Afghanistan has been at war, in one form or another, for more than thirty years. During this period, US policy has alternated between engagement and withdrawal, varying from support to the Mujahadeen in the 1980s, to support to the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban in late 2001, to a combination of humanitarian assistance and counter-terrorism operations between 2002 and 2005, to a counter-insurgency campaign that was resourced in 2009, interspersed with periods of disengagement. Rather than oscillating between extremes, a policy that seeks to sustain the minimum conditions for regional stability would provide the best chance of achieving enduring security.
To improve policies for civilian engagement whether in this region, or for transitions underway in Africa, the Middle East and other parts of Asia, requires a fresh look at the means of civic engagement. In Afghanistan, focus on the military objectives has not been matched by clear and consistent policies for economic, societal and political engagement with the country’s citizens. Where efforts to create enduring institutions have worked, the key has been to get policy decisions and internal and external partnerships right, often requiring minimal funding. By contrast, the misapplication of development fashions and doling out of huge contracts have often proven at best a distraction or at worst have empowered strong men and marginalized and alienated the population.
Lack of engagement with Afghanistan’s youth – with at least 70% of the population under 30 - is one startling example of poor policy and missed opportunity. Back in 2002, an international “needs assessment” mandated Afghanistan to dedicate its education resources exclusively to primary education. To meet the UN Millennium Development Goals’ mandate of full primary enrollment, until every child was in primary school, no child was to go to secondary school or college. As a result, several million children have gone to primary school, but existing colleges and polytechnics languished, and the young generation were deskilled. A few years later, development agencies decried that Afghans have no skills and proceeded to spend billions to deploy foreign technical assistance, and recruited away remaining Afghan doctors, teachers and engineers to work as assistants, drivers and translators for their thousands of “capacity building” projects. In essence, the aid effort amounted to an asset-stripping of the capacity of the state and the nation’s human capital. Today, the country remains chronically short of essential technical and critical skills such as plumbers, electricians, engineers and nurses, while Afghanistan’s youth remain excluded from the huge task of manning their own front-line services and rebuilding the social fabric of the nation.
The Arab Spring demonstrated a new generation desperate for political, economic and social inclusion. Repeated surveys in Afghanistan have shown that Afghan’s young generation have similar demands for dignity, inclusion and opportunity. A priority going forward is to engage the country’s youth and marginalized populations on agendas they care about, and enable them to acquire the skills needed to participate actively in the economy and civil service, rather than resourcing a vast and expensive aid complex to try to substitute for these tasks while leaving the youth in a vacuum.
It is not for foreign powers to pay for or impose a nation-building project; it is for Afghans to manage their own security, economy and society. There have been extraordinary gains in the last decades that provide a foundation for self-governance – despite the challenges of corruption and instability. Sustaining these gains is possible. The US should focus on an economic agenda through mechanisms to reduce risk and allow for the trade and investment to catalyze revenue generation that can finance the country’s social policies, and supporting sensible policy decisions, rather than relying on a model that would see aid flowing indefinitely from weary tax contributors.
The 95% of Afghan people who want nothing more than to live in peace and dignity remain the best ally for an agenda of stability; offering its next generation a reasonable prospect of life with relative stability would be the surest foundation of security.
Clare Lockhart, co-founder and CEO of ISE, was a member of the UN Bonn Agreement negotiation team in 2001 and lived in Afghanistan for several years working on several nationwide initiatives.