ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Afghanistan, l’aide dans une main, une arme dans l’autre
by Laurent Saillard
Translated Sunday 22 November 2009, by
Eight years on, 100,000 men from 41 different countries are still fighting in Afghanistan, and despite their technological superiority, they are bogged down and headed for a defeat, which, if it is not a military one, will at least be a political one.
Laurent Saillard is the director of ACBAR (Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief), the biggest and oldest of the UN platforms based in Afghanistan. Over the past few years, his work has led him to meet with the country’s different military, social and political players. He is based in Kabul.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the whole world seemed to approve of the American army intervention and its crusade against terrorism, Al Qaeda, and the Talibans. The great majority of the Afghan people welcomed the foreign armed forces with open arms and saw them as liberators. Eight years on, 100,000 men from 41 different countries are still fighting in Afghanistan, and despite their technological superiority, they are bogged down and headed for a defeat, which, if it is not a military one, will at least be a political one. The disillusion is so great that the Afghans are nostalgic about the days when Soviet troops were in their country.
The military expedition rests on fragile and mistaken bases. A few of the key elements in the Afghan puzzle are an over-hasty reading of Afghan society following the fall of the Talibans, an obvious underestimation of the role of religion and the influence of the clergy, the people’s fear of seeing the former mujahideen take power and the long-term consequences for those who backed them, and the amalgamation of Al Qaeda and the Talibans. All of these elements were poorly understood from the very beginning. The absence of a political structure to frame the military intervention, the desire to reproduce a Western political model in a complex and different geopolitical and cultural context, and the repetition of crimes that are identical to those committed by the enemy constitute other factors which explain why we are on the verge of failure in Afghanistan.
Wounded to the quick, the United States has confused justice and vengeance. The war should have ended right when the Talibans lost control of the country. Immediately afterwards, a broad peace and reconciliation process should have been initiated, and special military operations should have ceased. Some of those operations consisted in eliminating, without any further ado, entire lists of individuals who were designated as dangerous on the basis of doubtful intelligence. This unspeakable practice engendered new injustices and triggered an endless cycle of violence. From liberators, the Western armed forces have been turned into occupation forces, like the Soviet forces in the 1980s.
Our political leaders sometimes take decisions of a nature that threatens our long-term objectives. An example is the militarization of aid, aimed at obtaining immediate results that can be “sold” to public opinion, so as to justify a military presence and the expenses stemming from the mission. The attempt to find immediate synergies between the war effort and reconstruction, the linking of “security” and “development,” which leads to a continual escalation of the militarization of aid, is a perfect example.
Since the beginning of the military intervention in Afghanistan, the public monies allocated to the military forces, or to structures associated with the armed forces, such as the PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) for the realization of aid projects, have continually increased. Moreover, the U.S. Congress recently doubled the amount of these funds budgeted as “aid.” The main function of this budget is to facilitate the GIs’ mission by “winning the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people where the soldiers are. This doctrine of “winning hearts and minds” is not carried out solely by U.S. troops, but also by most of the nations that are militarily present, including France. For years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on more or less justified projects, often under chaotic conditions, with a clearly insufficient control of the use of these funds. In the final analysis, the lack of aim and of knowledge of the people being dealt with has created additional tension among the different communities. The lack of control of the use of the funds or of an understanding of the context has fed rampant corruption. The projects thus initiated are often very short-lived. As a general rule, the cost-effectiveness is disastrous.
Notwithstanding the unwise use of public funds, in the course of time this practice has produced a whole series of negative effects. Whether distributed directly by the armed forces or through paramilitary structures such as the PRTs and the private companies that make use of the services of private security firms (such as Blackwater), in a war context such aid creates confusion about the roles of the military and civilian players. In the long term, it winds up endangering the lives of the social workers who try to maintain their activities in the danger zones. This confusion of roles is partly responsible for the loss of access and the destruction of the formerly extensive UN network, which covered the country and could thus come to the aid of the Afghan people where they needed it most. The aid distributed by forces that are engaged in a conflict (or by privileged partners who are easily mistaken for the armed forces) also creates an ambiguous and unhealthy relationship between the international community and the civilian population. Although the population generally accepts the aid that is distributed, it only rarely gives its backing to the very people who bear the arms that serve to kill their friends and relations. The fact is, this practice is thoroughly detestable and scornful with regard to the civilian population, which is not fooled.
How can a relationship of trust be established on such a basis? The Boston Globe recently published an article by Andrew Wilder on the doctrine of “winning the hearts and minds,” in which he writes: “The war in Afghanistan will not be lost due to a lack of schools and clinics, be because the taxpayer’s money is being spent irrationally, which feeds more and more massive corruption, which in turn discourages the people and discredits both the government and the international community.”
Far from winning “hearts and minds” or providing the armed forces with a positive image, the U.S. army doctrine of “winning hearts and minds,” which France is also practicing, generates frustration and anger, creates an unhealthy relationship with the population, feeds corruption more than it fights it, threatens efforts at development, endangers humanitarian aid workers, and, sometimes, even provides unhoped-for support for the armed opposition. A good number of military men which whom I have been able to talk about this matter admit that they are not convinced of the link between security and development, and they deplore the political pressure that forces them to engage in activities for which they often have absolutely no training. Since Hamid Karzaï’s reelection, Messieurs Obama, Brown, Kouchner and many others have issued numerous declarations justly criticizing a corrupt administration. And yet, the Western countries cannot ignore that they too are contributing enormously to feeding this corruption, or that without better coordination with the Afghan authorities it will be impossible to fight against it.
Our deputies and senators are debating the French position in Afghanistan. Are they going to support what the government proposes to them, which is nothing other than an attempt to find synergies between the security effort and development? By so doing, are they going to continue to waste public money by sacrificing the long term to the short term? Or, on the contrary, and on the basis of the disastrous outcome that one can establish at the end of eight years of warfare, are they going to question this approach and demand an accounting from the government, before deciding on the form that French aid to Afghanistan must take in order best to serve the interests of the Afghans?
The military have got to be separated from development and humanitarian aid. Healthy relations with the Afghan people have got to be re-established. The waste of public funds has got to be ended (the cost-effectiveness of the emergency aid projects and development projects realized by the military is generally disastrous). The emphasis has got to be put on governance and the fight against corruption, and the Afghan authorities have got to be dealt with firmly on these two points (even if that leads regularly to passing crises). The peace and reconciliation process has got to be supported everywhere where dialogue is still possible. The arrests and physical elimination of elements identifies as Talibans has got to be ended.
Finally, emphasis has to be put on the coordination of international aid and working in tight collaboration with the Afghan ministry of finances and the relevant technical ministries. No money should be spent in Afghanistan without the knowledge of the authorities or without there being at least an agreement in principle between the lessors and the authorities on the projects that are directly financed by international aid, or without the funds transiting through the Afghan government.
In sum: perhaps we should do less but do it far better, and above all, we should understand and control what we are doing. The West could lose this war, not due to a lack of schools and clinics, but because of the waste of public funds, because of corruption and projects that destroy more than they reconstruct. It is completely absurd for soldiers to be engaged in agricultural development in Kapisa when they are being shot at as soon as they step off of their bases. How are we to evaluate the needs and develop constructive and lasting relations with the population? How are we, in such conditions, to begin a project and follow it through? It might be preferable to do no more than to support a process of conflict resolution and stabilization through dialogue and negotiation. All the rest is just putting a bandage on a wooden leg.
Sitting behind my desk, where I can hear the gunshots and explosions that punctuate the daily life of the people of Kabul, I wonder how many Afghans, every day, are going over to the other side because of our mistakes, our abuses, and our crimes. How many “terrorists” are born each day and take up arms?