Returning to Washington this week, after a whirlwind tour in Afghanistan, I am dizzy, not from delight but from the overwhelming disconnect between rhetoric stateside and reality Asia-side. Thankfully, my boss, Congressman Michael Honda, chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s Afghanistan Taskforce, is trying to penetrate this rhetoric and advocate that reality. But it is not an easy job, especially in a town where sound bites often usurp sound analysis. This week, as I drafted talking points for the Congressman in preparation for an interview with the Wall Street Journal, I stumbled, not on words but on emotion. What I had just experienced in Afghanistan was so far afield from the Washington majority thought that I found the moment simultaneously disabling and empowering–both of which stem from feeling like a lone voice on a complex conflict. This returner’s culture shock was not a result of neophyte glo-betrotting as I’ve worked in conflict zones throughout the Middle East and Asia; it stemmed from a deep disappointment with how Washington is disconnected from the reality on the ground.
Perhaps I should not be surprised. Many member and staff delegations come to Kabul with a careful creation of a particular perspective and rarely experience a raw treatment of ground realities unescorted and uncensored. Admittedly, for places like Afghanistan, security threats are pervasive enough that flak-jackets and armored vehicles are assumed necessary and delegations require it. For me, the only way I could guarantee a raw look was to travel alone, staying not in the heavily guarded, foreigner-friendly Serena Hotel in Kabul, but rather in a local inn with a lone security guard and a rickety fence, both of which were ill-equipped to prevent serious attack. I went “local” on all fronts, accommodations, clothing, transportation and conversation, and what I found was a serious disconnect in three key areas–governance, development and security. Hekmat Karzai, one of Kabul’s brightest new leaders, reaffirmed this thinking, citing clear gaps in all three categories.
First, when it comes to good governance in Afghanistan, even if we are not formally committing ourselves to nation-building, we have some serious improvements to make. Demand by Afghans is there, but supply by Americans is not. All government representatives I met with–ministers, parliamentarians, ambassadors and the president’s office–are desperately seeking assistance. Our call to Karzai to quit corruption and lead the country rings hollow given past precedent in terms of capacity building. Take, for example, my conversation with the president’s spokesman, a gentle-spoken man in his early 50s. I received a litany of frustrating anecdotes regarding foreign-funded capacity building. The most unflattering: A 25-year-old communications graduate, funded by a US private contractor, who’d never traveled outside the United States, sent to build capacity within Karzai’s communications team, while completely unfamiliar with traditional Afghan forms of communications.
Yet, even this mishap, which happened several times with other foreign communicators, wasn’t his primary frustration. What pained him most was that he witnessed across all of Karzai’s ministries a devastating trend: the Afghan government would train young Afghans to take over leadership positions, only to have them leave for substantially higher paid positions with foreign contractors or international organizations. Karzai’s key communicator pleaded with me: If we want to build capacity in Afghanistan, the international community must be mindful of the harm we do by incentivizing Afghans with excessively higher salaries so that government jobs remain unappealing.
Second, our development efforts are bedeviled not by bad intention but by poor implementation. There is a bitter taste in the Afghan mouth towards foreign aid contractors. For every one good American, said a source, Afghans can identify 100 Americans they don’t like. There is where the rhetoric-reality discrepancy is most disconcerting. If you ask most State and Defense officials, they will stand by their provincial reconstruction teams. And yet, several Afghans quickly shared similar stories of multimillion-dollar development projects that got whittled away by multiple participating contractors and subcontractors. By the time the overpriced project broke ground, a mere fraction of the funds benefited local Afghans, ostensibly the constituency the project intended to serve. For every foreign aid dollar entering Afghanistan, only $0.10 stays in the country–an underwhelming amount if you compare it, as Afghans do, with the cost of a US solider at $1 million a year. Just imagine how that money could be spent on development.