Self-Interest Must Underlie U.S. Help

John Stuart Blackton, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, was director of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and also served in Kabul during the mid-1970s. E-mail:

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah is worried. Western financial commitments to Afghanistan are faltering, and the prospects are bleak. In Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, he notes, aid flowed at an average of $250 per capita per year. In Afghanistan, only $75 per capita has been pledged for this year. For the five years after that, pledges are only about $42 per capita.

Foreign assistance is a relatively recent invention, having really taken root at the end of World War II. In this relatively brief period, foreign assistance has taken various forms and directions, reflecting changing global needs. But always at its core have been the short- and long-term interests of the government doing the giving.

It is very much in the U.S. interest to make sure Afghanistan gets the money it needs to rebuild. But what should we be funding? First, we need to be clear about American interests.

Americans have shown themselves to be particularly interested in funding certain kinds of things in Afghanistan. Programs to promote gender equality, poverty reduction, poppy eradication and the building of a secular government are all popular with the public. But the United States has limited and very specific, strategic interests in Afghanistan, and we need to define and understand them before leaping to fund specific solutions and programs -- and especially before trying to encourage a comprehensive national transformation.


Even as we finance the very real, on-the-ground needs identified and agreed to by all factions in Afghanistan -- things like reconstruction of essential infrastructure, reestablishment of basic government functions like tax collection and the de-mining of the countryside -- we need to keep our national interest in mind.

America’s preeminent goal must be the elimination of sanctuary for terrorists. This means we need to support a national government in Afghanistan that can effectively carry out the minimum basic functions of a nation-state: enforcing laws, maintaining the integrity of its borders, conducting foreign affairs and otherwise meeting the health, education and security needs of its people.

We need to support these goals without losing sight of Afghanistan’s history and political traditions. To protect itself from Russian, Persian and British imperial designs, Afghanistan began to take on basic elements of a nation-state in the 19th century. For most of the 20th century, Afghanistan was a recognizable nation, with a government that carried out the essential functions of statehood. It was not a carbon copy of any Western democracy, but it was a successfully functioning state.

The balance between the capital and the outlying regions in Afghanistan was more delicate than the models that took shape under Napoleon or Bismarck. It was more like cantonal Switzerland, leaving many of the details of governance, law and education to local authorities in deference to the linguistic, religious and ethnic mosaic of Afghan society. The division of power and authority between Kabul and the provinces was not haphazard; rather, it was a carefully crafted approach to the idea of a state that worked for Afghanistan.

Two points must be central to any Western assistance effort: First, the job is to reconstitute, not to reinvent, the state in Afghanistan; and second, our goal should be to reconstruct the core functions of a central government while leaving adequate space at the periphery to accommodate the traditional expectations of moderate regional autonomy in Afghanistan.

American national interests do not require that conservative Pushtun families unveil their daughters, nor that secular law replace religious law in customary and tribal matters, nor that an exact replica of Western-style governance be installed in Kabul.

Aggressive foreign efforts to transform Afghan society could well bring the fragile government of President Hamid Karzai to an untimely end. Afghanistan’s King Amanullah lost his life for his efforts to promote Western-style social reforms in the 1920s. The Russians were hated and ultimately expelled, less for their godless communism than for their attempts to transform and Westernize the Afghan social agenda.

A Marshall Plan approach to Afghanistan, as some in Washington are calling for, would be overkill. America’s national stake in Europe at the end of World War II was vastly larger and more complex than our stake in Afghanistan. But one thing worth remembering about the Marshall Plan is that, except in Germany, its goals were to restore governments and societies, not to transform them. America helped put Belgium and France back together again but didn’t attempt to change the fundamentals of Belgian and French politics and society.

In Afghanistan, we have publicly articulated idealistic, transformational goals for the country. While neither the U.S. government nor other donors have actually yet delivered much reconstruction assistance, our rhetoric frightens much of the leadership in the Karzai government.

At the last two donor summits in Kabul, Karzai and his ministers have been very blunt about priorities. The Afghan government has said plainly that rural health clinics and girls schools are all very well but that Afghanistan won’t survive if its major roads are not put back in order and the core functions of his government given sufficient wherewithal to earn legitimacy in the eyes of postwar Afghans.

The U.S. has relatively straightforward interests in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. They are limited interests, but they are also urgent ones. After a year of foot-dragging, the American government and its allies should move promptly to provide Karzai’s government with the capacity for minimal but effective governance. We should assist in rebuilding the core national infrastructure without which an Afghan nation cannot survive. We should do so because it is in our interest and in the interest of Afghanistan.