November 1, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Enormous Challenge of Nation-Building

• Recent reports regarding the past fifteen years of infrastructure and capacity building projects in Afghanistan continue to show abysmal returns.

• Billions of dollars of infrastructure investment injected into a country unable to absorb and manage such funds and projects have arguably caused more harm than good.

• The current situation in Afghanistan should serve as a warning for those involved in planning for Syria after the civil war has ended.

• The unlikely prospect of an all-out end to hostilities in Syria will force aid efforts to be initiated while some level of conflict persists, significantly complicating the reconstruction of Syria.

The fifteen-year-old conflict in Afghanistan has cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars. One of the last metrics used to demonstrate any semblance of progress in a country that remains extremely fragile has been infrastructure projects and investment. Yet, even by these measures, Afghanistan remains far from a success. Despite persistent violence and widespread government corruption, miles of newly paved roads—in a country with less than 50 paved miles in 2001—have been held up as proof that the international effort in Afghanistan was succeeding. However, a new report by the U.S. Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) stated that the U.S. had spent $2.8 billion to build Afghan roads; after fifteen years, the report estimated that most of those paved roads were in disrepair. The report went on to estimate an additional $8.3 billion would be required to replace and repair the country’s road infrastructure.

In reality, infrastructure projects in Afghanistan were never truly ‘reconstruction’ efforts; these projects largely started from scratch, as there was little infrastructure in place prior to the conflict. With nearly unlimited funding and as many as 100,000 U.S. troops, the nation-building effort in Afghanistan has been an abject failure. Tallying the number of paved roads or increased cell phone coverage masks the reality that such massively funded aid projects did not alleviate the country’s problems; rather, they exacerbated them. Money injected into poorly-understood local dynamics upended long-standing tribal order, and also funded warlords, incentivized corruption, fueled the insurgency, and disillusioned a population repeatedly told how much was spent on their behalf without seeing any lasting benefits. 

It is difficult to overstate the negative consequences of well-funded aid projects that fail to deliver lasting benefits. At every stage in Afghanistan and Iraq, positive outcomes were mainly found on government spreadsheets or quarterly reports. Road maintenance projects in Afghanistan are routinely held hostage by the Taliban, and the accelerating decay of roads built a decade ago prove to weary citizens that trust in sustained government service and safety is a dangerous illusion. Roads that were paved but not maintained are more counterproductive than roads left unpaved, as benefits received and then lost are more painful than those left unfulfilled.

The undeniable failures in building sustainable infrastructure and governance in Afghanistan and Iraq—despite the allocation of massive resources—should temper assessments regarding the eventual rebuilding of Syria. The fighting in Syria has shown no signs of slowing, and any diminution in the level of fighting substantial enough to allow reconstruction projects to begin is unlikely to be deep enough to allow such projects to be completed. Afghanistan and Iraq serve as poignant examples of the futility of trying to reconstruct countries still experiencing destruction and war. 

International reconstruction efforts consistently stress the empowerment of local actors, yet depend on regional and foreign partnerships for funding and implementation. Reconstruction plans formulated in the West do not always reflect the realities on the ground in remote villages in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Afghanistan should serve as a cautionary tale as international stakeholders begin plans for the eventual reconstruction of Syria. It is unlikely Syrian reconstruction efforts will receive the same level of funding Afghanistan and Iraq did from the outset, and geopolitical complications in Syria dwarf those seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the current focus in Syria is to bring a halt to the fighting, the enormous difficulty of what happens next cannot be overstated.


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