Can Central Asia Deliver U.S. Foreign Aid to Afghanistan?
The 2020 donor pledging conference for Afghanistan delivered ominous news to the Kabul government: it will receive 15-20% less aid than was pledged in 2016.
After almost 20 years of conflict, donor governments are cutting their commitments and attaching conditions to their money, such as progress in peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and a genuine effort to curb corruption.
As the amount of aid drops, the donors should seek more efficient ways to deliver reduced aid to Afghanistan because taxpayers are more concerned about the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic at home. One way may be to enlarge the role of the neighboring Central Asian countries.
Since 2016 there has been a shift in the region’s view of Afghanistan, to consider it again part of Central Asia. This is at odds with the Cold War view that recognized the boundaries of what was actually “Soviet Central Asia + the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic” and not of the wider region (Central Asia, Mongolia, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan) as a single cultural space.
The American troop presence in Afghanistan is dropping and there will be about 2,500 troops there by January 2021, when U.S. President Donald Trump leaves office. The U.S. departure will see a drop in troops from other NATO members as they rely on the U.S. for air support, transport, and logistics. This will put pressure on donor governments to further reduce the size of their financial commitments.
As foreign aid drops – and 75% of Afghanistan’s budget is foreign aid – it will still be necessary to grow the economy to make up for reduced foreign aid and claw back economic gains lost to COVID-19. The goal is to avoid a repeat of the fall of the Najibullah government in April 1992 which folded not because the Soviet troops left but because of the collapse of foreign aid and natural gas exports.
But, unlike in 1992, Central Asia can now take a role in integrating Afghanistan into the region’s economy, ensuring against another collapse of the government and civil war.
About 96% of U.S. government foreign aid is delivered via third parties, many under contract to bodies such as USAID. All that intermediation doesn’t come cheap, and many of USAID’s “implementing partners” (bureaucratese for “contractor”) have revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars per year – doing good while doing well, as it were.
Washington should explore using Central Asian governments, most likely Uzbekistan (with the biggest population) and Kazakhstan (with the biggest economy), for aid delivery to Afghanistan. They can deliver services at a lower cost than a U.S. contractor and will be motivated to make it work as they will have to live with the results.
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are already training young Afghans, such as through a UN program to allow Afghan women to pursue degree studies in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; and the Educational Center for Training Afghan Citizens, a cooperative effort of Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialized Education, the European Union, and the United Nations Development Program.
Uzbekistan’s assistance building the Mazar-i-Sharif-Peshawar railway and the Surkhon-Puli-Khumri power line, which will increase Uzbekistan’s exports of electricity to Afghanistan by 70%, has been acknowledged by the Taliban as important to the country’s political process. And Kazakhstan is streamlining its own foreign aid effort which is focused on Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia.
The Taliban likely feel they have little to learn from the Kabul government, NGOs, or delegations of well-meaning parliamentarians, so Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan may have to be the “explainers.”
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan can tell the Taliban: violence and corruption drive away investors; keeping women out of the workforce dilutes the value of an investment as the investor has access to only 50% of the labor force; financial transparency reduces the perceived risk of a project (especially important when your country is in the basement of every corruption ranking); international conventions such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) will encourage investment, though it may reduce rents for the political class. And that from here on out the country needs engineers and accountants, not more gunmen.
So, the Central Asian states may be able to deliver foreign aid projects as the West reduces its footprint, complementing Washington’s objectives with their own efforts to foster regional integration. Thus, they can offer Afghanistan a helping hand and the Taliban a clear understanding of their new responsibilities and obligations, messages more likely to stick when they come from a peaceable neighbor that also provides needed aid services.
Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has said, “The security of Afghanistan is the security of Uzbekistan, a guarantee of the stability and development of entire Central and Southern Asian region.” A greater foreign aid role for Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors can help the country join the world’s economy and keep it from becoming a safe harbor for terrorism, and a hub of trafficking drugs, arms, and people.