As President Obama's date for commencing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan approaches, the question becomes will the U.S. once again abandon the Afghan people to their fate. In the aftermath of the Mujaheddin's successful routing of the Soviets in the Nineties, the culmination of Zbigniew Brzezinski's desire to give the Russians "their own Vietnam," a tragedy ensued in which over 2 million Afghans starved or froze to death in the following years, as rival factions fought for power with the majority of the population, as always, caught in the middle. With the economic infrastructure in ruins, there was nothing to build upon, and war became the primary business, with the ability to control a piece of the opium trade a major prize.
It was against this entirely avoidable backdrop that characters like bin Laden rose to prominence. Choosing a side is the best course for security and food, since armed men can take what they want. The calculus of remaining neutral is simple: nothing from nothing leaves nothing.
After ten years of exorbitant military spending in Afghanistan, $400 billion or $13,000 for every Afghan man, woman and child (which is nearly 50 times the entire yearly income of the typical Afghan,) these heartbreaking video reports show the extent of the problem of poverty and starvation:
Starvation in Kandahar - video report
Starvtion in Lashkar Gah - video report
Malalai Joya, the former member of the Afghan Parliament who was ejected when she called many of her colleagues "criminals" said in 2009:
"20 million people out of the roughly 30 million population of Afghanistan are living below the poverty line, and the rate of unemployment is over 50%."
And the UN in 2009 called hunger "Afghanistan's biggest killer."
When one thinks of trying to help the general population in Afghanistan escape its economic misery, the first word the media has conditioned us to associating with these efforts is "corruption." But overlooked is the remarkable success of the National Solidarity Program (NSP,) under the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD.) Which has already implemented 45,000 small projects involving grants averaging $35,000, employing thousands of the neediest of Afghans. The World Bank calls the MRRD: "a government within a government..."
Now according to the military's Special Inspector General for the Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR,) established by Congress in 2004 to evaluate what works in reconstruction and what doesn't, 70% of NSP funding has reached small Afghan communities, with most of the rest going toward the overhead of expanding the reach of the new institution into every part of the country, now nearly complete, which means that an even greater proportion of funding will reach its target. After a rigorous evaluation SIGAR says:
"We found that [the controls instituted by the NSP] provided reasonable assurance that NSP funds were used as intended."
Some will say that they are against foreign assistance in principle, but Afghanistan is a bit different from other countries. It isn't every country we have meddled in, bombed, and otherwise made it impossible for people to just live their lives. If there ever was a candidate for reparations for superpower chess games, Afghanistan is it.
Funding for NSP projects are passed down from a special account for international donors, such as the U.S., managed by the World Bank. The World Bank says: "there is no other program which has NSP's reach and scale."
It would seem that as the U.S. seeks to leave stability in the country after the sacrifice of so many American lives, it is time to "double down" on the work of this pocket of dedicated Afghan public servants, who pass muster even by the rigorous accounting standards of SIGAR. But amazingly, the NSP has historically suffered a shortage of funds, and hunger and lack of income opportunities persist as enormous problems.
In the one instance in which the SIGAR report found fraud and abuse, the hawalla dealer who absconded with funds was immediately reported by the NSP, and is now in custody due to prompt action. In another instance, media reports of the Taliban taking a substantial "cut" of NSP funds in Farah province prompted the NSP to halt all funding pending an investigation. The investigative committee, which included international donor oversight including a USAID technical representative, concluded the report was "baseless."
The National Solidarity Program is not a hand-out, or an attempt to "buy-out" insurgents. It is dignified help providing tools, wages, and technical assistance, for work which is largely done by Afghans, for projects Afghans want and desire: those which build the basis of their future prosperity. Like pipeline for clean water, sewer and sanitation project, improved secondary (dirt and gravel) roads, irrigation, and other projects which by definition contribute to economic sustainability. Better roads make it easier to get goods to market. Improved irrigation improves crop yields. Electric power line enables small businesses and industry.
Lt. Colonel Edward Corcoran, USA-retired, Ph.D., and Senior Fellow on national security issues at GlobalSecurity.org, writes that Afghanistan is now at a "tipping point" in which the time is ripe for transition from military to economic strategies. It is time to build on the most successful of experiments from the last 10 years. Dr. Corcoran notes that there has been over-reliance on "government-to-government programs" in which Afghans have essentially been told, "some one else will transform your country." He points to the NSP as an example of a program in which the narrative will shift to one in which "individual Afghans can and will transform their own country, and the United States will help."
The NSP has responsibly spent over $1.5 billion since 2002, and has the manpower, expertise, and resource capacity to take charge of development on a massive scale.
Col. Chris Kolenda, a special adviser to ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his director of strategy for reintegration in Afghanistan, said to the Army Times of the NSP:
“The Afghans have this great saying — ‘If you sweat for it, you protect it’ — and so getting highly localized development in the hands of communities is critical...The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has a great program called the National Solidarity Program, where money is given in block grants from an Afghan reconstruction trust fund directly to a village, so the village owns the project, the village operates the project, the people in the village are employed.”
In 2010 the New York Times noted that among the insular Pashtun Shinwari tribe, the NSP has "gained much admiration...for the efficient way it has dispensed development aid."
In contrast to USAID projects which have huge security costs, NSP security costs are little. The Taliban is conscious of the political cost of attacking projects which are backed and "owned" by the community, as opposed to foreign contractors. Schools built by the NSP have been referred to as "the schools the Taliban won't torch."
Most Afghans still by and large dislike the Taliban and its ideology intensely, and do not want to see it return as a government. For the U.S. to continue to spend $100 billion a year on military operations but not $5 billion on tried and proven programs like the NSP is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Congressman John Tierney even found last year that a substantial portion of Pentagon funds for the overland transportation of U.S. military supplies goes directly to insurgent groups as "protection payments." The theater of the absurd has been elevated to world stage proportions in Afghanistan.
As Congress this week debates and votes upon the Pentagon and war budget, please tell your congressman to support an appropriation to the NSP equal to what the US spends militarily in the country in just two weeks, $4 billion. TO SEE WHAT YOU CAN DO PLEASE CLICK HERE.
The research group Jobs for Afghans estimates this would fund one to two years of robust, employment-generating development, hiring a critical mass of unemployed Afghans. Afghans are bone-weary of war. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, commander of U.S. forces in 2007, told Congress in testimony that year: ""Much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to support their families."
To miss the opportunity to bring stability to the country, at such little cost relative to what we are already spending, will not and should not be forgiven by future generations seeking a more peaceful world.
"If you are sane, and you reading these words on my grave, please keep walking. For the sane know nothing of love." - Grave marker in Afghanistan, from film documentary "Shadow of Afghanistan"
Many of us remember our unforgettable Skype conversations with the youth of Afghan Youth Peace Initiative earlier this year. This message from Abdulai is entitled "If you should kill me unawares"