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What have we learned about stabilization in Afghanistan? Not much.

Written by Ashley Jackson

As of this year, Afghanistan has experienced ten years of stabilization intervention, but what is there to show for it? Marked by massive expenditure with little to no accountability, and often marred by waste, stabilization in Afghanistan started out with arguably honorable aims. However, as troops prepare to leave in 2014, what legacy will be left behind?

Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) began with perhaps the best of intentions: to fill the vacuum of law and order left by the fall of the Taliban and undertake reconstruction, badly needed in a country devastated by three decades of conflict. The security situation was perceived to be relatively benign, with the major threats being criminals and warlords seeking to reassert power.

PRTs did some positive work, often acting as the only authority in a security vacuum, and were appreciated, at least early on, by Afghans. They were no substitute, however, for the effective governance and security required. PRTs' predominantly military staff received little to no training, lacked the technical skills required to carry out development work and focused more on short term quick impact projects instead of the long term state-and-peace-building work that was so badly needed.  Rather than seeking to build Afghan capacity - a central component of their mandate - they often worked around the government. The PRTs also created winners and losers, supporting local strongmen or funneling money through often corrupt construction companies.  

Despite early U.S. government acknowledgement of these problems, PRTs expanded rapidly, led by a multitude of different nations that were often unable to effectively coordinate amongst each another.  In 2008, the US Congress described the situation as one with "no clear definition of the PRT mission, no concept of operations or doctrine, no standard operating procedures."

As insecurity spread, the dual security and reconstruction roles of PRTs became increasingly schizophrenic. One incident in Ghazni province in 2004 saw PRT officials offering to build a well for villagers just weeks after they had fired rockets into the very same village killing nine children.  Unsurprisingly, residents were hardly consoled and Afghan goodwill for the PRTs was quickly eroded.

But the amount of money available for military-led development continued to increase.  In 2009, the US Army published the Commanders' Guide to Money as a Weapons System, which defined aid as "a nonlethal weapon" to be utilised to "win the hearts and minds of the indigenous population to facilitate defeating the insurgents." Aid devoted to these objectives rapidly increased: annual funding for the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP), the primary U.S. PRT funding stream, rose from $200m in 2007 to $1bn in 2010.

No centralised, comprehensive records appear to have been kept on the PRTs, either within the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) or the Afghan government, and rarely even within PRTs. When auditors found CERP project files incomplete or non-existent in 2009, CERP project managers told US auditors that their focus "was on obligating funds for projects rather than monitoring their implementation." Unsurprisingly there has been no comprehensive monitoring and evaluation of CERP-funded programmes; the most thorough examination is a 2011 SIGAR audit of CERP programming in the insecure eastern province of Laghman. It's a harrowing read.  Of the $53m CERP funds allocated to the PRT between 2008 and 2011, 92% (or $49.2m) was dedicated to projects found by SIGAR to be "at risk or have questionable outcomes." Funds were not managed in accordance with standard operating procedures, which were finally established in 2009, and none of the 69 projects had sufficient documentation to track outcomes. Again and again, the audit found the Afghan government unable to take over PRT projects.

PRTs were not the only instrument of stabilization. Between 2003 and 2012, USAID obligated $1.1bn in stabilization funding to for-profit contractors but such projects fared no better. One example is USAID's ‘flagship counterinsurgency program' the Local Government and Community Development Programme (LGCD). The budget and timelines for the $400m, five-year project mushroomed despite questionable early evaluation findings and the fact that over half of LGCD's expenditures were on staff costs and security.  USAID officials were unable to visit several sites because it was too dangerous. As for its impact, the USAID Inspector-General reported ‘the project's overall success seemed highly questionable.'

Part of the problem is that the goals of stabilization in Afghanistan were never comprehensively, consistently or clearly articulated.  Stabilization works on the assumption that conflicts are fuelled by grievances about poverty or neglect, and that development projects that improve governance, opportunities and services can ‘stabilize' conflict situations. But evidence is lacking or discouraging.  A 2011 Tufts university study found while there was some evidence some stabilization interventions can work in the short term, there is little evidence of long term security gains and much more indicating a tendency to create local conflict and ‘perverse incentives' to maintain insecurity.

In an world where aid agencies are required to prove their ‘value for money' and aid-receiving governments are pressured to become fully transparent, the lack of systematic, government-led push for accountability for the multi-billion dollar investments is hypocritical and irresponsible - and speaks to an ideological unwillingness to address the problems and pitfalls of stabilization approaches.

The lack of interest in documenting the impact of the stabilization efforts - both what works and what doesn't - does not bode well for the rest of the world. As global focus turns to other complex emergencies in Mali, Yemen and Somalia, stabilization is increasingly the approach of choice. Without recognizing systematic problems, stabilization interventions are unlikely to improve and begin to fulfill their lofty goals. After the troop drawdown in Afghanistan next year, perhaps we'll have a better idea of the true legacy of stabilization. But for now, the future looks worryingly unstable.