Afghanistan, Foreign Aid and U.S. National Interests

It has been almost a year since American forces and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan defeated the Taliban regime and liberated Kabul.

It has been almost a year since American forces and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan defeated the Taliban regime and liberated Kabul. With a growing sense of confidence about America's military strategy in Afghanistan, attention has turned to the post-conflict situation and the role of foreign assistance, whether described as "securing our military gains", "nation-building", "economic and humanitarian assistance" or simply "development".

Not all that attention has been laudatory. Afghanistan's foreign minister asked in a recent Washington Post op-ed: "Are we on the right course toward recovery and reconstruction? Above all, what do we-donors as well as Afghans-need to do now to ensure success?"

The Afghan Foreign Minister worries that Western financial commitment to Afghanistan is faltering. He noted that in four recent post-conflict cases-Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor-donors spent an average of $250 per capita per year in aid. In Afghanistan, only $75 per capita has been pledged for this year, sliding down to $42 per capita for the next five years. And he went on to ask: "Why such a discrepancy?"

The issue is a complex one, and it is useful to recall how foreign assistance became a part of American foreign policy and what roles it has played in the past. Although force and diplomacy capture the headlines, foreign assistance remains an important, if not always well-understood, instrument of U.S. economic and security policy.

Foreign assistance is a relatively recent tool of American foreign policy, with a history largely defined since the end of World War II. In this relatively brief period, foreign assistance has taken various forms and directions reflecting changing global needs and a changing series of short- and long-term interests of the U.S. government.

The aims and content of foreign assistance programs have also reflected the rise and decline of different - often competing - economic, political and security ideas.

Foreign assistance has typically involved transfers of capital, technology, equipment, food and advisors who provide technical assistance. It has sometimes focused on broad programs (the reconstruction of Western Europe in the late 1940s) and country strategies (assisting Russia to move towards a market economy in the 1990s). At other times, the focus has been on specific projects such as the Friendship Highway in Thailand (1960s) or American financing to build agricultural and technical universities in India (1960s).

Progress in meeting the American policy objectives in individual countries continues to hinge, in part, on the adequacy and appropriateness of this external assistance. But foreign assistance also is limited by the absorptive capacity of the recipient country -limits shaped by each country's unique stock of human resources and physical resources, and, above all, by the depth of its political will as demonstrated by its ability to conceive, promulgate, implement and sustain critical domestic policies.


Fifty years of operational experience has demonstrated conclusively that foreign assistance cannot replace the political will of nations. Aid helps willful nations achieve their goals but does little for nations that lack political vigor.

The largest and most costly development program ever undertaken by the United States has been our quarter century of assistance to Egypt. Massive and sustained foreign assistance, however, has not changed the fact that illiteracy rates in Egypt are amongst the worst in the world, while much more modest investments in the technical universities of India helped to foster the Indian "silicon valley" in Bangalore and the Green Revolution in wheat and rice production in the sub-continent.

And so, what to do in Afghanistan? First, and foremost, we need to be clear about American interests.

America has limited, but very specific, strategic interests in Afghanistan, and we need to define and understand them before leaping to solutions and specific programs - and especially before committing to the idea of comprehensive national transformation.

America needs to be prudent even as we finance the very real, on the ground, needs identified and agreed to by all factions of the Afghan polity (e.g., reconstruction of essential infrastructure, reconstitution of basic government functions like tax collection, de-mining of the countryside, etc.). We should be even more circumspect before we consider making financial and organizational commitments to the no less real but far more problematic needs championed by the international development community (e.g., secular rule of law, gender equality, poverty reduction, poppy eradication, etc.).

While each of these categories is legitimate, and indeed virtuous, on their own terms, they are not necessarily within the scope of American interests or responsibility. What, in fact, is our pre-eminent national interest in Afghanistan? Clearly, it is the elimination of sanctuary for terrorists. This will require a national government in Afghanistan which can effectively carry out the minimum basic functions of a nation-state: providing essential law-and-order functions; assuming responsibility for its borders and for those who transit those borders; and other minimal attributes of governance including the conventional functions of foreign affairs, an interior ministry, ministries of education and health, a national system of justice, courts and police.

The task of defining our foreign assistance objectives in Afghanistan fits within a broader strategic framework. Assistance resources are limited requiring us to set priorities among competing interests, and to accommodate the allocation of resources between multiple objectives. Means and ends must be judiciously matched within strategies designed to accomplish national objectives.