Cutting Through the Noise

by Joshua Foust on 5/21/2008 · 3 comments

NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is the only reporter talking about road construction in Afghanistan who is making any sense.

[Former Kunar PRT commander] Legree says once completed, the bridges will connect residents of this isolated part of the province along Pakistan’s border with the rest of Afghanistan — and that the bridges will trigger a chain reaction.

“We’ve seen it everywhere else. Once we build roads through these valleys and we build bridges that connect population areas, economics just go through the roof,” Legree says.

Once people are living above bare subsistence — where they are susceptible to Taliban influences — they begin to care about “starting a small business, selling excess commodities and getting to secondary and tertiary markets,” he says.

Wait, so roads bring economic development, and that contributes to a sustainable security regime as markets develop? That actually sounds about right. And he does us the courtesy of not trying to sell the roads as an IED defeat tool. But this report—which is one of the best (and only) excellent reports to have come out of this part of the country lately—goes further:

Yet many Afghan officials grumble that USAID does not consult with them enough on projects or contracts. They say America may be the country that donates the most money to Afghanistan, but it is also the one that gives Afghans the least control.

U.S. officials argue that there hasn’t been anyone for them to turn the projects over to, that the Afghan government needs to develop more capacity, and that corruption is too rampant for the agency to simply hand over the pot of money.

Hrm, capacity building? Too many projects being funded outside of government channels? This sounds familiar. More after the jump.

The point about how development is the ultimate long-term deterrent to the Taliban and other militants is one that cannot be repeated enough. And building up the government’s capacity to handle and direct this development is the under-reported key to all of this. But don’t read my years of blogging here to hear about this, let’s ask current Afghanistan NGO worker Harry Rud:

Capacity building is the dominant discourse on nigh on all things Afghanistan. Security, drugs and development may be the headlines, but capacity building lies at the centre of all these.

For there to be security, the army and police needs the capacity to protect the country without external assistance. To control opium production, the government and judiciary needs the capacity to curb corruption. For there to be development, teachers and health workers need the capacity to do their jobs effectively, the whole population needs the capacity to farm, to build, to work, to earn an income to feed their families to strengthen the economy.

You get the gist. Capacity building is where it’s at.

It’s true. Through no particular fault of its own, this country seriously lacks capacity. It needs help. Just finding suitably qualified staff with the requisite capacity is a perpetual problem.

Only thing is, I’m not entirely sure what this thing that is so abundantly lacking called ‘capacity’ is, nor how one goes about ‘building’ it.

And therein lies the problem. From where I sit, in a somewhat comfortable chair at a desk in the United States, it is easy to say quite simply, “why, let’s train employees of the MoI to vet and direct funding for projects, and increase the ARTFM to expand the available government resource pool and implement the Afghanistan National Development Strategy and we’ll be off to a good start!” But as Rud documents, the problem is vastly more complex, and requires re-engineering society to a degree that is quite frankly impossible to plan meaningfully (his thoughts on how Afghanistan lacks what he calls a “reading culture” in particular stood out to me). His post is worth reading and digesting in its entirety.

This problem of engineering society like a diesel engine is what lies at the heart of our failures in Afghanistan. Not only is the U.S. government terrible at getting the word out about good news—we have built an almost fully functional telecommunications network in the country, but that news is forgotten in all the talk of asphalt stopping IEDs—but it seems intent on focusing that campaign domestically, rather than internationally. It can barely engineer American society, which is somewhat more familiar to American policymakers than Afghanistan’s many cultures.

Until this conceit is addressed in a realistic way—say, by dropping the demands for an immediate transition to a liberal, tolerant, western system of governance and laws—most of us will be scratching our heads, wondering why all of our earnestness isn’t getting us anywhere.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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David May 21, 2008 at 9:28 pm

A compelling counter to the capacity kool-aid is found in a piece by Sarah Lister, “Understanding State-Building and Local Government,” Crisis States Research Centre, May 2007.

She argues that donors and implementing agencies lament the lack of capacity in Afghanistan and prescribe programs and efforts to increase capacity. Fair enough. But she says that unless the rules and procedures concerning how things are done are changed then the additional capacity will be manipulated for the same nefarious ends.

Donors adore capacity-building training programs and seminars. But if those who are trained are thrown back into the same morass, then it shouldn’t be surprising that little changes.

Lister, who is one of the best when it comes to understanding the challenges faced with respect to sub-national administration, makes it clear that it’s far more difficult to understand, much less tackle the way things are done at the sub-national level. It’s complicated, requires extensive and protracted involvement.

It’s far easier to say that x number of people were trained and sent out and that’s evidence of progress. Those who are trained may get nice shoulder bags and there’s plenty of opportunity to take photographs of the training sessions to adorn annual reports.

In the case of the U.S. on both the civilian and military side, the personnel don’t stick around long enough and don’t have the means to understand what is (or is not) happening to disabuse themselves of their pride in bringing tangible change to Afghanistan through such efforts. It looks good in their annual evaluations and in the home-town newspaper.

Joshua Foust May 23, 2008 at 6:44 am


I agree completely. I was trying to express above that it’s nice to say “let’s build capacity,” but it’s damned tough to implement an actual solution to do so. The Americans in Afghanistan have mostly sidestepped this with CERP funds, and think simply throwing handfuls of cash at construction projects with little coordination in Kabul and little local control is a great idea. It may be in the extremely short term, but it’s not sustainable.

The British, on the other hand, have taken a longer view toward capacity-building, at least officially. But since no one deems it necessary to release effectiveness studies or to publicly establish success metrics, we don’t really know if there is improvement under all the noise generated by their running battles with militants (or AAF, as the U.S. calls them this week).

The two method obviously need to be combined: the breathing room afforded by hundreds of millions of dollars in CERP funds to hire away potential paid militants, along with a deliberate, systematic, sustained long term strategy at establishing and effective, reasonably non-corrupt native bureaucy to handle future projects.

Alas, and you say this too, no one sticks around long enough to see it through, and no one in charge can look beyond the next election cycle to do it. This is one way the old British Empire was so damned successful: they’d commit to an area for years, and their agents would spend many years living locally and carrying out policy. We have become more short term in outlook as time had dragged on, and this is turning into a serious weakness.

fnord May 24, 2008 at 7:54 am

I have great hopes for Kai Eide, Norways top man when it comes to reconstruction. It will be interesting to follow what footprints he will leave. He is supported by approx a cool billion in discret funds from our government, so he has some independent leverage. (I think one of the lessons of Bremer in Iraq and Afghanistan is that a hardcore set of militant auditors with the ability and will to kick ass must be part of any Statebuilding project.)

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