The US Isn't the Only Donor in Afghanistan

As the Obama Administration announces its Afghanistan drawdown tonight, much has been said about what will change -- the number of troops -- but there has been virtually no discussion of what will remain largely the same -- the continued assistance of more than four dozen countries, 20 UN agencies, and hundreds of NGOs in providing everything from road-building contracts to health care investments in Afghanistan.

As President Obama has shifted US foreign policy from the unilateralism of the Bush Administration to a more collaborative approach with our allies there is no country on earth where that multi-country approach is more apparent than Afghanistan. And, no country on earth where the US is better prepared to reduce its footprint, and leave some work to others.

The Japanese, for example, have committed $1 billion per year in development assistance for Afghanistan until 2013. Germany will contribute another $600 million to development projects this year. The Canadians will donate $100 million annually. The Australians have set aside $20 million for Uruzgan province alone this year. Finland will contribute $20 million in 2011, with about 25% going specifically to Balkh province in the north.

Nearly every donor country in Afghanistan has a similar set of priorities: improve agricultural development, train the police, develop the energy sector, improve health care -- and, quite frankly, many are tripping over each other as they attempt to help Afghans.

I was in Afghanistan earlier this year interviewing dozens of donor embassies in Kabul and one European Embassy official told me that they had simply stopped showing up to agricultural development coordination meetings -- when the US was present -- because American aid experts dominated the discussion and overwhelmed the smaller European donors.

Over the next three years, some international donors will reduce their development assistance and certainly US assistance cannot maintain its current pace, but it will not go away -- and the benefits of this trimmed-down presence are significant.

With a smaller American footprint, not only will other countries -- such as Germany, Japan, and Canada -- have more room to contribute substantively, but the Afghans themselves will have a greater opportunity to lead their country's development efforts. (The situation across the border in Pakistan, of course, is significantly different as there are fewer donor governments, greater control by the Pakistan government of aid agencies and -- at $1.5 billion -- far less development funding than Afghanistan receives annually from the US).

President Karzai, who has long complained about the bewildering number of donor governments, UN agencies, and NGOs -- will have less of an argument to make with fewer "foreigners" on the ground. Prominent Afghans who have long worked for the US military, NATO, or foreign embassies at high salaries should consider joining their local and national governments, or the Afghan private sector, and giving back to their country.

The drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan will help Afghans reassert their sovereignty and rebuild their country, while dozens of donor governments, UN agencies, and NGOs will continue their long-term development assistance, in the broadest multilateral funding environment in the world -- Afghanistan.