On Dec. 1, 2009, President Barack Obama spoke before a packed auditorium at West Point, the country's premier military academy. "Our overarching goal remains the same," he told the military men and women in attendance, "…to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.
"We must deny Al-Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future."
That speech initiated deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to the country, and also signaled that the United States' non-military response would also be needed. USAID, the State Department, and 14 other federal agencies had earlier undertaken a massive recruitment effort to deploy approximately 1,000 civilian specialists to Afghanistan.
USAID returned to the country in 2002, but the scale of resources and personnel devoted to Afghanistan today—eight years later—is un-matched. The $4.1 billion 2010 allocation for Afghanistan was the largest in Agency history.
Development in a war zone— especially the longest war in the history of the United States—comes with challenges. Development takes time and requires stable conditions to take root. Implementing projects and programs also frequently depends on the military providing security.
For the most part, the U.S. strategy calls for the military to secure key areas, while USAID and its counterparts promptly follow up with the "build" phase, helping Afghans construct or reconstruct the kinds of institutions and infrastructure that help diminish the threat posed by extremism.
This past year also marked a considerable shift as USAID redirected some of its efforts from Kabul to the regional, provincial, and district levels to reach communities in nearly all of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan. The shift responded to a need for increased cooperation with military counterparts at the provincial or district levels to more effectively address the myriad root sources of instability in a country whose development needs across regions are often as diverse as its geography.
"Much of what we do in Afghanistan focuses on stabilization," said Alex Thier, director of USAID's Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs. "In areas where extremism has taken root, we approach development by focusing on the root-cause issues, such as poverty and political alienation —directing attention to creating a credible, legitimate government presence."
Thier said that many USAID programs, under an accelerated military schedule, are beginning to take stabilization to its next phase—to transition programs so that Afghans lead and take responsibility.
The AVIPA (Agricultural Vouchers for Increased Production in Afghanistan) project is a case in point. The project is intended to offer Afghans alternatives to extremism and opium cultivation. Its focus is four-fold: help Afghan farmers receive subsidized vouchers that can be exchanged for vegetable seed or tools to encourage self-sustenance; inject much needed money and jobs in areas that have not seen economic activity for years through a cash-for-work component; execute material grants to farmer cooperatives; and provide training in new farming techniques.
The AVIPA project is scaling back in 2011 as USAID's agriculture program transitions to more long-lasting agricultural development by making substantial investments in more sophisticated techniques and equipment. An estimated 85 percent of Afghans rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.
"The only way to create an Afghanistan that will stand on its own is to begin to help Afghans transition—even in this crisis stage —by giving them the tools and the confidence they will need to be able to stand up for themselves in the future," Thier said.
The obstacles are not insurmountable, but they are formidable.
Long under the control of the Taliban, Afghans have struggled with one of the highest child mortality rates (one in six dies before the age of 5), one of the highest illiteracy rates (an estimated 90 percent of women and 60 percent of men in rural areas), a culture of corruption, and a history of violent war and conflict.
Despite challenges like these, USAID has celebrated significant successes in the last year.
The Agency helped increase enrollment in schools to its highest level with 7.1 million students—nearly 38 percent girls—and trained 2,800 journalists and 800 judges to attain higher working levels of objectivity and jurisprudence, respectively.
The Agency inaugurated the 105-megawatt Tarakhil Power Plant, which can provide electricity to more than 600,000 residents in Kabul, and incorporated and modernized the first public utility to more efficiently capture revenues. Travel became easier for Afghans with the completion of the 103-kilometer national highway in Badakhshan province.
In health, USAID continued support to polio eradication efforts through the World Health Organization, with polio vaccination coverage now at 91 percent nationally, and is changing the way Afghan women view pre- and post-natal care by training thousands of midwives—nearly 55 percent of all practicing midwives in the country.
Since January 2009, the U.S. government has increased the number of U.S. civilians in country from 200 to more than 1,100. The goal for 2011 has been increased to 1,400 civilians. USAID currently has an estimated 300 men and women on the ground.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Kabul in December, said USAID personnel and other civilians in Afghanistan have "stepped forward in our nation's and … [Afghanistan's] hour of need" and called civilians the "linchpin" of the president's strategy.
For Thier, as well as USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, these civilians are carrying out a strategy that will require focus, careful and targeted use of resources, a steep learning curve, and above all, time.
"We need to seize this moment to consider not only what needs to be done in the short term to bring relief to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also to ensure the success of long-term development that will make both countries stronger partners with the United States to bring about a more secure world," Shah said after a trip to Afghanistan last spring.
Last updated: February 25, 2014