The Key to Rebuilding Afghanistan

During a recent visit to Afghanistan, I was reminded of the counterinsurgency principles of "clear, hold, build." In the language of the World Bank Group, that translates to "security, governance and development." As events in Iraq have shown, who assumes responsibility for these principles is as important as the principles themselves: Local ownership is key to achieving legitimacy and effectiveness.

Afghanistan has achieved a great deal over the past six years. Even with modest capacity, strong leadership in the ministries of Public Health, Education, and Rural Rehabilitation and Development has begun transforming the country. The Health Ministry, outsourcing through nongovernmental organizations, is supplying basic services and has cut mortality for young children by 26 percent. It is saving 80,000 lives a year. New schools offer classes for 6 million students, the highest level ever, and more than 35 percent of students are girls, up from less than 5 percent in 2001. Almost 500,000 Afghans have benefited from microfinance.

The National Solidarity Program (NSP) that the World Bank helped launch with former finance minister Ashraf Ghani in 2003 empowers more than 20,000 elected Community Development Councils to allocate modest grants to local priorities, whether micro-hydroelectric generators, schools, roads, irrigation, erosion or water supply projects. It touches more than 17 million Afghans in all 34 provinces and has an economic rate of return of close to 20 percent. The program links self-help with self-determination.

Despite all this progress, danger is apparent as the scheduled 2009 elections draw closer. Food prices are rising, and food availability for winter is uncertain. The Taliban ambush that killed 10 French troops this week and the deaths of six more NATO soldiers announced yesterday underscore the fact that security is slipping in Afghanistan. Corruption -- sometimes linked to narcotics -- rots away legitimacy and chokes business development, creating a vicious circle: Donors, fearful of fraud, channel two-thirds of their aid outside the government, making it impossible to use the national budget to organize a countrywide effort and to build institutions.

Where the Taliban networks operate, often from sanctuaries across the border, locals stay on the fence politically. This is not surprising after 25 years of conflict. The Taliban cannot win, because Afghans do not want to live under their brutal theocracy, but the Afghan government could lose.

The United States and its NATO partners are likely to send more troops. In combination with a larger, more effective Afghan army, these reinforcements could strengthen security. But as one NATO officer told me, "The solution isn't to just keep killing bad guys, because there will always be more." We need to better connect security with local governance and development.

The security-development nexus is still too weak in part because the potential partners speak in different tongues. As one Canadian development official put it, "Various organizations mean different things when they refer to security; an area secure enough for a soldier may not meet the needs of an Afghan NGO trying to build community development." Even the successful Provincial Reconstruction Teams supervised by coalition partners need a transition in more secure areas to give Afghans ownership -- and credit for results.

Foreign forces and development partners will not succeed without effective Afghan leadership. The government can learn from and build on success. An obvious next step would be in agriculture, where a dynamic Afghan team could counter higher food prices with small-scale irrigation projects, extension services, rural credits, better storage, and improved seeds and fertilizer to expand production and productivity. The energy and minerals sectors offer opportunities, including through investments from China (which, like NATO, is interested in Afghanistan's success). Kabul needs to decide whether it wants to continue to fund the National Solidarity Program (which the World Bank would finance through the government), cluster the community councils to add to local cohesion, and use the program as an entry point for broader development. My sense is that the NSP, with customization, could work hand in hand with improved security, even in riskier areas.

The Afghan government recently authorized a new anti-corruption body reporting directly to the president, a special prosecutor of corruption and a dedicated court. The staffing and actions of these bodies need to signal resolve. The government and its partners also need to acknowledge that the current police force is a predator, not a protector, and must be rebuilt.

Colombia's experience has shown that a legitimate state cannot coexist with a thriving narcotics industry, which will corrode the government, businesses and legal systems as well as fund enemies. It will take time to choke the Afghan drug trade, but turning a blind eye endangers the entire country.

Afghanistan will remain a weak state for some time. Its future depends in part on regional arrangements that minimize manipulation by neighbors. Another key determinant is the Afghan government's ability to extend and deepen governance -- and development -- in areas with improved security. Afghanistan's partners need to connect forces, aid and capacity to build this national ownership.

Robert B. Zoellick, president of the World Bank Group.