Military commanders have voiced dismay that the initiatives, to be run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, have been pushed back. “Our flank is exposed” without these programs, said one senior U.S. officer in Afghanistan.
After repeated complaints from the military, USAID is scrambling to implement interim measures. Senior agency officials insist the delays will not affect the delivery of agricultural aid or assistance for local governance.
“There will be no gaps in USAID’s stabilization programming this summer,” said Earl Gast, the agency’s director in Afghanistan.
But in the case of the program to support local governments — designed to help train officials and fund small reconstruction projects — the interim efforts will not be as robust as the delayed initiative, according to development specialists familiar with the issue.
With regard to the agriculture program — aimed at creating more farm-related jobs — USAID is considering whether to extend a costly project that some of the agency’s senior leaders deem ineffective and wasteful in an attempt to mollify the military until a new assistance program is implemented. The new program was supposed to have started six months ago.
U.S. commanders and diplomats had hoped that the new programs would assist in cementing recent military gains against the Taliban, which have come at a significant cost of American lives. They believe that if Afghans have expanded access to jobs and can rely on local governments for basic services, many will renounce the insurgency.
This report is based on interviews with more than a dozen civilian and military officials involved in Afghanistan policy. All insisted on anonymity, but for different reasons: USAID staff members critical of the agency’s operations said they feared retribution if they were quoted by name; military officials said they were concerned about angering their civilian counterparts; and USAID officials authorized to speak for the agency said they were unable to answer most questions on the record.
A development specialist who recently completed a year-long assignment at USAID’s mission in Kabul blamed the delays on a staff turnover rate of more than 85 percent a year, shifting priorities among senior officials responsible for setting policy, and an ongoing conflict within the agency between short-term programs and longer-range development work.
“There’s been a failure of planning and management,” the specialist said.
USAID’s problems have been compounded by months of budgetary uncertainty, followed by steep cuts to foreign aid in the 2011 spending bill that were demanded by House Republicans. The agency also is awaiting money from the 2010 budget because congressional requirements call for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to certify that the Afghan government is making progress on women’s rights and fighting corruption before those funds can be released.