For nearly sixteen years in Afghanistan, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has sought to deliver effective development results in a war zone. Its most extensive program since Vietnam, the effort has pushed the agency well beyond its traditional boundary of delivering development aid. This report—which is based on field experience in Afghanistan, interviews, and a review of retrospective analyses—examines the challenges of working amid conflict while, despite generous funding, subject to shifting political and security objectives and high expectations. Its recommendations are specific and targeted to future endeavors in similar environments around the world. 

Summary

  • The demands on USAID in Afghanistan since 2002 have pushed it well outside its traditional boundaries.
  • Expectations were high that USAID would provide development to match the major U.S. military effort: delivering enduring development results in a war zone and billions of dollars of assistance in the face of ever-changing priorities and urgency in a country torn apart by decades of civil war.
  • Running throughout have been trade-offs, and at times tension between short-term security and political objectives, using quick-response actions and longer-term development efforts needed to strengthen institutions, support economic growth, reconstruct destroyed infrastructure and build a state after decades of civil war.
  • Short-term stabilization programs or long-term development programs in areas with active ongoing conflict have had limited enduring impact. Targeted humanitarian assistance has had more impact.
  • Clarity is essential for short-term, quick-impact, quick-response programs, especially in regard to related timelines, sustainability issues, risks, the impact of exogenous events on stability, governance and “hearts and minds” programs, and the broader strategic policy requirements to achieve stated U.S. political and security objectives. Keeping expectations reasonable, especially in complex environments, is imperative.
  • As much as possible in a war zone situation, proven development principles—such as local systems, sustainability, evidence-based design and implementation, strong monitoring and evaluation, and country ownership—need to be maintained. Requisite analyses up front are essential, as is focus on institutions and local capacity.

About the Report

This Special Report examines the challenges the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) encountered while working in a war zone, despite generous funding, subject to high expectations for long-term institutional development results and constantly shifting U.S. short-term political and security objectives. Based on field experience in Afghanistan, interviews with key practitioners, and a review of retrospective analyses, the report was drafted while the author was an interagency professional in residence at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The report reflects the author’s viewpoints and opinions and not those of USAID or USIP.

About the Author

William Hammink is a recently retired career minister in the U.S. Foreign Service and has thirty-six years of experience working with USAID, including as mission director in Afghanistan, India, Sudan, and Ethiopia and assistant to the administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Related Publications

What are the Prospects for Power-Sharing in the Afghan Peace Process?

What are the Prospects for Power-Sharing in the Afghan Peace Process?

Monday, September 16, 2019

By: Alex Thier

While the negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban were recently thrown-off course, a peace agreement among Afghans remains an urgent priority. The U.S.-led negotiations over a phased drawdown of U.S. troops in exchange for a Taliban commitment to eschew terrorism and engage in intra-Afghan negotiations took nearly a year. Yet these talks excluded the Afghan government and other political elites and didn’t address the fundamental question of what it will take for Afghans to put a sustainable end to four decades of war: how will power be shared?

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

A Rift Over Afghan Aid Imperils Prospects for Peace

A Rift Over Afghan Aid Imperils Prospects for Peace

Monday, September 16, 2019

By: William Byrd

As the United States has pursued peace talks with the Taliban, international discussions continue on the economic aid that will be vital to stabilizing Afghanistan under any peace deal. Yet the Afghan government has been mostly absent from this dialogue, an exclusion exemplified this week by a meeting of the country’s main donors to strategize on aid—with Afghan officials left out. The government’s marginalization, in large part self-inflicted, is a danger to the stabilization and development of Afghanistan. In the interests of Afghans, stability in the region and U.S. hopes for a sustainable peace, this rift in the dialogue on aid needs to be repaired.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Economics & Environment

Afghan peace talks are damaged, but not yet broken.

Afghan peace talks are damaged, but not yet broken.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

By: USIP Staff; Andrew Wilder

President Trump’s weekend announcement of a halt to U.S. peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban—including a previously unannounced U.S. plan for a Camp David meeting to conclude that process—leaves the future of the Afghanistan peace process unclear. USIP’s Andrew Wilder, a longtime Afghanistan analyst, argues that, rather than declaring an end to the peace process, U.S. negotiators could use the setback as a moment to clarify the strategy, and then urgently get the peace process back on track before too much momentum is lost.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Breaking, Not Bending: Afghan Elections Require Institutional Reform

Breaking, Not Bending: Afghan Elections Require Institutional Reform

Friday, August 30, 2019

By: Scott Smith; Staffan Darnolf

Afghanistan’s presidential election is scheduled to take place on September 28. In planning the election, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) must overcome a number of practical challenges to avoid repeating the mistakes of the 2018 parliamentary elections—elections that undermined the legitimacy of the state and reduced Afghans’ confidence in democracy as a means for selecting their leaders. Based on a careful analysis of the IEC’s performance during the 2018 elections, this report offers recommendations for creating more resilient electoral institutions in Afghanistan and other postconflict countries.

Type: Special Report

Democracy & Governance

View All Publications