Bottom-up strategy can bypass Karzai

December 6, 2009


One of the main critiques of President Obama’s new plan for Afghanistan is that it depends on the whims of President Hamid Karzai and his cabal in Kabul.

Why send more American troops, this argument goes, if Afghan government corruption continues to fuel the insurgency? Indeed, Obama’s pledge to start withdrawing troops in 18 months — a timeline that could hurt military efforts — is probably aimed more at wringing reforms from Karzai than at mollifying his Democratic base.

Having just returned from Afghanistan, I believe the administration can circumvent Karzai. Obama suggested as much in his speech, but few noticed his point.

“We’ll support Afghan ministries, governors and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people,” the president said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seconded this approach in congressional testimony Wednesday, saying: “Karzai has some very good cabinet ministers. There need to be more of them.”

In other words, U.S. officials will pursue a bottom-up strategy of assisting effective ministers, provincial governors and local officials who deliver services to the people. And they will press Karzai to appoint more such officials in his second term.

“When we see a good governor go in ... the situation can turn in a few months, and we have seen quite a few of them,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in testimony Wednesday.

Governors such as Gulab Mangal, in troubled Helmand province, have helped deliver positive results, assisted by U.S. troops and development aid. Poppy production dropped by nearly a third in Helmand in the past year.

Just as critical are cabinet ministers who deal with economic issues that affect the lives of Afghans in rural areas, where the Taliban has been gaining traction. U.S. success may depend on men most Americans have never heard of, such as Mohammed Ehsan Zia, the minister of rural rehabilitation and development.

Zia’s ministry channels international aid into rural development projects, such as schools, roads, and bridges, that are selected by elected community development councils. This means local villagers have a vested interest in the success of these projects, and are willing to defend them against insurgents. The money is administered by the World Bank to avoid misuse.

Zia said in an interview that U.S. officials are increasing consultations with his ministry on the design of aid — and sharply increasing funding for his ministry. “This has given hope,” he said, “that we will be working on an equal footing for the development of Afghanistan.”

The minister would like to see more international resources go to training his staff in Kabul and outlying districts. Using qualified Afghans to oversee development projects would be far cheaper and more effective than using expensive international contractors, or even State Department staff, who don’t know the language and often can’t travel in dangerous areas.

“If you help the government of Afghanistan to stand on its feet,” Zia said, “this is a necessary step forward for your exit from the country.” He says U.S. civilian aid funds still arrive too slowly, and a promised surge of U.S. technical experts hasn’t arrived yet. If U.S. troops clear militants from an area and rebuilding doesn’t start soon, the gains can be reversed.

The U.S. military, however, is accelerating cooperation with Zia’s ministry, preparing to funnel about $50 million in commanders’ discretionary funds into projects vetted by its community councils. In areas where U.S. Marines are newly arrived, such as Helmand and Farah provinces, commanders are consulting the ministry’s engineers on development plans.

Here you have a critical link between U.S. forces that clear an area and an effective Afghan ministry that can help rebuild it.

This bottom-up approach should be replicated wherever possible. Another talented technocrat, Mohammad Asif Rahimi, the minister of agriculture, irrigation and livestock, seeks more resources to promote agricultural development as a solution to poppy cultivation.

If U.S. officials can press Karzai to appoint competent technocrats in other key development ministries — along with several effective governors — progress can be made despite corruption at the center. And bottom-up gains may be the only way to squeeze the Afghan leader into reforms at the top.


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