Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan

June 9, 2011
Afghan Farmers Harvest Wheat Outside Kabul

In the last decade, Afghanistan has made some dramatic development achievements. Access to basic health services has rocketed from nine percent to 64 percent. Under the Taliban, only 900,000 boys and almost no girls were enrolled in schools, while today, more than seven million children are enrolled in schools, 35 percent of whom are girls. Afghanistan has averaged 10 percent per year economic growth, is using a single, stable currency, and government revenues have grown to $1.65 billion, with a 400 percent increase in customs revenues since 2006 alone. With gross domestic product (GDP) per capita doubling since 2002, some five million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. In 2002, Afghan government institutions were barely functional. Most ministries did not have telecommunications, electricity, or even basic office supplies like pens or paper. Today, several ministries, like the Ministry of Public Health, which is led by a female doctor (who would not have been allowed to work, let alone lead, under the Taliban), are heading the development charge. Much of this progress has been possible due to the generous support of American taxpayers.

But Afghanistan remains insecure, and its progress fragile. As we embark on the path of transition -- the process by which our Afghan partners will truly stand on their own feet -- we are ensuring that our efforts are sustainable, durable, and realistic. This was the primary message of the recent report on U.S. assistance to Afghanistan from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) majority staff. We do not endorse all the conclusions in this report, but we appreciate the report's recognition that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has performed admirably in a very complex and insecure environment.

This progress is a critical component of President Obama's strategy to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe-haven for extremists. Two years ago, President Obama outlined a whole-of-government approach designed to reverse Taliban momentum and build resiliency into Afghanistan's government, society and economy. This approach called for an ambitious civilian-military campaign which included a sharp, calibrated, influx of human capacity and resources. This surge was designed to put the insurgents on their heels and set the stage for a broader political settlement -- the key to enduring regional stability.

USAID is an essential component of our critical national security strategy in Afghanistan. Over the last 18 months USAID has tripled its staff in Afghanistan, aligned our efforts with our military and civilian partners, and demanded far greater accountability of ourselves, our contractors, and the Afghan government and local Afghan institutions. The results we are achieving attest to this progress. While rightly pointing out the myriad challenges of working in a war zone, the SFRC report fails to recognize the successes of these efforts and how much we've changed the way we do business in Afghanistan.

USAID is committed to sustainable impact through Afghan capacity building. We spend approximately 38 percent of our funds working directly with the Afghan government so that they can increasingly fund and deliver critical services on their own. We have been successful by focusing on a few key Afghan institutions -- such as the Ministries of Finance, Public Health, Agriculture, Education, and Rural Rehabilitation and Development. Programs like the enormously successful National Solidarity Program, which has reached over 22,000 Afghan villages, is funded through the government. But we only invest in government when we can do so with fully accountable and capable partners.

We are aligning our resources with critical foundational investments in economic growth, infrastructure, and human capital that will speed a sustainable transition. These foundational investments will create the economic and governance tools to allow the Afghans to manage, and fund, their own future.

We have also taken a number of steps to improve accountability for U.S. assistance. The Agency has created a new division to oversee implementing partners and fight fraud, waste and corruption. This division has already completed more than 40 suspension and debarment actions against programs that were failing to provide transparent and accountable assistance. And we also launched the Accountable Assistance for Afghanistan initiative last fall to help ensure that the Agency is taking the necessary steps to prevent the likelihood of our assistance falling into the wrong hands.

This strategy appears to be paying off. Once shuttered bazaars in Kandahar and Helmand are now thriving, and former opium fields are planted with high-yield seed. The economy, food security, literacy, employment, and life expectancies all continue to rise, the government is more capable, and the democratic system more resilient. Afghan women's access to education, health care, economic opportunity, and political representation continue to rise. Millions of Afghans are seeing the possibility of a better, stable future.

We are under no illusions about the challenges we face in Afghanistan. Every day our staff and our partners are under threat. Security increases our costs, and we must spend significant effort to safeguard taxpayer funds. If it were easy, we wouldn't be there.

The results we've delivered thus far will enable the president to carefully draw down U.S. resources in Afghanistan, handing responsibility over to a more stable, increasingly prosperous country. And it is this progress that will help bring American troops home more quickly. Civilian assistance has been central to these gains and will only increase in importance as Afghans take the lead in forging their own future.

Editor's Note: This entry first appeared on Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel and USAID's Impact Blog.



Ashim C.
June 10, 2011

Ashim C. in India writes:

Improvements being as impressive as this, it should be argued that US and other NATO forces should not be withdrawn hastily to cleanse this country of extremism and provide such other supports as may be necessary so that an example may be set to show how peace and ridding a nation from extremism based on religious bigotry can improve quality of life for more and more people. If US can achieve all these under it's leadership, one imagines it would be appreciated in USA.

This report also creates an impression that extremists have fanned out elsewhere and are in hybernation. There should be a credible rehabilitation scheme for them specifically. That scheme can be carefully conditioned and implemented to cut the emotional appeal of extremist groups.

New Mexico, USA
June 10, 2011

Eric in New Mexico writes:

( From a recent press conference with Sec. Gates)

Q: Last remark, if you allow -- that there was a waste of money in Afghanistan; how do you evaluate this?

SEC. GATES: "That's a no-brainer. Of course there's been a waste of money in Afghanistan. You tell -- you show me a war where there hasn't been a waste of money.

Now, I personally think that the -- that the report was primarily focused on development projects, and I think that the leadership of AID and the State Department pushed back on that yesterday and the fact that a number of the recommendations have already been taken in this administration to correct some of those problems. But you know, we have three different oversight bodies just under ISAF in terms of monitoring contracts. We wouldn't have those if we didn't know we had a problem in effectively administering contracts, and so I end -- I came -- one of the things that I -- that I benefit from -- I'm digressing here a bit, but this is a useful opportunity -- one of the things that I do every time I visit our troops is to sit down and have lunch or a meal with junior officers and junior enlisted.

In my meeting with junior officers, with captains, one of them talked about the desire to bring electricity to one of the forward operating bases, and a contractor's bid was $240,000 to do that. They went out and jerry-rigged something for a thousand dollars.

So what I suggested to General Rodriguez, when we were in the helicopter together, was, I -- one of these oversight bodies at ISAF needs to establish a hotline that is made known to every American officer and NCO throughout Afghanistan, because they see this stuff up close, better and faster than almost anybody, and if they think the government or the military is getting ripped off, then for them to have a number of one of these investigative groups to call to give them a tip -- so they told me they were going to go ahead, and that's basically a no-cost way to get information to those who are supervising these -- to those who would investigate contractors who aren't behaving themselves."

--end excerpt--

I'm a little suprised that such a mechanism for accountability hasn't already become "standard procedure" in assuring accountability to the American public whenever this nation engages in full-spectrum development initiatives in any country we get involved in a "nation-building" project to help a people build one anew for themselves, from the ashes of conflict.


New Mexico, USA
June 10, 2011

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Mr. Thier,

The photo lends form to the thought that importing mechanized farm equipment (tractors, etc.) on some form of micro lend-lease to each Afghan village would do a lot to spur agricultural development and the general economic outlook while helping restore Afghanistan to a place where it is once again a "breadbasket" of the region.

Keep up the good work,



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