Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to Tokyo this weekend for a key conference with 70 countries, where the United States and its allies hope to nail down aid to Afghanistan for a decade to come.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has said he’s seeking international aid of $4 billion annually for Afghanistan after 2014, when NATO troops are set to hand off security control to the Afghan security forces.
The conference comes on the heels of Clinton’s unannounced visit to Kabul Saturday to announce the designation of Afghanistan a ‘major non-NATO ally.”
But donor countries are growing increasingly wary about giving with corruption still rampant in the Afghanistan government. Analysts call corruption one of the biggest roadblocks to a successful transition in Afghanistan.
In addition, some analysts argue that the pledges being collected in Japan won’t wind up being kept amid the uncertainty in Afghanistan, particularly with elections there set to occur in 2014.
USAID officials have acknowledged that overall aid to Afghanistan will decline over the next decade, but there are concerns that if the drop is too steep, Afghanistan will revert to its 1990s state of chaos after the Soviet Union left and the Taliban took control.
There’s also the fear on the military side of things that the Taliban will overrun the Afghan security forces after NATO troops depart.
“We don’t know where we’re going to be at the end of 2014 — you can have anything from a peace process to an open civil war,” said Anthony Cordesman, a Pentagon adviser and analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Tokyo conference this weekend, like the May NATO Summit in Chicago, is designed to alleviate concerns among both NATO countries and those in the region that Afghanistan can remain stable.
The Obama administration has reached a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan through the end of 2024, but the details have yet to be worked out about what sort of U.S. presence will remain after the Afghan security forces take control in 2014.
Alex Thier, USAID’s director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said at a Brookings Institution panel discussion this week that the conferences and strategic partnership “are all about showing the Afghan people and the Taliban, and the regional actors and our allies — and indeed ourselves — that after another decade of joint action and investment, we are not leaving Afghanistan to the wolves.”
But there’s already opposition in Congress and among defense analysts over a plan to drawdown the Afghan National Security Force to 230,000 by 2017, from a high of 352,000.
The reduction will save more than $2 billion per year, but some question whether those dollars are worth the cost of shedding 100,000 troops and police officers.
While the Obama administration and NATO say that the 352,000 was always intended as a surge force, there have been reports in recent months that one reason for the reduction is a weariness from countries to spend the extra money on the Afghan troops.
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said at a House Armed Services hearing last week that the reduction risks creating “a power vacuum.”
“They are concerned about being able to transition those 120,000 people into some productive element of society there and not have them become part of the insurgency,” Wittman said of Afghan officials.
But what’s likely the biggest issue in Afghanistan going forward, analysts say, is government corruption.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that corruption was the “800-pound gorilla” in Afghanistan during the Brookings event on Afghanistan he moderated.
O’Hanlon said that some in Congress are going to quickly drop their support for maintaining U.S. aid levels to Afghanistan.
“To me it's not credible that we're going to continue to treat Afghanistan as maybe our top or top two or three aid recipients internationally if the corruption problem remains such as it's been in Afghanistan,” O’Hanlon said. “And we need to find some way to signal this.”
Cordesman said that countries may also be less willing to honor their aid commitments when they don’t know where past contributions have gone.
“Nobody has a clear picture of how much aid money that went to Afghanistan was actually spent in Afghanistan,” he said. “What is most critical is the dominant spending has been military spending. There again, there’s no estimate of how much of that money actually reached the country or what happened to it.”
Despite the dissatisfaction with the Karzai government, analysts have warned that it could get worse in 2014, depending on who is elected president after Karzai’s term expires.
“We may scale back a lot relative to what he's hoping to get in Tokyo and what we're all promising if the wrong person is elected and then the wrong political process ensues,” Thier said.
Of course, the immediate issue is to secure commitments for development aid in Tokyo. Countries are expected to try to receive assurances for more transparency from the Afghan government in exchange for their funds.
Thier said that every dollar would count in a declining pool of aid money.
“The needs in Afghanistan are virtually endless,” Thier said. “But with donor funds going down and this transition moving forward, we need a narrow, achievable set of priorities that need to be focused on a few critical things.”