'Humvees in a China Shop' No Help in Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan -- The new commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, announced: "The Afghan people are at the center of our mission. In reality, they are the mission." The four-star general was wearing military fatigues, but his wording sounded civilian. Indeed, when President Obama explained in March how the United States plans "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan," he ordered a "civilian surge" in Afghanistan. But make no mistake: The civilian part of the coalition operations here is subservient to the military arm.
The problem with this approach is that when military structures perform or oversee civilian tasks, the nonmilitary humanitarian work often gets politicized and militarized, and the difference between the two is blurred. If executed as planned, the "civilian surge" may worsen the situation here.
Integrating more civilians into military structures means further militarizing what has traditionally been humanitarian work. This is not in the interest of the Afghan people, who expect security from coalition forces and assistance from civilian aid agencies.
The main destination of this "surge" will be the U.S.-led provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), whose performance in Afghanistan has been criticized by humanitarian groups on the ground: One aid worker from a European nongovernmental organization said they behave like "Humvees in a china shop."
While working in the eastern city of Jalalabad last year, I heard many tales that amounted to such porcelain-breaking. The main victims were the communities the PRTs were seeking to help. An Afghan working for an Asian NGO recounted how 15 Humvees entered their compound unannounced and the uniformed "farenjee" (Afghan for "foreigners") began conducting quick medical examinations -- 45 seconds per patient -- while photographing the process to document their outreach. (After complaints from the NGO, the Americans said they spent 105 seconds per patient, not 45.) There was the time that armed, uniformed Americans arrived at an orphanage, I was told, to distribute pencils and notebooks. In the process, the Americans terrified the female employees of the orphanage and the young children. An Afghan doctor from an American NGO told me his concerns about the welfare of communities where the PRTs distribute medicines from their Humvees: The labels are in English or Urdu, he noted, not Pashto, the language spoken in the region.
I visited Jalalabad again in May. The aid agency I work for, the International Rescue Committee, continues to implement programs there, but even now the ever-deteriorating security environment means we mostly have to rely on our trusted staff of Afghans. I did get to visit the American PRT in Jalalabad, where I was received by a senior civil affairs officer. He told me and an Afghan colleague of mine that Americans were no longer going out to villages uninvited. I suggested that the danger still existed for locals contacted by the PRTs -- these Afghans could be branded collaborators. But the officer saw no problem. "Our presence forces them to make a choice: Either they support the government or they support the Taliban," he said. And he added, "It takes a little bit of courage if you want to be free; freedom does not come free."
My Afghan colleague later told me of recent incidents in which a mullah was killed in Chaparhar, apparently for working with government and coalition forces, and another mullah was decapitated in Khogyani for allowing his two sons to serve in the Afghan National Army, which was trained by the U.S.-led coalition.
Contact with the foreign troops, it seems, does not come free, either.
The PRT in Jalalabad has not had significant run-ins with nongovernmental organizations over the past year, but problems persist. Staff changes are frequent, and the handovers are poor, so Afghans watch the civilians who are arriving continually try to reinvent the wheel. I am confident that the civil affairs officer I spoke with and his colleagues from the National Guard have the best of intentions, but theirs is a mission impossible. The PRTs' directive to "win the hearts and minds" -- known as WHAM -- and to implement "quick-impact projects" is better suited for charity handouts than a strategy for reconstruction and development.
Simply put, PRTs are a military tool attempting to perform civilian tasks. Inherently, they undermine the necessary distinction between the development objectives of humanitarian aid workers and the political-military objectives of coalition forces.
Relief and development work is more effectively done by experienced and independent aid agencies, working in partnership with the communities they serve. Staff members at the main NGOs in Afghanistan are mostly national (99 percent of IRC staff is Afghan) and know the local languages and culture. As such, they do not require expensive protection. They are also experienced in aid delivery. Most NGOs have been working with Afghans for many years and are committed to long-term stabilization and recovery.
Civilians in Afghanistan are caught between the Taliban and coalition forces. Humanitarian groups cannot be "force multipliers" or "post-battle cleanup" teams; they are the only ones with enough impartiality to provide assistance to the Afghan people. And for the aid community there is no question: The Afghan people are definitely "our mission."
© 2009 The Capital Times