Afghanistan's Unfulfilled Marshall Plan

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By Katherine Brown

The week began with a reminder that springtime in Afghanistan is fighting season. But it also marks the anniversary of a forgotten episode in U.S.-Afghan relations: Ten years ago Tuesday, President George W. Bush delivered a speech at the Virginia Military Institute in which he likened U.S. aid efforts in Afghanistan to the Marshall Plan.

The Marshall Plan was the post-World War II, extensive aid package designed to build strong, democratic societies in Western Europe and thwart the threat of Communism. The 16 countries that benefited from the aid became some of the U.S.'s strongest allies, and went on to form the European Union and NATO.

The lofty comparison in the April 2002 speech was, to put it mildly, disingenuous. The Marshall Plan, in 2002 dollars, amounted to about $90 billion; Bush at the time was  giving Afghanistan less than $1 billion in aid. The original Marshall Plan succeeded partly because the countries had existing infrastructure on which to build; Afghanistan barely had roads.

It may have been just a speech, but U.S. news travels, and it helped to set expectations in Afghanistan that the U.S. was committed to creating a strong, prosperous society that rebuffed extremism.

Not that there hasn't been progress. Afghans are healthier and better educated than ever before; the media is vibrant; and women have gone from being secluded in their homes to representing their fellow citizens in parliament. Innovative aid programs like the U.S. Agency for International Development's mobile money project has worked with the country's flourishing telecommunications industry, which reaches 85 percent of the country, to create a virtual financial infrastructure that has led to greater economic efficiency and transparency. And on Sunday, it was the Afghan National Security Forces that effectively ended a multi-city coordinated attack with minimal civilian casualties.

Still, Afghanistan will not have the grand-scale makeover that President Bush suggested 10 years ago, and our options for helping the Afghan people are becoming increasingly limited.

On Bloomberg View this week, Jeffrey Goldberg asked a rare question: Americans want out of Afghanistan by 2014, but what will we think if large swaths of the country once again come under Taliban control in 2015? And what will be the state of women, the populace most invested in the words of the West?

The argument that our credibility with Afghan citizens matters is not popular these days -- but it does matter, not just for the sake of principle, but for our long-term interests in a volatile part of the world.

(Katherine Brown is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial staff. Follow her on Twitter.)

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-0- Apr/19/2012 15:57 GMT