that Afghanistan is looking more like Iraq every day.

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