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‘Our entire system of delivering aid is broken’

Administration officials say the U.S. is falling far short of Obama's goals to fight Afghanistan's deep corruption, create a functioning government and legal system and train a police force.
Image: Ruins in Kandahar
An Afghan boy washes among the ruins of a Kandahar building supplies store destroyed by a rocket attack in August. Recent reports assessing Afghanistan’s progress show government institutions are deteriorating as much as the country’s security. Tyler Hicks / The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

Even as President Obama leads an intense debate over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, administration officials say the United States is falling far short of his goals to fight the country’s endemic corruption, create a functioning government and legal system and train a police force currently riddled with incompetence.

Interviews with senior administration and military officials and recent reports assessing Afghanistan’s progress show that nearly seven months after Mr. Obama announced a stepped-up civilian effort to bolster his deployment of 17,000 additional American troops, many civil institutions are deteriorating as much as the country’s security.

Afghanistan is now so dangerous, administration officials said, that many aid workers cannot travel outside the capital, Kabul, to advise farmers on crops, a key part of Mr. Obama’s announcement in March that he was deploying hundreds of additional civilians to work in the country. The judiciary is so weak that Afghans increasingly turn to a shadow Taliban court system because, a senior military official said, “a lot of the rural people see the Taliban justice as at least something.”

Administration officials describe Mr. Obama as impatient with the civilian progress so far. “The president is not satisfied on any of this,” said a senior administration official, who asked for anonymity so that he could more freely discuss internal deliberations at the White House.

The disputed Aug. 20 Afghan election has laid bare the ineffectiveness of the government of President Hamid Karzai, administration officials said, and frozen steps toward reform.

The vote was so tainted by evidence of fraud and irregularities that no clear winner emerged.

Even before the election, a January Defense Department report assessing progress in Afghanistan concluded that “building a fully competent and independent Afghan government will be a lengthy process that will last, at a minimum, decades.”

Administration officials blamed the election for many of the setbacks and said a resolution to the vote — which some fear will not happen until next spring — would put them in a better position to move forward on civilian reforms.

“It was always regarded as hard to do, and it was very much keyed to having a successful election,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who coordinated the Obama administration’s initial review of Afghanistan policy in the spring. “Instead we had a fiasco.”

The questions within the White House over the Afghan government’s dysfunction have to some extent been obscured by the loud public debate in recent weeks about whether to increase troop levels and by how much.

Officials said over the weekend that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, had prepared options that include a maximum troop increase of about 80,000, a number highly unlikely to be considered seriously by the White House. Much of the official focus has been on a lower option that the general presented, for 40,000 additional troops. The United States currently has about 68,000 troops in the country.

Administration officials said there had been progress on Afghan education and access to health care, and claimed some success on a nascent antinarcotics campaign that has phased out efforts to eradicate poppy crops, used for opium, and stepped up interdiction and incentives for Afghan farmers to grow wheat. Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, is to promote the effort in a trip to Afghanistan in December, officials said.

State Department officials also said they were close to their target of having 974 aid workers in Afghanistan by year’s end as part of what they called Mr. Obama’s civilian “surge.” They said 575 civilians were on the ground now.

“From the very start, there was an understanding that we need to move quickly,” Jacob J. Lew, the deputy secretary of state overseeing the civilian deployment, said in a telephone interview. “We feel very good about the people we’re sending out. They’re motivated, they’re prepared, they’re brave.”

But Henry Crumpton, a former top C.I.A. and State Department official who is an informal adviser to General McChrystal, called those stepped-up efforts inadequate. “Right now, the overwhelming majority of civilians are in Kabul, and the overwhelming majority never leave their compounds,” said Mr. Crumpton, who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan. “Our entire system of delivering aid is broken, and very little of the aid is getting to the Afghan people.”

Anthony H. Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has advised General McChrystal, said that while progress had been made since 2001, when American-led forces toppled the Taliban, the overall effort “has been a nightmare; vast amounts have been wasted.”

Since 2001, the United States has allocated nearly $13 billion for civilian aid to Afghanistan, officials at the State Department said, and other countries have given or promised billions more. But in a sign of the difficulties of working with one of the poorest countries in the world, the Defense Department report in January noted that although the Afghan Ministry of Finance is responsible for tracking international aid, there is “no reliable data on the total amount of international assistance that has been pledged or dispersed to the country.”

So far, even determining how to judge progress has been a challenge for the administration.

When Mr. Obama announced his strategy in March, he promised benchmarks to assess how the administration was doing. Those benchmarks, 46 in all, were provided in draft form to Congress only last month, and members of both parties immediately called them too vague.

But the standards set out by Mr. Obama in a report that accompanied his March announcement made clear the overwhelming work to be done. Among other things, the report called for “a dramatic increase in Afghan civilian expertise,” “engaging the Afghan government and bolstering its legitimacy” and “breaking the link between narcotics and the insurgency.”

Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in a telephone interview last week that 50 to 65 civilian agricultural workers would soon be helping farmers in Afghanistan, up from the current 11. He also said it made sense to give farmers incentives to grow wheat rather than destroy their poppy crops, which he said were not as indispensable to Taliban financing as previously thought.

“We were taking a huge propaganda hit and accomplishing nothing,” Mr. Holbrooke said.

Advisers to the administration said the military was likely to do much of the civilian work in the foreseeable future, at least until Afghanistan is more secure.

Administration officials reported some success in training the Afghan Army, but acknowledged a failure to build up the Afghan police force, which is widely considered corrupt and feckless.

Mark Mazzetti, Thom Shanker and Peter Baker contributed reporting.

This article, "Civilian Goals Largely Unmet in Afghanistan,"first appeared in The New York Times.