Afghanistan's 'Other' Transition

As the U.S. hands Mehtar Lam over to Afghan forces, two mortars exploded near the city. How will Afghanistan fare under local control?

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People watch as a car is driven away with a coffin in Mehtar Lam / Reuters

Today in Mehtar Lam, the capital the Laghman Province in Eastern Afghanistan, a small, heavily guarded ceremony marked the official hand over of the city from U.S. to Afghan forces.Almost as if to celebrate, two mortars exploded near the city, hurting no one but rattling a few nerves.

The handover ceremony, kept mostly secret from the public, is meant to be a signal declaring Mehtar Lam safe enough for the Afghans to run without American oversight. A single mortar attack doesn't change that -- it's just one in a long string of unremarkable acts of violence most international monitoring groups don't even track any more. But the transition itself is, at best only a partial one. Mehtar Lam has undergone a security transition. What other transitions remain?

According to a 2010 CRS report (pdf), more than half of the $52 billion in foreign aid the U.S. has spend in Afghanistan has gone to training and equipping the Afghan security forces, and 63% of all aid to the country is security-related. With that much money sunk into security, it should be no surprise that the first thing to "transition" to local control would be security. But security is only part of the picture. The remaining 37% of aid money spent in Afghanistan -- about $19 billion -- has gone toward social and economic development efforts, democratization, and governance.

Afghanistan has a GDP of about $18 billion, and 90% of the Afghan government's expenditures are externally financed, according to a 2010 World Bank report (pdf). In the security sector, the imbalance is even worse: the Afghan National Security Forces, which includes the police and Army, will cost at least $6 billion a year in perpetuity, according to Col. John Ferrari, the deputy commander for programs at NATO's training mission. The IMF estimated in 2010 (pdf) that security costs are so high, Afghans will be unable to pay for until 2023.

A state, however, is not just its military. The U.S. seems determined to make it one, however: that's why the transition is only a security one, and not anything else. Despite $19 billion of investment, Afghans remain unable to operate even a minimally functional government without enormous infusions of cash. They can barely run their own Army and Police forces. And their economy, despite nearly double-digit growth the last six years, is almost completely dependent on foreign donors to finance it.

Afghanistan, in other words, is nowhere near in a transition state. When your economy's very existence is dependent on foreign spending -- when you must rely on aid programs, base construction, security contracts, NGO salaries, and hundreds of thousands of dollars a week in handouts from the military -- then any short term transition plan is bound to be ruinous.

Yet, the method of transitioning an aid-dependent state to a fully sovereign state is not yet fully understood. The field of aid and development as a whole is in the midst of its own transition (pdf), away from the 1990s approach of relief-first, and toward a post-2001 concept of aid-as-security. This has resulted in a shift from strict intervention to a "partnership" framework, whereby foreign donors try to align themselves with the host government to deliver programs.

Afghanistan is, in a way, the ultimate expression of how dangerous aid partnerships can be. By almost every account, the international community's aid programs in Afghanistan have made corruption worse than ever before, and made responsible government less, rather than more likely. In other words, aid and development spending has, in many ways, been counterproductive -- and now most major cities in the country are dependent on foreign financing (or illicit financing, often expressed by narcotecture).

Thus, when we think about the coming years of transition in Afghanistan, we're only getting part of the picture. ISAF has been successful at creating a military without a state -- a praetorian state, if you want to be clever about it. But what does that really get you, beyond a military with nothing to serve but itself?

Any talk of transition that does not include economic and political processes will ultimately mean little. The real battle in Afghanistan is not a military one. It is political (and, to a much lesser extent, economic). Without addressing first the country's politics, which are dependent, corrupt, disconnected, and predatory, the security transition will just amount to adding another military actor to the war. The war itself, however, will remain unchanged.