With tensions mounting between Afghanistan and the United States over embarrassing errors of judgment and disagreements about means and ends, both governments now acknowledge that NATO is on its way home. The conversation about an early exit of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan has focused on numbers of soldiers, combat strategy, territory and ideology - and about whose policies have been thwarted, whose interests have been undercut, who cuts deals with whom and who will run Afghanistan when the West has left.
These questions are critical to the future of Afghanistan and its neighbors. They are also short-term, transactional and, ultimately, incomplete lenses through which to view a complex country and an even more complicated regional political economy that, after decades of war, is barely headed to recovery. After years of insisting that building the Afghan "nation" was irrelevant to Western aims, it turns out that building the Afghan state was precisely what was needed and what is dangerously lacking now.
The evidence, easy to find, is damning. Anticipating the departure of foreign troops, the World Bank and the Afghan government recently examined Afghanistan's post-NATO economic prospects and reported what insiders have known for a long time: The foreign military presence has driven international aid priorities, often to the exclusion of basic needs. Though skewed toward the military mission, this aid has been essential to the survival of the Afghan government and state. In NATO's absence and with deep donor discord about Afghanistan's future, civilian assistance is likely to diminish, too.
In fiscal terms alone, the transition from foreign to Afghan-led security will be challenging. The World Bank's Transition in Afghanistan: Looking Beyond 2014notes that aid financed $15.7 billion out of total public spending of $17.1 billion - a whopping 92 percent - in 2010-2011. This is a fraction of the cost of US funding for the military mission, as high as $444 billion as of the end of 2011, but as the Afghan government has stated correctly time and again, most military funds are spent in Afghanistan, but rarely on Afghans. NATO's pilot Afghan First Policy to encourage local sourcing for services and supplies arrived just as the alliance prepared to depart. Billions have been spent, but only a trickle was invested in Afghanistan's economic future.
These despairing challenges are evident in the densely drafted 2012 United Nations humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan. "Afghanistan remains in a state of protracted crisis," it reports. And so it has, year after year. Humanitarian relief plugged some holes, but the ravages of violent conflict, civilian casualties and population displacement, recurrent natural hazards and poor governance all take an unremitting toll. Most Afghans will struggle on, tied to hardscrabble agrarian lives, affected only slightly by NATO's departure. Poor Afghans rarely saw any benefits from the last decade's aid to the security sector and to wealthier, more dangerous areas. For many, human security has become an oxymoron.