By Michael Shank

Last month I went to Afghanistan, not with a congressional delegation but on my own.

My boss, Rep. Michael M. Honda, California Democrat, is chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ Afghanistan Task Force and has a keen interest in rethinking U.S. strategy there.

With Mr. Honda’s blessing, I went to Kabul on my time and dime, in an unarmored “soft-skinned” vehicle, locally attired in a Peran Tumban, no flak jacket, and armed with nothing but an aim to listen and understand.

Meeting with Afghan government and former Taliban ministers, Afghan human rights and elections commissioners, United Nations and World Bank officials, and international and local nongovernmental organizations, I wanted to hear a full spectrum of perspectives. Here on Capitol Hill, I heard the State and Defense departments’ pitch; now I wanted to hear the Afghan perspective.

“To leave or not to leave” was not the question. The majority of Afghans with whom I met wanted the international community to stay. Do not leave, they said, but do things differently – the American approach is not working.

A quick look around Kabul, and I saw what they meant. The lawless streets remain flooded, muddied, potholed and even sewage-filled; power outages are common; and newborns face the second-most unhealthy and unstable environment, next to Somalia, according to a recent United Nations report.

Eight years in, Afghans are wondering if Americans are there truly to help the country. If we are trying to immunize the country from insurgencies, Afghans question our approach.

Forget about poverty for a second, and consider corruption, a concern among many congressional minds. With Transparency International’s November report ranking Afghanistan the second-most corrupt country in the world, there was an implicit understanding of America’s role in this ranking.

In an attempt to mollify the country after tackling the Taliban in 2001, the United States supported warlords and corrupt officials, who continue to remain in both Parliament and provincial offices.

These allies provide intelligence to the military and security to the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), albeit at a high price morally and financially. Afghans quickly cry foul on this corruption and are keen to support President Hamid Karzai’s housecleaning, but they know that Mr. Karzai cannot do it alone. So long as the United States points fingers at Mr. Karzai, and as long as the United States continues to aid and abet the savviest of warlords, say locals, Mr. Karzai remains unable to bring to justice warlords and corrupt officials.

Also, the government is still working out the bureaucratic kinks that exacerbate corruption trends. Getting a driver’s license, for example, requires 51 office visits, which is 50 extra opportunities for skimming funds. This, along with a fledgling judicial system, makes it tough to crack down on crime.

Beyond corruption, consider the inefficacy of foreign aid flowing into the country. Local Afghans see that the PRTs, managed by the State and Defense departments, are operating with little or no community preparation, trust or legitimacy, establishing a highly secure shop reliant on foreign imports for survival (apples from New Zealand, bottled water from Dubai) and depending upon security contractors – at a rate of $14,000 per person per day – to maneuver.

Local Afghans compare this development approach, which leaves 10 cents of every foreign aid dollar in Afghanistan, to their government’s National Solidarity Program, a much more cost-efficient development initiative that works with locally elected community development councils to design and implement village projects.

Despite foreign aid’s billions spent, with little Afghan infrastructure, institutions and individual capacity to show, the inefficiency of the military presence is perhaps most striking. For the cost of one U.S. soldier, at $1 million a year, you could train and pay several hundred Afghans soldiers. Only 30 cents of every foreign military dollar stays in Afghanistan, and a 50-percent attrition rate plagues the Afghan forces.

After serving three years, most Afghan forces go to private security contractors or the Taliban because the pay is better. Training and capacity are equally insufficient. More than 2,000 U.S. troop trainer positions remained unfilled in 2009, which is taking a toll on the Afghan National Police (ANP) – a body that, as one government minister noted, exists in name only. As an ANP cop bicycled past me one day on his rickety bike, I got a sense of what the minister meant.

Afghans wonder, in sum, why the international community has not tackled corruption, foreign-aid ineffectiveness, military inefficiencies, let alone the poverty. Furthermore, Afghans see the political differences between Mr. Karzai’s camp and the disarmed, ready-to-reintegrate former Taliban as reconcilable.

Yet, despite these bungled eight years, Afghans are optimistic. They want us to stay – even former Taliban leaders want this – provided we rethink our strategy.

The switch is not that difficult, though our private-sectored development and military complexes might find it less profitable. Afghans are simply asking for an Afghan-centered approach, one that puts Afghans at the fore of every peace and security effort, one the builds sustainable Afghan state and local capacity, and one that sets new precedents for justice and accountability.

Do this and you build a country Afghans see worth dying for, not one worth fighting against.

Michael Shank is communications director for Rep. Michael M. Honda. This article reflects the individual opinion of the author and not the office of Mr. Honda.