Afghanistan and the Uncertain Metrics of Progress: Part Four: "Hold, Build, and Transition:" The Challenge of Development

Ten years into the Afghan war, aid efforts are beginning to have a major impact in improving the capacity of the Afghan government, and have a new focus on realistic objectives to help Afghanistan recover from more than thirty years of crisis and conflict. There is a new level of realism and experience in the field, a new focus on helping the Afghans help themselves, and progress in the key areas that Afghans feel have the highest priority: education, power, water, school, roads, and prompt justice. Efforts are underway to reform the programming failures and contracting process that has helped to waste up to half of the aid and development funds expended to date, helped corrupt key elements of the Afghan government and power brokers, and grossly distorted the Afghan economy.

The fact remains, however, that most of a decade of efforts in Afghanistan mirrored similar failures in Iraq. There still is no a credible integrated civil-military plan for the war and transition. The UN has failed to provide any meaningful effort to integrate national and NGO aid efforts, nations pursue their own goals and policies and do so in ways that often reflect the priorities of their capitals rather than Afghan needs. Goals like the Afghan national development plan and compact still remain on paper although they have been abandoned in practice.

Actual aid funding is peaking without regard to any clear strategy for transition, and future cuts may well help cause a major recession in 2014 – the year most US and ISAF forces may withdraw, a new presidential election must be held and President Karzai must leave office because of term limits. A civil “surge” will peak without ever having been tied to a meaningful plan to use the personnel involved and at a time when planning is underway to reduce the PRT system it is designed to serve to a few embassy posts with a very different role.

No donor country has provided a credible report on the effectiveness of its aid efforts, tying them to validated requirements, well managed execution, fiscal accountability, and effective project completion and transfer. The UN has never issued a meaningful report on aid activity. Competent and responsible NGOs have played a highly useful role, but many NGOs have done little but consume or waste money without meeting valid Afghan requirements, completing all their projects, and establishing some meaningful form of accountability.

The US, as the largest donor, has failed to lead. The service and sacrifice of those actually in the field has lacked effective management and coordination for most of the war. The US Embassy is only now beginning to develop the tools necessary to measure the effectiveness of aid efforts, and work on some form of credible transition plan. The US State Department and the top leadership of USAID in Washington have not provided credible reporting and accountability on US aid efforts, and the claims made by USAID regarding progress in key areas like heath and education either used absurd criteria like walking distance from health care facilities or use Afghan education statistics that are mathematically absurd.

The Burke Chair has prepared an overview of the metrics and graphics that are available on aid activities to date as part of a seven-part analysis of the trends in the war that reflects the results of a recent trip to Afghanistan. This new report is entitled Afghanistan and the Uncertain Metrics of Progress: Part Four -- “Hold, Build, and Transition:” The Challenge of Development, and is available on the CSIS web site at An earlier report, Victory is Possible But “Fragile and Reversible, provides the context necessary to see how said efforts impact on the broader course of the war, and is available on the CSIS web site at:

The key conclusions of the “Hold, Build, and Transition:” The Challenge of Development report are:

  • Afghan perceptions of both aid activity and the impact of military operations remain very mixed, and current security and aid efforts have not won broad and consistent support from the Afghan people for the US, ISAF, or GIRoA. This may come as “clear and hold” turn to “hold and build,” but the success of this critical aspect of the new strategy remains problematic.
  • Afghan revenues cannot meet the civil needs of the state, much less the combined civil and security needs. Moreover, the flood of outside money has been so largely that it has vastly exceeded Afghan absorption capability, grossly distorted every aspect of the Afghan economy and prices, and served as a driving factor in pushing corruption to unacceptable levels that alienate the Afghan people from their government.
  • The Afghan central government simply does not have the ability to execute its budget. It may want control of the money, but it lacks the ability to manage and use it. Moreover, these problems are made far worse by concentrating the money in key central government ministries rather than allocating substantial amounts to provincial, district, and local authorities. This may prove to be a critical, if not fatal, bloc to effective transition unless major improvements take place in GIRoA capacity and aid is sustained long beyond 2014.
  • Military spending has vastly exceeded civil and aid spending, and the flow of funding is unlikely to change in ways that will make an easy shift from tactical operations to “hold and build” either possible or one that can be properly funded during the period of transition.  One key aspect of these numbers is the fact that perceptions that aid has somehow outpaced military spending or is large compared to national needs – as distinguish from capacity – is simply wrong. The volume of US foreign aid has been extremely low relative to US military spending and spending on the development of Afghan national security forces (ANSF).
  • There is no way to measure the total flow of outside aid or know how it has been allocated. There are no meaningful data on the way in which aid requirements were determined, the effectiveness of aid, or the extent to which aid funds flowed to power brokers and corruption. Countries and NGOs act with minimal coordination and often to meet their political or ideological goals regardless of Afghan needs and urgent priorities created by crisis and war.
  • It is clear that the so-called US civilian surge has had a limited impact to date. Other sources indicate it will peak at some 400 people in the field at just about the time the US begins to sharply cut back on the number of PRTs as part of the transition process, and when serious cuts are likely in the flow of US economic aid funds.
  • Different national military elements have been layered over different civil provincial reconstruction teams. This structure could not adapt effectively at the war in Afghanistan became steadily more serious. NATO and ISAF did make progress in military coordination, but they did not begin to develop effective coordinated plans until the McChrystal exercise in 2009, and national caveats remain a critical problem, as does the lack of an true, integrated, civil-military plan of operations.
  • While efforts have finally been made to create a central coordinator for civil programs, and integrated civil-military plans in 2010, these plans remain largely conceptual. There still are no meaningful unclassified metrics or analyses that show real progress in these areas, that reflect meaningful fiscal controls and measures of effectiveness, or that provide a picture of how civil programs in governance, rule of law, and economic aid relate to military efforts
  • There are signs of positive progress in some key areas of governance. So far, however, the value of such aid has been offset by a series of political tensions and crisis.  Two election crises, and friction between Karzai and the US has offset limited progress at the ministerial, provincial, district and local levels.  The failure to create effective military and civil contracting systems has led to both waste and a flood of funds into a unstable Afghan power structure that has strengthen power brokers, and efforts to create stronger provincial, district, and local levels have met serious resistance and been affected by Taliban and Haqqani assassinations and attacks.
  • Until recently, the police training and expansion effort was decoupled from a rule of law effort that focused narrowly on creating a new formal justice system at the top and allow the Taliban and local power brokers to become the de facto system for local justices. Courts and jails are still often lacking or unable to operate.
  • Governance aid has gradually come to focus on creating more effective ministries, and support of effective governance at the provincial, district, and local levels.
  • There are some material indicators of progress, but they largely ignore the real progress in smaller and local projects in the field, and exaggerate progress at a national level. Some are deeply suspect, and raise serious questions about the integrity of USAID in reporting them. Data on total electric generating capacity is a notorious way of faking progress, since it ignores distribution and the extent to which capacity meets popular needs and expectations. The Afghan MoE data on education are inherently ridiculous. Health data are equally uncertain, and some ridiculous figures are generated that based access to medical care on Afghans being within a two hour walk of a facility. If walking distance measured access to care, the US could eliminate Medicare and Medicaid overnight.
  • Assessments of the Afghan economy and “rising prosperity” credit the direct and indirect impact of massive inflows of aid, and outside military and civil spending, as if they were some form of real growth in GDP, per capita income, and prosperity.   They largely ignore income distribution and its impact on the poor and ordinary Afghans, corruption, inflationary effects, and the outflow of aid money and GIRoA revenues.
  • There is far too little focus on the large class of impoverished Afghans, their dependence on UN and other food aid to survive, the impact of combat, their ability to find alternative source of income to drugs, demographics pressures, and inflows to urban slums. Idealized goals for regional development, mining potential, and becoming a key trade route for Central Asia all seem idealized to the point where the war will be decisively lost and won before they have any major impact – if ever.
  • The ambitious goals set in the Afghan Compact and Afghan National Development Plan have always been empty political hype. A summary graphic on strategy quoted in a GAO report last year projected a 70% shortfall in aid funding for 2012-2013. USAID has now formally admitted this fact, driven in part by domestic US politics that seem like to make FY2011 and FY2012 peak years in the US aid effort, followed by steady cuts in US and other donor funding from 2013 and beyond. As visitors to Afghanistan learn all too quickly, current development plans may live on paper, but are rotting corpses in practice.
  • If anything, aid experts in country are deeply concerned that the basic flow of aid that Afghanistan can absorb and which is critical to a successful transition in 2014 and beyond will not be forthcoming, and sudden cuts in the flow of military and aid spending will trigger a major recession in the year where President Karzai is supposed to leave office because of term limits, US and other ISAF combat forces will be sharply reduced or largely eliminated, and the ANSF will need outside aid funding for

As the final section of the report shows, there is a critical need for real-world transition planning that goes far beyond US and allied force reductions. It is also clear that some of these planning activities are already underway, and the need is recognized by key US, UNAMA, and allied civilians and commanders. The key question is whether such realism can be put into practice in terms of actual plans and budgets, and whether the aid community can find the level of realism and competence to look beyond throwing money into the country, and dealing with donor politics and budget problems, and create something like an effective transition effort.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy