Monday, January 28, 2013

The Wrong Points of Emphasis, Again

James Traub has a column over at Foreign Policy talking about nation-building and the anticipated withdrawal of US forces Afghanistan and with it a far decreased US commitment. Traub teaches nation-building and challenged his students to consider Haiti and Afghanistan as examples. His students' optimism was far greater then it would seem Traub's own. I have to take issue with a couple things though.

First, I think it's a mistake to separate the COIN strategy from the development strategy. They work hand in hand. Without a doubt the military and civilian ability and inclination to provide a sustained COIN surge is rather limited. We're seeing the limits of it in Afghanistan today, but to argue that we should divide out aid projects from defense projects is wrong-headed.

I would argue, if anything, the biggest issue has been the failure of the United States to capitalize on "whole of government" approaches to nation-building. State and USAID aren't used to, or excited to work with DOD on projects. Initially DOD was frustrated by the gaps in State and USAID's ability, but since they've been begging both agencies to do more. I think the problem in Afghanistan is more US and international entities not getting and living on the same page as it is about individual programs failing. Too much happened in a vacuum and that's just not going to work.

The second issue I have is with Traub's suggestion things are likely to get better if we give money directly to the Afghan government. It would seem a wildly optimistic view of the government in Kabul. What sort of leakage can we expect if we give the Afghan government $8 billion dollars, directly, in aid? What can we expect to trickle down to real people? I feel like Traub is suggesting we reward people for stealing elections.

A better nation-building strategy is to bring "whole of government" solutions to bear in partnership with vetted, transparent Afghan ministries. Let's not write check, let's collaborate on projects. I think it'd be more effective to be a partner in nation building rather than just doing alone or just writing checks.

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