Reconstructing Afghanistan: Priorities and Challenges

Soldiers from Task Force Pacemaker provided the comfort items. (Department of Defense)


On March 19, 2002, Asia Society convened a group of experts on development aid and reconstruction in New York, to discuss the challenges facing reconstruction in Afghanistan and priorities for the international community’s role in creating a new, peaceful nation. Several of the speakers had recently returned from visits to Afghanistan and provided their insights into the on-the-ground realities at this time.


Gerald Martone, Director of Emergency Response, International Rescue Committee, New York
Nicola Cunningham Armacost, Knowledge and Communications Coordinator, Women’s World Banking, New York
T. Kumar, Advocacy Director for Asia and Pacific, Amnesty International, New York
Letitia Butler, Deputy Director, Central Asia Task Force, United States Agency for International Development, Washington, D.C.

In Brief…

  • After 23 years of a civil war that broke down state and societal institutions, Afghanistan finally faces the prospect of peace. However, a difficult and complicated task of reconstruction lies ahead.
  • Rebuilding the country will mean not only reconstructing infrastructure, roads, schools and hospitals; but also ensuring a livelihood for the Afghan population and establishing a secure state with democratic institutions; while also securing the rights of women and girls; enhancing civil society; and allowing the equal participation of Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups.
  • A pressing question is how the international community--including regional actors, humanitarian, aid agencies and others can create immediate economic opportunities and support other short-term reconstruction programs in the areas of health, education, de-mining, and crop-substitution.

Political and Historical Context for Reconstruction
Immediate Food Needs and Long-term Development Strategies
Prospects for Micro-finance
Role of USAID in Reconstruction

Political and Historical Context for Reconstruction

The last time the international community had significant political will to change the situation in Afghanistan was during the time of the Soviet invasion in 1979. Afghanistan was one playing field of the Cold War; millions of dollars worth of weapons contributed to the continued civil war that killed over two million people. With the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989, Afghanistan was neglected by the international community - with horrific results. The country is one of the most heavily mined sites in the world; 500,000 children have been killed, six million people displaced, and three million disabled. In the future, as much as the international community currently claims commitment to the cause of reconstructing Afghanistan, it is possible or even likely that attention will, once again, shift away from creating a peaceful nation of this war-torn state.

The status of human rights in Afghanistan remains deplorable even as Western actions in the region are not necessarily meeting international standards. It is therefore difficult to expect Afghan warlords to respect human rights norms when there are violation of human rights laws committed by Western powers themselves. For instance, there were 500 Al-Qaeda captured and many were killed, rather than imprisoned as prisoners- of-war governed by international protocol. The current detention and the planned military tribunals for prisoners of war currently in Guantanamo Bay is another glaring example of the misuse of power. There was also some controversy over the forcible shaving of the prisoners’ beards, which have religious significance for observant Muslims. The interim administration has also been at fault on this issue. There was the case of the aviation minister being beaten to death in the airport for which no one has been held accountable. Furthermore, while women’s rights are an issue often discussed with vehemence in connection with Afghanistan, the United States has still not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). (Editor’s note: The United States is the only nation other than Afghanistan to have signed the convention in 1980 but to not yet ratify it).

The international press has been skewed in the reporting of the military action in Afghanistan. They have tended to mention bombing missions undertaken by the Northern Alliance, while neglecting to provide details of American bombing missions. There have also been many unintended civilian causalities (roughly 3,500 according to some estimates-approximately the same number as were killed in the World Trade Center) during the conflict with little or no public accountability.

Before 9/11 the US administrations came very close to recognizing the Taliban because of the pressure of various oil companies wishing to do business in the region. This was only prevented through the continued efforts of women’s rights and human rights groups that kept up pressure for sanctions and policies of isolation. However, there were still second-tier communications going on in spite of the repressive regime and their role in sheltering Osama bin Laden. It remains to be seen if oil companies will again become the largest interest group with an interest in Afghanistan and if their combined interests will help to shape policy in the region.

Afghanistan is not a “failed” state, but a destroyed state. The continued existence of civil society in Afghanistan after 23 years can only be credited to the resilience of the Afghan people, although it is now hoped that the international community can now play a positive role in renewing societal institutions. However, there are enormous challenges to face. The first is simply not to forget ordinary Afghans who have borne the brunt of the destruction. Individual citizens in the international community, including in the United States, must be involved in the regeneration of Afghan society. Secondly, there needs to be a multi-faceted approach to shaping Afghanistan policy-not simple a policy dominated by oil or power interests. Thirdly, there needs to be a consistency in the application of human rights and other standards in Afghanistan. And lastly, there needs to be a financial commitment to back up lofty statements. When the Russians invaded, instead of using the rebellion as a national liberation movement, the Allied forces contributed to the creation of a “jihad” to remove the Russians. Osama bin Laden was a product of such a plan. Policies now should not be shortsighted and decisions should be well balanced in order to avoid similar catastrophes in the future. 

Immediate Food Needs and Long-term Development Strategies

One of the most significant challenges facing Afghanistan in the short-term is providing sufficient food for the entire population. Recently, there has been an overemphasis by the media on grotesque, compelling images of starvation on the ground in Afghanistan. But, while there is most definitely a problem in producing sufficient food, the outcome has not been a widespread famine or a serious food deficit, but a more appropriately called a food-production deficit. Food crises are indicative of serious economic difficulties, because of the loss of livelihood that has resulted from conflict or continued economic challenges. Because of this, cash transfers are much more successful than food distributions, as they get roughly twenty times the value into the local economy. This is still a radical approach to take to resolving the situation even though it was successfully piloted several years ago in Afghanistan. However, the emphasis in food production deficit is on creating self-reliance and providing culturally appropriate assistance that does not empower or give legitimacy to resurgents.

In the emphasis on life-saving food deliveries versus self-sustaining agriculture, international donors can put forth a self-congratulatory tone for successes in prolonging life, but at times these deliveries simply postpone an extended and more significant crisis-and the deaths that come with it. This is because large-scale delivery of food in emergency situations often creates a disincentive for food productions and draw people to large cities for food distribution. This not only does not remedy the causes of the food shortage, but can actually worsen the underlying symptoms that can lead to “the second-disaster syndrome” a true famine such as that which has just been declared in Somalia.

What needs to be done to increase food production is to improve resilience to natural disasters by looking at symptoms and causes to food vulnerabilities. The topography is rugged and dry in Afghanistan, only about 12% of the land is cultivatable. There should be investment in irrigation to remedy the worst effects of droughts. It has been noted that the ground water is so deep that some well-diggers die of lack of oxygen. (USAID, UNICEF and FAO will invest in a hydrological assessment in Afghanistan.) Trees are rare throughout the nation--Afghans travel great lengths to get wood and other dead vegetation for fuel and some children are killed from landmines through these efforts. Some aid has shifted to distributing coal to alleviate this problem. Added to these difficulties, is a locust pandemic, likely to cause $70 million in damage in March 2002.

The coping mechanisms that people evince during food shortages are either reversible or irreversible. Reliance on remittances or relocation to a city for labor jobs, or eating some wild food are all reversible mechanisms. However, the sale of draft animals, eating the seeds saved for planting, selling roof timbers and land are all irreversible, as they reduce the stock of available capital. Many people have sadly made it to the irreversible point by selling land, eating some of their animals, or even consuming famine foods such as certain kinds of grass and roots, which can be quite toxic.

Yield for opium is roughly twelve times higher than wheat, and prices are, of course, much higher. For a subsistence farmer who is threatened with a severe food shortage in his family, it may be difficult to overcome this temptation. The money the farmer receives is, of course, much less than the street value of the product that is eventually created. The availability of credit offered by the trafficking machinery is a significant reason for many farmers to continue. Furthermore, it can take several years and a great deal of effort to convert a poppy field to a wheat field, though coffee and cocoa could be suitable for the topography there. However, given the economic realities, the Taliban in recent years through severe punishment, became effective at controlling drug production.

Many Afghans have said that the Taliban did have principles and some are quite skeptical of the interim government. Of course, some corruption and diversion is likely of the significant amounts of aid that will flow into the country but it is hoped that this will be limited. As there is not a single bank in the entire nation, financial transparency and accountability will be exceedingly difficult to enforce. Villages do have an incredible ability to survive in spite of the political regimes that dominate them. Ironically, political anarchy does not filter down to remote villages-they are chaos-resistant.

A significant source of assistance to Afghanistan could be the Afghan diaspora through a process that would reverse the brain drain. Many educated and competent Afghans are in Iran, the US and elsewhere. There was no ban on educating women and girls in Iran for instance, so there are many educated Afghans there. There hasn’t been a functioning school system in over ten years in Afghanistan; reconstructing schools and training teachers is a critical need. Afghans consider education to be equal to food and medicine in order of importance. In fact, it is such a priority that Afghans want teachers to be fed higher in the ranks of the community so that the teachers are not forced to turn to farming or to migrate due to a lack of food. 

Prospects for Micro-finance

A team including some representatives of Women’s World Banking (WWB) recently traveled to Afghanistan. Several women from the Afghan diaspora identified WWB as an organization that would be useful to assess the feasibility the establishment of a bank run by women and for women in Afghanistan. Although money was transferred during recent years quite successfully, lending did not occur except to those that were personally known. Those exchanges that do take place follow strict Islamic laws in an informal process. The banking system is in shambles; the new Central Bank governor had to start from scratch to deal with the massive undertaking of rebuilding a central bank. They had only twelve computers and had to deal with such difficulties as preventing currency from being printed illegally in Russia. Regulations from the 1974 constitution will be followed, while work on draft regulations continues.

While the World Bank recently reported that there were twenty micro-finance projects functioning in Afghanistan, there are really only two true micro-finance projects. One run by Save the Children in the north and another run by AREA staffed with Afghans in Kabul. Micro-finance means giving loans and charging fees and attempting to be make the program economically self-sufficient. Fees are charged in Islamic countries in lieu of interest-which is unacceptable according to the laws of the Shari’a. The other programs were income-generation projects through which cows and other animals or goods were given in kind. The fact that those running these other programs were not committed to being reimbursed makes these projects less sustainable, and not classifiable as micro-finance projects.

A feeling of safety may be felt in Kabul, thanks to the presence of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) troops, however their mandate does not extend to other parts of the country. In Kabul, perhaps due partly to this feeling of safety, there has been continued commerce that had continued under the Taliban era. The markets had export-quality leather goods, embroidered clothing, food and other items. Bookstores were selling books that were being re-published in Kabul, some that had originally been published in 1970s or earlier and had been banned in recent years. Most people selling items in shops and on the streets are men and most of the customers are women, more and more of whom appear without burkhas every day. While the political situation needs to be more stable, banks in Pakistan were all vying to be the first back in. Afghans in Pakistan were all certain that they could find work if they could get back. The loya jirga, due to be convened in June 2002, will establish another interim government that will be two years instead of the present six-month government; this will be at least one step forward in the establishment of a sound and secure system. 

Role of USAID in Reconstruction

Afghanistan has been the largest recipient of humanitarian assistance from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for the past several years as a response to the ongoing drought for the past three years. In 2001, the US obligated over $180 million in food aid and disaster assistance for Afghanistan. After the events of and following 9/11, the US Congress made a $320 million emergency supplemental aid package available to USAID and the State Department. Of this amount, USAID was responsible for aid worth $191 million, half of which was food aid and half in non-food emergency relief. The food aid was distributed and reached the needs of six million Afghans. USAID also funded the purchase of emergency aid such as winter blankets, fuel, warm clothes, health and hygiene assistance, tools, and conducted well-digging projects. USAID funded the purchase of trucks and equipment to facilitate food delivery. They facilitated entries in the north and northeast in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan that were considered the most vulnerable areas in the country at that time. The US pledged $297 million at the Tokyo donor conference-of which $186 million comes under the management of USAID. All of this is immediately available. USAID is now putting together needs assessments for Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003. There should be no shortage of financial resources for what is the currently the top priority of the US administration in its foreign engagement.

There are three significant challenges in moving forward in the reconstruction process. First, the drought appears to be continuing; second, the economy has a very low absorptive capacity for investment, and last, is the continued political instability and a lack of security.

The international community has mobilized a large amount of food aid. USAID recently funded a food-security assessment in Kabul and six provinces in the south and southwest by a Tufts University famine expert, Sue Lautze. The report indicates the country is now likely to have a fourth year of drought that will prevent rapid resolution of the problem. Severe malnutrition is found throughout the country. The key determinant of food and economic and political security is not food, but water. It is likely that there will be further internal dislocations due to water shortages. USAID, the Food and Agriculture Organization, World Food Programme and others will work to ensure that implications of this research are built into new USAID programs. Relief, recovery and reconstruction are likely to occur simultaneously.

The second challenge or constraint is a powerful one. Physical devastation and deterioration are severe. There are massive holes in remnants of buildings in Kabul. The Shamali Plains look like a lunar landscape after years of battle and intentional destruction by the Taliban. And of course, reconstruction is a highly inefficient process in Afghanistan. It is extraordinarily difficult without phones, electricity, no heat, limited water and sanitation. It takes time and physical energy to get anything accomplished. All of these difficulties render the fledgling administration almost non-functional, which in turn means that people in Afghanistan outside of Kabul see little in terms of benefits of a post-Taliban regime. Efficiency of investment and attempts to implement real change is extremely difficult.

The third challenge is security, which is the most obvious. The lack of security limits movement of people, investment of resources and the reconciliation process. Events and actuality of violence and perception of the possibility of violence is a real constraint. USAID must operate within the Embassy diplomatic security umbrella, which means that they must live in cramped quarters inside the Embassy compound in the bunker. There are two directly hired staff and five temporary people. There is, however, plans to fill a couple of posts in the civilian affairs part of the defense department to work with Defense Department’s humanitarian aid and to move with them throughout the country. True reconstruction will only come to pass when the security allows money to flow into Afghanistan.

Despite these and other daunting challenges, the international community should not be deterred from these efforts. Priorities within the US government and within USAID are well known: completion of the campaign against terrorism, establishment of security that will enable a peaceful transition to a multiethnic and representational government, support for the continuation of the Bonn process including the fulfillment of the government on counter-narcotics and human rights and the restoration of a functioning economy leading to social and economic progress. USAID, while involved in many of these processes, has major responsibility for the economy. USAID will continue with humanitarian food and relief programs. They are planning to focus on agricultural revitalization through stimulation of purchasing power by increasing livelihoods, rural infrastructure, improving healthcare and rebuilding educational opportunities.

To sustain balance between the center and provinces however, assistance will have to take into account the need to create capacity and functionality in the interim administration and to rebuild critical physical infrastructure. Reintegrating demobilized combatants is yet another priority, as is alternative development in poppy areas. The sustainability of governance systems is also essential, and will be encouraged through the establishment of transparent public accounts, renewal of banking systems, as well as some of the justice and constitutional processes that need to be completed as determined in the Bonn process. Recent efforts have focused on spot reconstruction in rural areas, cleaning rubble from bombed-out ministries, distributing wheat seeds and fertilizer in areas with sufficient water for planting; distributing textbooks for kindergarten through 12th grade (in collaboration with UNICEF) and continuing vaccination programs. The President, the Secretary of State and the head of USAID have all stated publicly that the United States is committed to the reconstruction process in the long run. 


Reconstruction in Afghanistan will proceed at many levels, including financing from the international community and implementation by both international and local non-governmental organizations as well as the interim government itself. The key to success will be the level to which ideas and capabilities of the Afghan population are involved as well as the level of cooperation across the different international actors.

The pressing urge of major donors is to focus on micro-level interventions that are resilient to the continued political changes that Afghanistan is likely to experience in the near future. Focusing on this level is likely to provide the most significant assistance to the broadest numbers of the needy. These can include: increasing food production through individual farmers, irrigation projects, animal banks, animal vaccines, seed multiplication programs, high-yield seeds, and high-yield agricultural techniques. The challenge of reconstruction remains difficult, however the commitment of the international community together with the Afghan diaspora and with the cooperation of local groups has to be sustained in order for the lives of ordinary Afghans to improve.