At the January 2010 London Conference on Afghanistan, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, outlined Australia’s commitment to a more coordinated and effective international civilian effort in support of Afghanistan’s security, stability and development. An enhanced Australian civilian presence in Afghanistan is an important step in instituting new leadership structures that marry military, political and aid priorities. The expansion of Australia’s civilian presence is long overdue. In a country wrought by three decades of conflict and disorder, military means alone will never secure long lasting peace or security.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard provided further clarity on Australia’s long-term development investment in Afghanistan during last year’s parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, stating that ‘Australia will not abandon Afghanistan, we must be very realistic about the future. Transition will take some years; we will be engaged through this decade at least. Good government in the country may be the work of an Afghan generation’. However, it remains unclear whether Australia’s development assistance is expected to increase significantly over the next few years or whether it will be sustained at similar levels over a longer period of time. The latter would appear a more sensible option in a context of low institutional capacity and high levels of corruption.
Since 2006, Australia’s development assistance to Afghanistan has grown rapidly. Afghanistan is now the fourth largest recipient of Australia’s official development assistance, totalling $123 million in 2010–11. AusAID currently funds programs that operate either at the national level or specifically within Uruzgan Province. Approximately 50% of its assistance is to national programs administered by the World Bank Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF). This program helps to provide basic services to meet the significant development challenges across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Where nine million Afghans (36% of the population) live in absolute poverty and five million ‘non-poor’ live on less than $2 a day.
In 2010–11 Australia’s development assistance to Urzugan Province will increase to between 14 and 20%. This is up from 10% in 2009–2010. Although it is encouraging that a majority of Australia’s development assistance is not targeted to one specific province, the recent increase in Australia’s assistance to Uruzgan demonstrates aid is being used for political and military purposes in support of the ISAF counter-insurgency strategy. Caution should be applied to further increases to Uruzgan, particularly as some have perceived the province as being ‘aid saturated’.
Defence spending in Afghanistan also increased significantly with the deployment of Australian troops to Uruzgan in 2006. The ADF is appropriately focused on security sector reform and building the operational capacity of the Afghan National Security Force. The ADF, alongside its Dutch coalition partner, also engaged in a wide range of reconstruction projects.
The ADF, however, does not disaggregate its aid operations from military operations in Afghanistan. Nor does it currently evaluate the development impact of its reconstruction projects. The ADF-supported development projects have not been evaluated for cost effectiveness, impact or outcome. It is also unclear whether baseline surveys or ongoing risk assessments for project beneficiaries are completed prior to project development and implementation. Instead, it would appear that inputs are measured rather than outcomes.
While appreciative of security implications, the lead taken by other countries such as the Canadian Government in releasing information reporting on military development activities should serve as a model for Australia. If documented, this would provide a stronger evidence base to inform discussion as to whether Australia’s military-led aid efforts in Uruzgan Province are working to achieve stablisation objectives, increase peace dividends, improve security and are cost effective. At present this premise is untested.
There are no quick fixes in Afghanistan. Progress there is described by US authorities as slow and incremental, with only modest gains in security, governance and development in operational priority areas.
A major Tufts/Feinstein Institute study on hearts and minds activities in Afghanistan, partly funded by AusAID, has found dissatisfaction with post-2001 development activities, including complaints that more aid was going to the insecure parts of the country and concerns about uncoordinated reconstruction projects funded by the US Commander’s Emergency Response Program. Respondents in Faryab Province in the north ascribed insecurity largely to ethnic and political party factors, unemployment, poverty and poor governance. Corruption and poor governance were seen as providing insurgents with an opportunity to gain a foothold among disillusioned communities.
These findings suggest the need for reconsideration of the causal factors behind insecurity in Afghanistan including addressing the governance deficit and generating community capacity to demand greater accountability from governing authorities. It also supports the need for a more equitable distribution of development assistance across Afghanistan to generate goodwill, enhance the prospects for security and longer term development gains. A rapid increase in development assistance, including significant increases to Uruzgan Province in the lead up to the 2014 exit date will not provide the desired stabilisation objectives. Instead, it could fuel corruption, undermine the capacity of already weak institutions and further erode the Afghan Government’s legitimacy.
* These are the author’s personal views.