WASHINGTON, October 13, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The commander of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), warned on October 8 that without visible improvements in the daily lives of ordinary Afghans in the next six months, up to 70 percent of Afghans could shift their allegiance to the Taliban-led insurgency. It was a stark and urgent reminder that there is still much work to be done in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
British Lieutenant General David Richards' comments led to defensive posturing by the Afghan government rather than turning its attention to a retooling of reconstruction plans.
Those reconstruction projects built by Afghans seem to be targeted less by the insurgents.
NATO tried to defuse tensions when ISAF issued a statement three days later. It said ISAF's commander meant that "the next six months have to be used for effective reconstruction and development to ensure" the continuing support that the Afghan government enjoys among citizens. But Richards added ominously that he knows that "ISAF cannot take the support of ordinary Afghans for granted." Richards pledged that having "shown [its] skill and power in combat," NATO is "now putting equal effort into supporting the reconstruction and development that will improve [Afghans'] lives and offer a real future to all."
Richards' warning is a very real one for Afghanistan. The crux of the matter arguably is not whether Afghans will support the resurgent neo-Taliban, but whether -- in the absence of a genuine improvement of their daily lives -- they care to support the current system. The operative word is "genuine."
Security Needed For Reconstruction
Donors are rightfully proud that billions of dollars have poured into Afghanistan. But little of that international aid has filtered down to the average Afghan. In a vicious cycle, security is blamed for slow reconstruction and the failure to rebuild is said to lead to deteriorating security.
A reevaluation of the reconstruction projects implemented in Afghanistan in the last five years would undoubtedly reveal mistakes. Many shortcomings might be related to a focus on shorter-term projects that the donors and Afghan government alike have tried to use to demonstrate progress to their respective constituencies -- or even to each other. In other words, the emphasis thus far has not been on infrastructure but on Potemkin projects. But the infrastructure work is necessary in pursuit of long-term, state-building strategies despite its lack of immediate political benefits.
Another, and more crucial, shortcoming has been a heavy reliance on foreign contractors to rebuild Afghanistan. Foreign contractors continue to boast of multimillion-dollar reconstruction projects while the average Afghan worker remains untrained and unemployed.
Involving Afghans in all aspects of reconstruction would do more than simply employ the countless people who otherwise might find work in the booming narcotics industry. It might also counter the type of frustration to which Richards alluded -- prompting some to join the armed opposition.
Afghan Workers Needed
It is true that there is a serious shortage of skilled laborers in Afghanistan. Foreign expertise is necessary to train Afghans. But allowing Afghans to rebuild their own houses, schools, and roads would give them more than just ownership and pride -- it would also provide them with legal incomes.
"Afghanizing" reconstruction projects would likely slow some work. It might also prove more challenging to adapt to the many demands of international donors and Kabul, possibly preventing them from signing off projects as due dates arise. But as one UN official put it recently, Afghan-built schools have somehow proven to be fireproof. He meant to suggest that those reconstruction projects built by Afghans seem to be targeted less by the insurgents.
If the nation is sufficiently involved in rebuilding the Afghan state, then the massive project that began with the ousting of the Taliban in 2001 might be steered toward the formation of a fully functioning nation-state. Otherwise, in six months, General Richards might regret having toned down his poignant warning.