Frontlines Online Edition
December/January 2011

Interview with Alex Thier

They are neighbors, divided by some of the world's most majestic mountains and a complicated history of shared borders and ethnicities. At USAID, Afghanistan and Pakistan share an office, and occupy all of one man's time. Alex Thier, assistant to the administrator and director of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, joined the Agency in 2010 with a background spanning field postings with the United Nations and NGOs, and the Washington policy community. His work has focused on the two countries for many of the last 18 years. In fiscal year 2010, he oversaw a staff of nearly 500 Americans, a significant number of foreign nationals, and a $5 billion budget. Many U.S. foreign policy goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan share familiar undercurrents: building sustainable institutions, supporting and empowering civilian governments to provide for their people, and laying the groundwork for long-term stability and human progress. Thier recently sat down with FrontLines Managing Editor Kelly Ramundo to talk about USAID's efforts in the two countries. Excerpts follow from their discussion.

Theories of Change
Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively, are our two largest assistance missions in the world, by an order of magnitude. This year we have nearly $4 billion for Afghanistan, $1.5 billion for Pakistan. These are investments that we are making in these countries that are really, at the moment, unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

And so the first question you have to ask is, why are we making that investment? Part of the response is that these are national security priorities. But just because something is a national security priority doesn't mean that you invest civilian assistance dollars unless you think you can actually achieve some sort of bigger impact or effect by investing that money.

Alex Thier is Assistant to the Administrator and Director, Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs
Alex Thier is Assistant to the Administrator and Director, Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs

I think that we have two somewhat slightly different theories of change for Afghanistan and Pakistan that we hope to be able to accomplish by investing these resources.

In Pakistan, you have a country that, over history, has swung between corrupt civilian rule and corrupt military dictatorship. As a result, it has failed consistently, for political reasons and others, to meet its economic and development potential.

If you compare Pakistan, for instance, with India—created on the same day from the same material—and you look at their development stories, they're dramatically different. It's not just political, but the politics is very important. In this new era of democracy in Pakistan, we are trying to partner with the government and society to create a much more solid frame for Pakistan's economic and political development.

The ways that we do that are really twofold. We are gravely concerned about Pakistan because of the threat of extremism that threatens to tear the entire state down, to turn Pakistan into a failed state. That's very dangerous for homeland security reasons, for regional security reasons, for the fact that there are 170 million people in Pakistan—it's a huge state—and failure would have catastrophic consequences.

So part of what we do is we focus on stabilization. In the areas where extremism is taking hold, we're trying to focus on root-cause issues: focusing on poverty, focusing on political alienation, focusing on the absence of a credible, legitimate government presence. This aspect of our programming is dedicated to try and work with the Pakistani government to improve that situation in those areas; to diminish the existential threat that Pakistan faces.

The broader portion of our assistance is trying to boost economic and political stability in Pakistan as a whole. We do that by investing in things that will both support the Pakistani people and also support economic growth, like agriculture and irrigation and energy.

By doing these things, we're also helping to reinforce the fact that after another pendulum swing following eight years of military dictatorship, we don't just want to support a particular government; we want to shore up the notion that civilian government is actually the best way forward for Pakistan.

Thus we invest not only in the government itself, for example, supporting financial management in the Ministry of Finance and the development and strengthening of the parliament, but we also aim to strengthen governance more broadly, in the energy sector and the water sector. We do this so that government is actually more responsive and more effective, and supported by the population—so that democratic, civilian governance becomes more resilient.

The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act (aka the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill)—which authorizes but does not yet appropriate $1.5 billion a year over five years, so $7.5 billion in total—is a key part of our strategy to get Pakistan to believe that we are in a long-term strategic partnership with them, and that we are working to overcome the trust deficit that exists between the United States and Pakistan.

We are using these resources to align ourselves with the objectives of the government of Pakistan. Nearly half of our resources actually go through Pakistani institutions, supporting the development of the government of Pakistan's capacity and accountability.

Pakistan, Interrupted 
The floods in Pakistan this year were among the great natural disasters of the last century. Twenty million people were displaced. Billions of dollars and economic productivity were lost, but particularly crops of poor farmers.

Millions of poor farmers were affected in a country that was already facing food security challenges; an internally displaced persons crisis; and a severe economic downturn. Pakistan was already struggling to get an IMF [International Monetary Fund] program back on track. The floods dealt a real blow to our and the Pakistanis' hopes for a strong year for Pakistan.

That said, the good news story is that the United States responded enormously to this crisis on the civilian and on the military side. Our OFDA [Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance] colleagues were amazing, and working closely with our military, the government of Pakistan, and the U.N. and other partners reached literally millions of Pakistanis who were without food, shelter, health care, delivering millions of pounds of assistance and over $500 million in U.S. assistance.

Some of our investments paid off enormously. Everybody was expecting a public health catastrophe, with standing water and poor sanitary conditions, and it hasn't happened— in part due to investments that we made well before the flood in early disease detection. The relatively minimal loss of life from these floods and their aftermath and the rapid delivery of assistance are a huge success story.

But we were only covering a portion of the suffering. We've had to look at our assistance plans, which were carefully crafted and negotiated over a long period of time, and say, okay, we're going to have to put some of that on hold so that we can respond to the recovery and reconstruction needs for the Pakistani people.

In Afghanistan, the violence, the insurgency, the impact of 30 years of conflict make it much more of a crisis with a lot more of our resources aligned with our military mission. Many aspects of our efforts are focused on stabilization and counterinsurgency. We are working hand- in-hand with the military in areas where they are working to clear out the insurgency. And we're working to strengthen governance and development in those areas so that the population sees a better future with the Afghan government supported by the international community than they do with the insurgency.

That's a key emphasis of our effort there. At the same time, the only way to create an Afghanistan that will stand on its own is to focus now, even in the crisis stage, on institutional development, capacity building, and the things that the Afghans will need to be able to stand up for themselves in the future.

On the military side, they do that by building up the national security forces: the police and the army. On the civilian side, we're doing that by seeding community-level governance and development efforts; by training thousands of Afghan civil servants and expanding their ability to deliver services; by standing up an education system that has gone from a few hundred thousand to 7 million Afghan children in schools; by investing in a health-care system that's gone from virtually nonexistent to serving almost 85 percent of the population with basic health care.

You can't just focus on the crisis response. You also have to be developing a longer-term vision of how to transition Afghanistan from its current state of conflict into a sustainable and reasonably stable, gradually developing state and society.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. It was before the conflict. It's been through 30 years of conflict; it will continue to be a challenge. But if we don't put in place institutions and economic growth potential starting now, they will not be able to sustain the transition to long-term development.

A Year in Review 
In December, the administration under-took a review of its strategy in the two countries. The purpose of this review was not to rethink current strategy. The purpose was to evaluate whether we are accomplishing that strategy.

We have undertaken an intensive examination of what's working and what isn't working and we've learned some important lessons that we will carry into the next year.

Clear, Strong Goals
One of our really critical lessons in Pakistan has been that where we have focused intensively on critical objectives, like resourcing our efforts in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), we have seen success. We need to do more to focus our efforts, so that at the end of this five-year KLB [Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill] period we can highlight some major accomplishments. There are many good things that we are doing, but we need to have some clear, strong goals.

With Dr. [Rajiv] Shah's leadership and increased dialogue with the government of Pakistan, we have been defining those goals. For example, for Pakistan, we were allocating funds to the health sector for a variety of programs. Good programs—but it can be hard to see how they amount to strategic impact. Now, we've focused and defined a goal of 90 percent immunization for all Pakistani children for basic childhood immunizations and polio.

We think not only is this going to create a critical goal that will make a big difference for Pakistan—saving literally hundreds of thousands of lives—but that it will also provide us accountability, so that we know that we have a clear goal that we're working towards. And it will provide us focus, so that all aspects of our assistance mission are focused on achieving these goals. And we have a couple of goals like that. That's been a very important outcome of this process for us.

Local Context
In Afghanistan, I think that we have two pretty fundamental conclusions that are going to shape efforts in the coming year. The first is learning. We have undertaken an unprecedented civilian uplift in Afghanistan, literally tripling the size of our staff. And it's not just that we have increased our numbers, but we have been pushing them out to the local level. We have staff in regional platforms, provincial platforms, and district platforms, out there with the military in a way that we have never had before.

We have put a lot of programs in place that our field staff are able to utilize and program to the local context. And this is one of the most important realizations when you're working on stabilization. Context is everything. We can't have a cookie-cutter approach to how we do assistance at the district level in Afghanistan. It's very fluid; it's very varied across the country.

Having people at that level and having a strategy that requires them to focus on the sources of instability and then to use our programmatic resources to address those sources of instability is a fundamental shift for USAID and how we work on stabilization. That's going to be and has been a big focus of our effort this year. We've learned a lot from it and we're going to intensify it.

Afghan Ownership
The second thing that is also really important is coming back to this issue of transition. With all of the assistance that we have today for Afghanistan, we need to make sure that the way we are using those resources is also feeding a longer-term transition to greater Afghan ownership and leadership and sustainability.

We must focus some of our resources into places where the Afghans are more in control of their destiny already—where security is better, where governance is better, and where we can do better, longer-term development work today. This will help to set the stage for transition, but it also creates immunity or a bulwark against the insurgency, because you are really demonstrating to the Afghan people what that future can look like, in a positive way.

Shared Vision
If we're ever going to do anything successful in these countries, we need to have and share a long-term vision of these countries, which is both a historical understanding of where they've come from and how we're aligned with them, to get to where they want to go. And if we're not supporting that vision, then we're going to fail.

It's not only about understanding where these countries are coming from, or having a historical perspective on assistance (why they view us the way that they do; where they feel that we've been unreliable in the past; what types of things they think we can accomplish). It's about also making sure that we are really aligning our vision of where that country wants to go.

And that comes from them. We can support them in defining that, and we can support them in reaching it, but it really has to come from them.

A New Home
This year we transitioned from a temporary task force into a fully fledged independent office—the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs (OAPA)—giving us independent budget and hiring authorities. This has been a great boost to our staff here in Washington and in the field—and we are excited to welcome many new members into our extremely dynamic (if sometimes a little too dynamic) teams.

Last updated: October 13, 2017