fghanistan held its elections on September 28. Although we won’t know results for weeks, a relatively low turnout underscores the shortcomings of the U.S.’ approach to peacebuilding and security in the troubled state. Voter concern about Taliban attacks and electoral fraud led many to stay at home. It’s not controversial to assert that security and institutional trust are essential in bringing stability to a fragile democracy, but for both the Afghan government and the U.S., a strategy for achieving these aims has proven elusive. The news isn’t all bad, though. There is a relatively young—but active and growing—set of civil service organizations (CSO) in Afghanistan looking to support community-building and democratic activities. And there is a clear strategy the U.S. can take to support CSO success.

Before 2001, most CSO activity was either involved in traditional governance or humanitarian aid pursuits. After the Taliban was removed from power, international NGO support and funding for CSO activity boosted dramatically and they’ve taken on an accordingly broader spectrum of development activities.

Formal U.S. government support for CSO activity doesn’t address the fundamentally marginalizing nature of the now-defunct U.S.-Taliban peace talks. However, a realigning of our strategic priorities to emphasize support for CSOs could go a long way toward addressing a deficit of institutional trust—which itself can go a long way toward supporting long-term security. A 2012 USAID program called the Afghan Community Cohesion Initiative (CCI) was a near miss, which illustrates the potential for a successful support strategy. It also illustrates some of the challenges—especially domestic political—to a successful long-term strategy of support.

CCI was initially intended to strengthen “ties between local actors, customary governance structures, and the Afghan government,” as well as “increasing cohesion among and between communities.” The program concentrated on seven of Afghanistan’s most conflict-ridden provinces with the idea that this strengthening of ties would make communities more resistant to conflict. In 2013-2014 a review of the program realigned its goals to focus on creating stability for a round of elections. This allowed the U.S. to claim a victory and draw down security and programmatic involvement in the regions—in line with domestic political goals of a military drawdown in 2014. However, an internal USAID report (“Community cohesion initiative: Quarterly report, October–December 2014”—no longer available online) found that violence in the seven provinces returned to pre-program levels shortly after disengagement.

Yet a SIGAR review of the CCI program found considerable areas of progress despite intermittent difficulties communicating programmatic goals with Afghan stakeholders. Despite these difficulties, conflict between communities decreased as a result of ongoing Afghan-led and CCI-supported infrastructural and cultural programs. USAID’s challenges in communicating program aims and recurrent violence highlight the need for long-term, reliable programs with an expanded scope. A RAND working paper highlighted the need for a long-term approach in Afghanistan mixing civic programs and security arrangements. Support for community initiatives on institution and infrastructure building will do a lot, as would a turn toward actively supporting Afghan-led CSOs concerned with government accountability, ethnic rights, and gender rights.

This support must be durable. The CCI illustrates how important it is to insulate long-term policy in Afghanistan from shifting currents in U.S. domestic politics. Unreliable levels and types of engagement in Afghanistan by the U.S. undercuts our reputation—and rightly so. The realignment of the CCI and subsequent drawdown of involvement echoes concerns voiced by U.S. military personnel and Afghan officials in 2009. In a 2009 Congressional hearing, Lt. Gen. David Barno told Congress that one concern often related to him by Afghans could be summarized in the question: “You Americans are not going to abandon us again, are you?” In 2014 for the promising CCI, the answer was “yes.”

We can do better than this, and Afghanistan certainly deserves better. For all its failings, the CCI demonstrated how a concerted effort can support democratic activities, as well as instructing us on how to do better. Right now, the U.S. is involved in some important programs, like Citizens Charter and the Afghan Civic Engagement Program (ACEP). This is good, but a public and forthright commitment to expand CSO support programs—and then ensuring the long-term reliability of that support—would be a fundamental step forward in Afghanistan that doesn’t require much. Just a little political will.

Shane Szarkowski
Shane Szarkowski is a freelance analyst whose work has touched on energy, state failure, and intervention practices and a contributing editor to Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.