Road to recovery in Afghanistan goes through the countryside
As NATO troops prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014, donor countries must rethink their aid to that war-torn country. Edward Girardet, who has reported on Afghanistan for more than 30 years, writes that they must focus on rural areas, where most Afghans live.
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Even coalition claims of increased “kills” do not imply success in what has become a classic guerrilla war. If anything, wiping out key commanders with drone predators may actually impair peace talks by eliminating the very people who need to be included. Those who replace them, often young recruits brought up in Pakistan with no sense of Afghan culture, are far more intransigent than their 30-40-year-old elders.Skip to next paragraph
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The deployment of “provincial reconstruction teams,” which double as army intelligence and development operations, is another area where the military has dangerously compromised recovery by confusing the role between soldiers and aid workers.
Last year, gunmen executed 10 international and Afghan medical volunteers, including two Americans who had been working in Afghanistan for over 30 years. The message? Insurgents no longer differentiate between humanitarians and the military.
Coalition troops seek to improve contacts with local populations by building schools, digging wells, or building bridges. The problem is that most operate on six-month deployments. There is rarely adequate consideration for what happens after they leave. Aid agencies say the military should not become involved with humanitarian activities except as a last resort.
If only a fraction of the war effort had been spent on tangible recovery, then Afghanistan might be a far different place today. More than 60 percent of US development support is geared toward security, such as hiring mercenaries. The current obsession for military responses needs to revert to more traditional diplomacy coupled with what experts describe as “intelligent” aid and investment.
The Obama administration, however, is now cutting by half – from $4 billion in 2010 to around $2 billion in 2012 – precisely the sort of development funding needed to stimulate the change that should have happened years ago. “The absurdity is that we have spent over $50 billion on a pointless war and a reconstruction effort that is proving a dismal failure,” notes one USAID official.
Foreign funds keep the Afghan economy going. But these will decrease drastically over the next two or three years, prompting the collapse of government programs, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and private businesses. Tens of thousands of jobs will disappear.
In Bonn, the nearly 100 delegations should consider who will support the 352,000-strong Afghan security force ($7 billion dollars a year) projected to take over from NATO. The Soviet-backed communist regime collapsed in the early 1990s when funding dwindled and most well-trained soldiers, police, and militia switched sides. The result? A bitter civil war that cost the lives of thousands.
Steps the "Bonn conference" can take
The Kabul government clearly does not wish to be abandoned by its foreign partners. Yet without a relatively well-functioning state, the likelihood of defeating a motivated insurgent force is small indeed. Nor will it have the capacity to manage effective recovery, which may take another 20 or 30 years.
Nevertheless, there are practical ways to help Afghanistan move toward real peace and recovery. These ideas are not new, but they must be adopted urgently. The international community should:
• Place greater emphasis on job creation and development in the countryside to prevent mass migration to the cities. This includes better access to roads bringing farmers closer to markets.
• Instead of the anti-opium focus, aid should be directed more toward export and storage of legal produce, such as apples, pears, and other fruit attractive to Saudi, Pakistani, Indian, and other markets.
• Development assistance should encourage quality rural industries: eco-tourism and woodcraft (toys and furniture), while natural resources need to be developed.
• Coordinate pay scales to prevent income inflation. Doctors, teachers, and other civil servants should receive higher salaries and incentives to prevent corruption, and also encourage a return to the countryside. This would save hundreds of millions of dollars annually.