At last. Obama’s vision offers hope for all sides

President Obama has got it right. After taking his time to wrestle with the enormous challenge of defining the US national interest in Afghanistan and its region, he has provided a credible vision of ending the war, stabilising the country and handing over responsibility to Afghan self-rule. His move away from fighting, endorsing General Stanley McChrystal’s analysis, will protect the population and provide a security bridge while Afghan forces are trained.

No country can be run by an army alone. Lasting security in Afghanistan will be provided when Afghans can govern themselves. Mr Obama’s speech balances nurturing Afghan governance at all levels with a tough stance on accountability.

This provides a framework for restoring Afghan self-rule. It learns the lesson that bypassing Afghan institutions and spending billions of dollars on a parallel set of organisations run by UN agencies, NGOs and contractors that leach capacity away from core Afghan frontline services does not work.

In my years on the ground in Afghanistan, I witnessed the catastrophic under-resourcing of civilian rule. In 2001, there were 240,000 civil servants in place in Afghanistan, staffing schools, clinics, irrigation departments and ministries across Afghanistan’s provinces. The decision taken in 2002 was to ignore these public servants and the services they ran, by putting only $20 million in the Afghan Government’s first-year budget.

This barely paid fuel costs for a month, let alone salaries of $50 per month or the costs of schools and clinics. Instead, billions went into a parallel aid system and into supporting warlords to run militias that daily undermined the rule of law. The net result was to dismantle functioning Afghan institutions; teachers and nurses left their jobs in droves to become drivers, assistants and translators. I had the privilege to work inside the Afghan Government with a group of dedicated Afghan ministers and their teams; daily they struggled to build up services to provide for a population traumatised by decades of war.

In the 2001 to 2005 period, a broad measure of trust was created between the Afghan citizens and their Government. This initial stability was created through a political framework that consulted the people, and through a series of national programmes: the health programme provided a basic package of health services in every province; the National Army’s first unit graduated six months after the Service was created; block grants of $20,000 or more were provided to each village, now in 28,000 villages; a public works programme provided jobs to young men, and a microfinance programme provided small loans. These programmes should be expanded and new ones established.

The key conundrum now is that an effective counter-insurgency strategy requires a legitimate government. In recent years, the Afghan Government has lost the trust of both the international community and its own citizens. Requiring a set of strict accountability standards is an important way to restore integrity. Rather than proclaim the existing Government as legitimate, a better approach is to recognise that legitimacy is earned. Trust should be restored through deeds, not words.

Change needs to come not only from the Afghans, but the way that international actors operate. The aid system requires a thorough revamping, so that it no longer undermines the very institutions it claims to support. This will require measures such as limiting the wages paid to Afghan staff working in the aid system to the same level they would earn in Afghan ministries.

It will also require choices about which Afghans the international actors choose to consort with. A senior Afghan official described to me with dismay how, at an important national meeting, three significant figures walked straight past legitimate representatives who had been sent from their districts, and made a beeline for three warlords standing in the corner. This casual slight was deeply symbolic; the representatives left the meeting crestfallen.

There are three steps that remain: first, Afghanistan needs a peace-building framework. There is already a reconciliation effort under way, aimed at bringing insurgents back within the political fold. A broader approach would seek to build on the broad consensus within Afghan society already expressed through the series of Loya Jirga (tribal councils) and the recent public discussions on the need for a restoration of rule of law and just governance.

Second, the fastest and cheapest way to create stability is to engage Afghanistan’s youth with the skills they need to manage their own futures. There is a lost generation of Afghans, whose education was sacrificed to 20 years of jihad against the Soviet Union and civil war. The new generation — the 60 per cent of Afghans under 25 — fare no better.

Leaving school under-educated at 11, poor pre-teens make rich pickings for madrassas, the Taleban and the opium economy. The most cost-effective way to stabilise Afghanistan would be to invest in the secondary and advanced education and training of the next generation and find out how many medics, teachers, engineers, accountants, lawyers, construction workers and farming specialists are needed.

Third, Afghanistan can and should pay for its own nation-building. The rich potential of the Afghan economy offers not only the basis for millions of jobs for Afghans, but the means for it to collect the revenue to pay its own bills. The recent US Geological Survey report shows that Afghanistan has hundreds of billions of dollars of mineral wealth. It has significant agricultural potential and a thriving textiles and construction industry. It could also collect several billion dollars a year in revenue from trade passing through as well as taxes on business and land. Instead, this money is being collected illegally, furnishing the insurgents’ and warlords’ coffers instead.

Yet the most inspiring aspect of President Obama’s speech is his picture of America maintaining its moral authority in the world through the way that it ends wars and prevents conflict. He speaks of an America seeking not to claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples, but one that is heir to a noble struggle for freedom. And this offers hope to American citizens, their allies and the Afghan people.

Clare Lockhart, director of the Institute for State Effectiveness and co-author of Fixing Failed States. She served as an adviser to the UN and the Afghan Government from 2001 to 2005.