Opinion

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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When the West first intervened in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, experienced aid coordinators, journalists, and diplomats had some simple advice:

Don’t get carried away with wasteful military campaigns or a Sisyphean anti-narcotics drive. They contribute little to long-term peace. To help Afghanistan, focus instead on modest but doable development initiatives in the countryside, where nearly 80 percent of Afghans live.

This largely ignored advice still holds, as high-level delegations gather in Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 5 to consider the way forward in Afghanistan, which has suffered from more than three decades of war. It’s a critical time as NATO-led security forces seek to transition toward 2014, when most troops are expected to leave.

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Western and Afghan leaders first met in this German town a decade ago to kick-start a proposed “Marshall Plan” for the reconstruction of this largely impoverished mountainous and desert country.

And yet, at their peril, many nations involved in the “Bonn process” often sought to impose their own agendas – through arrogance or a poor understanding of the situation on the ground. These agendas largely failed to take into account the interests of Afghans.

They have led not only to a disastrous war but also a recovery effort with only limited impact. Afghanistan has reached “a permanent condition of rottenness,” says Anders Fange, the respected former head of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan.

The question now is whether the international community will have the imagination – and commitment – to remedy the situation. As it stands, the coalition death toll – more than 2,800 – is fast approaching the number of people who perished in 9/11, while insurgents are operating in areas where they never did before.

True, the donors have helped bring about improvements, such as schooling for 7 million children, one third of them girls. Another 7 million, however, have yet to benefit from education. In many areas, health care is far better than 10 years ago, but many Afghans still don’t have even basic health services.

Various initiatives, such as paved roads and 24-hour electricity, have enhanced life in Kabul and other cities, and urban women can study at university or work outside the home. More than a quarter of the country’s parliament now consists of women, one of the highest ratios in the world.

However, for the majority of Afghans, especially in rural areas where many suffer from malnutrition and hunger, there is enormous frustration, even anger. Many wonder where the billions of dollars of aid money have gone. In certain parts, change has been brought about by cross-border trade and private investment, not development support.

Washington has yet to recognize that by allowing US military interests to dictate policy for the past decade, it has heavily undermined the recovery process. Numerous Afghans regard NATO forces as the “new occupation.” But they also fear the insurgents, who have infiltrated government ministries, including the army and police. Civilian casualties, the majority of them rebel-inflicted, are up compared to last year.

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.

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.

• Concentrate aid on two vital social needs: health care and education.

• Adopt a 20-30 year approach toward helping Afghans achieve full recovery.

• Cut wasteful spending. The international community needs to stop contracting to private corporations that require armed mercenaries in order to operate, plus rely on massive overheads with costly consultants. Instead, donor countries should support NGOs or private initiatives that work closely with local communities as their best security, that hire Afghans, and that are committed to the long-term.

• Encourage a “real” Afghan economy, not one reliant on war. Afghanistan can be a commercial crossroads serving the Middle East and Indian subcontinent, instead of one that benefits foreign militaries or political interests of its meddling neighbors (case in point: Pakistan, which says it will boycott the Bonn conference over NATO airstrikes that killed its soldiers on the Pakistan-Afghan border).

• Adopt a more realistic approach toward the armed opposition by focusing on individuals rather than terrorist labels. The rebels now consist of an array of local and foreign insurgents, including rogue elements within the Kabul government. The term “Taliban” has become meaningless.

While some talks have taken place, the process needs to be stepped up in a neutral location such as Geneva or Istanbul by involving all factions and fronts in a broad-based reconciliation initiative, possibly under UN auspices.

Even if the official Taliban and the Haqqani network say they refuse to negotiate until all NATO soldiers have left, the outer layers of these insurgents can be peeled away through better outreach. It does not help to kill, incarcerate, or torture them. As one aid worker maintained: “Even the most hard-line commander has a family who may need medical treatment, education, or improved farming techniques” – and thus has an interest in Afghanistan’s recovery.

And negotiations must focus on Afghans – not foreigners, as happened with disastrous consequences after the Soviets left the country. Many at Bonn will be tempted to promote a spin that justifies their military-flavored decisions to date. What’s needed, though, is a new approach that helps Afghans rebuild their own country – with them in the lead.

Edward Girardet is the author of “Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan.” He has reported widely from humanitarian and conflict zones in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere for The Christian Science Monitor, US News & World Report, and PBS News Hour. He is also co-founder of the Institute for Media and Global Governance (IMGG) in Geneva and is editor of “The Essential Field Guides to Humanitarian and Conflict Zones: Afghanistan."

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