Russian Roulette

Policy Paper
May 18, 2012

The strategic partnership agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that was signed by Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai on May 1, 2012 did not address several critical questions, the most important of which is whether, and to what degree, the international community will continue to fund the Afghan government after 2014. Addressing the Afghan government’s budget needs is to be a major focus of the upcoming Chicago summit. As well it should be: the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s stability in the years after 2014 is not the Taliban, but fracturing among the patronage networks that currently collaborate within the Afghan government. If the Afghan government is to remain cohesive after 2014, international assistance should be structured to bolster its internal coherence, not just sustain the Afghan National Security Forces’ (ANSF) ability to counter the Taliban.

A decade before the United States began its campaign to purge the Taliban and establish a sustainable Afghan government hostile to al-Qaeda, the Soviet Union was watching the government it helped build in Afghanistan crumble into civil war. Despite valid criticisms of the Soviet Union’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics and the mythology surrounding the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahidin, virtually all studies of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan conclude that, “it was not on the battlefield where Soviet strategy failed but in their efforts to influence Afghan social dynamics and to address crucial economic sustainability issues.”[i] The Soviet–backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) collapsed when the Soviet Union stopped providing financial assistance that could be distributed to and stolen by the various warlord-led patronage networks working with the DRA in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal. Despite many differences between Soviet and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) counterinsurgency techniques, the current Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) is weak in many of the same ways as its DRA predecessor. Most importantly, both governments are fundamentally reliant on foreign aid in order to maintain tenuous agreements between patronage networks. When the aid to the DRA disappeared, the government collapsed; in lieu of a major, and long-term, international commitment to Afghanistan’s budget, a similar break-up is likely in the years after 2014.

The dependence on foreign aid to sustain political accommodation constitutes a “corruption paradox” in Afghanistan: the misappropriation of international assistance lubricates the implicit political covenant holding the current Afghan government’s coalition together, but it also advances the failure of that Afghan government in the long-run by preventing the state from developing a viable revenue structure.  ISAF Commander General John Allen alluded to that problem during his March 20, 2012 testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, explaining that efforts to counter Afghan corruption at the border, inland customs depots, and airports were necessary to allow the government to, “…recoup substantial amounts of revenue to Afghan government coffers.”[ii] The United States has reportedly agreed upon a plan to sponsor the ANSF that would require $4.1 billion per year. But that amount represents only a fraction of the Afghan public expenditures necessary to sustain the government and encourage it to develop self-sufficiency.[iii] Moreover, the focus on the ANSF is designed to counter outside threats to the Afghan state and does not adequately deal with the danger of internal fractures. A simple cost estimate for the entirety of the American strategy in Afghanistan after 2014 suggests it will cost between $13 billion and $25.5 billion annually. Although some of those costs are likely to be shared with allies, U.S. taxpayers will be responsible for funding the vast majority.

If the international community had enforced close controls over aid distribution during the past decade—meaning spending less money more wisely—the Afghan state might have developed more effective revenue mechanisms. But that debate is academic today: the international community did not spend wisely and the Afghan government does not have reliable revenue mechanisms. In the medium- to long-run, fiscal unsustainability and aid dependence is a recipe for state failure and civil war in Afghanistan.  That, rather than the Taliban, is the most important threat to the Afghan state, particularly because political consensus favoring assistance to Afghanistan in donor countries is likely to crack when most troops come home in 2014.  As they do, domestic pressure in donor countries, including the United States, to reduce the amount of aid to Afghanistan will increase. Aid is likely to fall. In this scenario, the Afghan government, still unable to generate sufficient revenue independently, will not be able to support governance measures outside of the security forces; warlords will have less incentive to tolerate power sharing and the authority of Kabul. Afghanistan will likely return to civil war.

That conclusion is essentially independent of any judgment about the strength of the Taliban, the effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces relative to its enemies, or the wisdom of various local security programs, such as the Afghan Local Police. Debates about these issues play an overly large role in policy discourse about Afghanistan. For all of the talk about population-centric counterinsurgency, American strategic discourse has always been enemy-centric. But the Afghan government’s center of gravity is the political coalition among its constituent patronage networks—and the largest threats to that coalition are the longstanding animosities between those networks. Those animosities have been suppressed in the face of ISAF’s troops-backed political pressure and the prospect of co-opting foreign aid pouring into Afghanistan. Those stabilizing pressures will shift dramatically after 2014, which means that NATO’s primary focus should not be on securing a peace agreement between the government and the Taliban after 2014, but designing a strategy for a sustainable agreement between the patronage network leaders inside the Afghan government.

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[i]Anton Minkov and Gregory Smolnyec, “Economic Development in Afghanistan During the Soviet Experience in Afghanistan,” Centre for Operational Research and Analysis, August 2007

[ii]John Allen Testimony to House Armed Services Committee March 20, 2012

[iii]Greg Jaffe “U.S., Allies, and Afghan Government Ready Plan for End of Combat Operations in 2014” The Washington Post April 18, 2012