The New U.S. Commitment to Afghanistan Needs a Soft Power Strategy

Security issues in Afghanistan receive almost 100% of the attention in Washington. However, a political and economic strategy are also needed. Afghanistan has progressed over the last fifteen years, with economic successes, some public services (like health and education) from the central government, and a freer people. The U.S. and other allies need to continue to remain involved but we can stand down as Afghans stand up.

In October of 2016, 75 countries and 26 international organizations pledged $15.2 billion through 2020 in sustaining development assistance in Afghanistan as a result of The Brussels Conference. We should keep our economic assistance commitments to Afghanistan but make some adjustments based on the new security strategy.

What should Afghanistan look like five to ten years from now? The best end-game for the country would be a somewhat functioning democracy, with further economic and social progress and greater economic integration with its neighbors. The Taliban would cease being an armed insurgent movement and they would be integrated into the political life of Afghanistan through a Loya Jirga. The U.S. and other allies would have a far smaller foreign aid program and a far smaller security footprint. Afghanistan is not going to become Denmark anytime soon but it can and should build on the progress of the last 15 years.

Afghan Shopkeeper
Afghan shopkeeper Naeem, 32, sorts brooms in his shop as he waits for customers on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif on August 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / FARSHAD USYAN (Photo credit should read FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

There are signs of progress, Afghanistan’s GDP per capita growth averaged 3.6% yearly since 2002. Dependence on foreign aid is gradually going down. Official development assistance (ODA) as a share of government expense has decreased since 2006 from 206% to 61% in 2013. Net ODAwas 32% of Afghanistan’s GNI in 2002 down to 21% in 2015. An additional component to Afghanistan’s financial sustainability is growing tax revenue: as a share of GDP stood at 10% of GDP in 2015. At the Brussels’ donors conference in 2015, the Afghans agreed to a “stretch” goal of collecting taxes equal to 14% of its licit, formal economy by 2020. Other revenues such as mining projects could contribute 1% of GDP to additional revenues by 2020. As of now, the challenges with governance and corruption hinder the ability for extractive materials to be exploited and properly managed.

Ongoing development programs in Afghanistan have aided in implementing sustainable social progress. The World Bank’s Rural Access Project estimates that more than 10,000 km of rural roads and drainage systems will have been repaired and upgraded by 2018. In 2002, almost zero girls attended school, today there are more than 3.9 milliongirls in school. Cell phones have gone from close to zero in 2000 to 19.7 million nationwide in 2015. Health indicators have made impressive gains with life expectancy increasing from 46 years in 2001 to 50 years in 2015, as just one example.

There are other dimensions to a non-military strategy:

  • Diplomacy. As President Trump mentioned, it is possible to consider future political discussions with the Taliban, but for that to happen, the Afghan government and regional supporters need to collaborate and incentivize the Taliban to engage in negotiating solutions. A political discussion would address reconciliation and incorporating the Taliban into the political life of the country.
  • Economic Policy. There are more than 400,000 people entering the labor market every year in Afghanistan. The country needs high economic growth to absorb all those young people. Afghanistan needs to focus on high-value exports, resolve its perennial mining issues, and increase electric power production. The U.S. and Afghanistan should also amend its Trade and Investment Framework Agreements (TIFA) to lay a foundation for better bilateral economic relations. Afghanistan’s mineral resource wealth has the potential to generate economic growth and revenue if a regulatory framework was put in place.
  • Good Governance. Afghanistan’s government is highly centralized, and will require a process to devolve power to the provinces. The U.S. and other donors also need to continue to push Afghanistan to reduce corruption – one of the most corrupt countries in the world. 
  • Regional Integration. Afghanistan’s strategic location is not fully utilized. The nations geo-strategic location in the Eurasian landmass makes its integration in the region important. Some of the regional integration goals include energy transmission, an international highway system, trade and cargo routes for energy, minerals, and other products.

Afghanistan is not ready to stand on its own, but it’s made significant progress. Afghanistan is far less dependent on our aid than 10 years ago. We want to get it to a point where it is far less dependent 5 years from now. It is unacceptable to have a return to a failed state that houses terrorist training camps. It is unacceptable to throw away billions of dollars and thousands of lives lost. There has been too much progress to date. A combined security surge with assistance and diplomacy are worth the effort.


Article Published in on October 06, 2017.

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