07/08/2011 07:39 EDT | Updated 09/07/2011 05:12 EDT

Instead of Exiting Afghanistan, it's Time to Re-Engage

Western leaders have repeatedly justified military intervention as a means for providing security for community-building development efforts. Perhaps it's time we revisited that construct.


A few days ago I spoke with a highly placed individual in the Canadian Department of Defence who made the following troubling observation: "Glen, with the drawing down of Canadian forces out of Afghanistan, it will be inevitable that long-term development will follow suit. Nothing can be done about it."

One supposes it was inevitable that the Canadian war effort would come down to this kind of "zero-sum" logic. At one point there were 150,000 foreign troops from 47 countries deployed in the Afghan conflict, with the Canadian component adding up to roughly 3,000 personnel. Yet what had began as an all-out effort to remove the Taliban has evolved into a complex maze of counterinsurgency -- all of this occurring amid the backdrop of tens of thousands killed.

It's hard to believe that billions upon billions of dollars have been poured into a country that some are now assuming will become more devoid of the effective delivery of aid. This has been standard reasoning because Western leaders have repeatedly justified military intervention as a means for providing security for community-building development efforts. Perhaps it's time we revisited that construct.

We continue to underestimate the desire of the Afghan people to rid themselves of the rigors and punishments of the Taliban movement. A reduction in the number of security forces will surely have a negative impact, yet the people themselves still desire schooling for their children, along with medical institutions, clean water, and a women's institute for the training of female leaders with promise.

One example of how to break out of the "no development without security" paradigm is the concept of "Community-Driven Reconstruction" -- a promising new model for conflict areas like Afghanistan. In his book Adapt, author Tim Harford writes of a partnership between development researchers and the International Rescue Committee. It works like this. A non-governmental organization persuades a local community to form a community democratic council, elected by citizens, whose job it is to prioritize and assist in overseeing needed projects in its region, as well as watching out for corruption which they could spot far more easily than any aid worker.

In Liberia, for instance, grants of up to $17,000 (US) were secured if the councils were successful. Such a sum represented hundreds of times the annual income of the average Liberian. It was a gambit that paid off.

A key innovation in this approach was the villages were offered five dollars along with a choice: they could keep all of it for family needs or they could contribute some or all to the overall community requirements. And here was the kicker: for every dollar they donated, the village would receive twice or five times as much. To everyone's surprise (it was a field test after all), 60 per cent of the participants gave up everything -- a remarkable development that spoke to the generosity of the local people despite their own personal needs.

This model has been so successful that the World Bank has already donated some $2 billion (US) to its ongoing evolution since 2003. Liberia had been one of Africa's more war-torn regions -- a lesson that has now prompted partners to begin a similar process in conflict-ridden Congo.

All this has implications for Afghanistan and the Canadian effort, perhaps the most important being that such an arrangement can work with or without security forces. It empowers communities in stressed environments to take charge of their own fate through targeted investments not just in the communities themselves, but by unleashing the sacrificial and generous impulses of the people themselves.

Canadian troops pulling out should never cause this country to close the doors to what Canadian NGOs and the government's Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) can accomplish. A difficult and complex chapter of our history is drawing to a close, but the relationships established with Afghan civilians and communities for over a decade mustn't be severed but rather evolve into more long-term partnerships that can defy war and thrive in peace because of the noble aspirations of the Afghans themselves. Our participation in war is ending; our commitment to peace and development is now presented with new and exciting opportunities.