Issues & Analysis

National Public Radio, Morning Edition: Afghan Civilian Programs

National Public Radio, Morning edition, Report on National Solidarity Program



This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I’m Mary Louise Kelly, in for Steve Inskeep.


And I’m Renee Montagne.

When General David Petraeus took over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan this last weekend, he stressed that the strategy there needs to be executed by one team, military and civilian.

This week, we’re looking at the civilian side of things. And this morning, we turn to Michael Semple, who spoke to us from Islamabad. He’s worked on civilian projects in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, most recently for the European Union and the U.N. Beyond Afghanistan, those civilian efforts are often overshadowed by news of combat and deadly attacks by militants.

I asked Michael Semple if assistance programs were visible to ordinary Afghans.

Mr. MICHAEL SEMPLE (Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard): It’s certainly visible inside Afghanistan. The Afghans are very much aware. However, I should say the aspirations that the Afghans had at the start of this process, you know, back down in 2001, were sky high. So it’s not so much that it’s invisible. It’s just that however much is thrown in, there’s always a sense, oh, well. It’s not quite what we expected.

MONTAGNE: Let’s talk about one project in particular that seems to be quite effective. It’s called the National Solidarity Program. It involves small reconstruction projects which seem to be really right for many of the areas of Afghanistan.

Mr. SEMPLE: The National Solidarity Program is a very interesting example of the kind of work which has been going on in Afghanistan for the past few years. It is run under the aegis of the Rural Development Ministry here, with participation of a range of international NGO’s. And the way they work is that they go into villages, encourage people to form committees in their villages to try and identify the kind of small-scale reconstruction project that they would like. And then through the project structure, they supply some more seed capital to enable them to get on with implementing their approach. And this is a very, you know, small-scale infrastructure work, for example, tapping hydroelectric power to provide electricity in the villages.

MONTAGNE: And this works because it gets local people involved in doing the actual work and making decisions?

Mr. SEMPLE: Yes. One of the fascinating things about the project is that when you ask people – the Afghans in the villages why they think these are successful, they often say ah-ha, because it’s not a government project -whereas, actually, it is a government project, but it’s a government project which is implemented with a high degree of community participation.

MONTAGNE: To the degree that they’re successful or visible, would the average Afghan distinguish the civilian projects as separate from the U.S. and NATO military campaign? Part of the military’s effort is to do things like build wells and even schools and whatnot.

Mr. SEMPLE: They certainly do overlap. One of the most interesting distinctions that I find is that even some of those people who were engaged in the insurgency, people with the Taliban movement basically say our chief demand is to see the end of the international troops in Afghanistan. But we hope in the future to be benefiting from and participating in international assistance programs. So even some of the people who are involved in the insurgency make this kind of distinction.

MONTAGNE: Both Americans and Afghans can identify General Petraeus as the face of the U.S. military campaign. I’m wondering if there, in Afghanistan, there is a face for the civilian effort. And I’m thinking here of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who mostly travels with the Afghan press – the local press. He’s not even that interested in the international press. Has he succeeded in being the face of the civilian effort?

Mr. SEMPLE: At the moment it’s clear that the ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, is indeed the face of the civilian effort. And the reason that he is focusing on traveling with the Afghan press is because he’s said it is a strategic priority that the Afghan population should understand the good things that are happening and not entirely focus on the ongoing conflict.

And his thinking there is that if the Afghans have a stake in peace, then there’s a chance that peace might actually work. And I think he’s decided to leave the business of persuading the American public that the intervention of Afghanistan is worthwhile to others. He’s focusing on trying to ensure that they, the Afghans themselves, have a stake in success.

MONTAGNE: Michael Semple spent 20 years working on civilian projects in Afghanistan. He’s now a fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.


Project presentation by Michael Sheridan, July 8, Washington DC

This Thursday, July 8 at 8 pm at the Corner Store Art Center, (address below) there will be a presentation on the development of Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.

The project’s director, Michael Sheridan, recently returned from Afghanistan and will introduce the project, screen a sample film and answer any questions.

During Michael’s recent trip to Afghanistan he was offered a generous $20,000 dollar matching grant. This fund will go toward the training of Afghan filmmakers who will serve as the film’s production team. Michael returned excited about the pool of talented, courageous and dedicated young Afghan filmmakers and print, radio and photojournalists with whom he can collaborate to capture the village-based stories for Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.

The need now is to raise the matching $20,000 dollars by the end of July so that the training of Afghan filmmakers can begin in August. The team will then film from within 6 villages for a year to experience from the Afghan perspective the costs and benefits of bottom up versus top down approaches and the impact of local versus foreign ownership of the development process.

Please join us for a stimulating presentation and discussion about an important project addressing pressing issues in Afghanistan and about America’s Afghan war strategy. It is urgent at this time of uncertainty and leadership changes in Afghanistan to call attention to more effective and efficient strategies for creating stability in poor and fragile states.

We hope to see you on Thursday. There will be a $5 donation requested at the door to help cover the host’s expenses. Please email this invite to friends and colleagues and post on any appropriate websites and list serves.

Event Location:
Corner Store Art Center,
900 South Carolina Ave, SE
Washington DC, 20003

Please let us know if you could host an event in your community. Thanks!


Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War – Pitch Reel

Community Supported Film’s Afghan team soon will be making the film Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War (BTKW). BTKW will from the Afghan villager’s perspective look at the impact of outsiders coming into their communities trying to help them.


US Marines – Creating more insurgents or space for development?

What Marja Tells Us of Battles Yet to Come
New York Times, June, 10, 2010

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times. Afghans passed through a Marine checkpoint last month in Marja, where fighting has continued since a highly publicized assault on insurgents in February.

MARJA, Afghanistan — Each day, American foot patrols move through farmers’ fields and irrigated villages. And each day some are ambushed or encounter hidden bombs. The patrols turn into gunfights in withering heat, or efforts to dismantle the bombs or treat the wounded. Casualties accumulate with the passing weeks, for Americans and Afghans alike.

A few months ago, Marja was the focus of a highly publicized assaultto push the Taliban from a stronghold and bring Afghanistan’s densest area of opium production under government control. The fighting remains raw.

What does it mean?

Is the violence a predictable summer fight for an area the Taliban and those who profit from the drug economy do not want to lose; in other words, an unsurprising flare-up that can be turned around? Or will Marja remain bloody for a long time, allowing insurgents to inflict sustained losses on American units and win merely by keeping the fight alive?

As NATO and Afghan forces flow into neighboring Kandahar Province, where for the next many months the latest high-profile effort to undo the Taliban’s hold will unroll, the continuing fighting in Marja can be read as a sign of problems in the American-led surge. It can also be read as something less worrisome: a difficult period in a campaign always expected to be hard.

A prevailing assessment among officers on the ground is this: The outcome is too soon to call.

“Right now it’s gray,” said Maj. Lawrence Lohman, the operations officer for Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, which operates outposts in northern Marja.

Those who deem the Marja offensive a disappointment, or even a failure, point to the daily violence and to the signs that Afghans have been leaving the area, at least temporarily, to avoid the fighting. They also point to Taliban intimidation of residents, a still limited government presence, and the continued reliance of Afghan police officers and soldiers on American supervision and logistics. These, they say, are ill-boding signs.

But the signals are contradictory.

Most of Marja’s civilians returned after moving away ahead of the initial assault. Most of them remain. Compounds that were empty in February are inhabited. Roads once quiet are busy. Fields are thick with crops. Shops in some bazaars have reopened. Afghan units participate visibly in dangerous missions.

Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, the battalion’s commander, noted that some of Marja’s residents had begun providing information on the Taliban, including sharing the names and locations of fighters. Many civilians have been seeking aid and a few have sought contracts for small scale development projects, the early steps in engagement.

“I’ve seen good growth and good progress,” the colonel said. He added: “There is still a lot to be done.”

The Marines point to what they clearly hope is a Helmand pattern, apparent in other districts, including Nawa, where the Taliban were strong and fighting was initially intense. The pattern, they said, is this: With time and resources, the insurgents’ position erodes, villages become secure, and engagement and the Afghan government presence expand.

Pursuing this goal, Marine companies have been sending out constant small patrols. Their presence keeps the Taliban occupied and inflicts losses, the Marines say, and creates the space to allow for development or programs to gain traction. In the short term, it is also a recipe for small-unit violence — fierce and frequent.

“It goes back to the very basics of what we do: gain and maintain contact,” said Col. Randall P. Newman, who commands Marine ground forces in central Helmand Province.

Colonel Newman said he expected skirmishes to decline in frequency in the months ahead. “I don’t think the guys who are shooting now are committed enough to keep doing this a long time,” he said.

More Western troops have died in Helmand Province than in any other, and the sight of medevac helicopters over Marja each day is a reminder that the area has become a center of the province’s bloodshed.

But Helmand is not uniformly violent. There are areas where fighting is regular — Marja, Sangin, Nahr-e-Saraj — and areas where the Taliban had fought hard before being marginalized as a combat force.

Moreover, the rising casualties have complicated causes. Some are related to the combined effects of Taliban resistance and the Marines’ grinding patrol tempo. Others can reasonably be attributed to a shift made last year to rules of engagement that guide American forces.

The shift de-emphasized airstrikes, artillery and mortars. This transferred some of the risk in skirmishes from Afghan civilians to Western combatants. In the past, American patrols in contact often quickly called for and received fire support. Not anymore. Many firefights these days are strictly rifle and machine gun fights.

Understanding the shift is important. It has made engagement times noticeably longer, driving up the troops’ risks and amplifying a perception that Marja, fought with less fire support than what was available to American units in other hotly contested areas, is mired in blood.

That perception has obscured a wider view. Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the British officer commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan’s south, urged patience. “The challenge with this campaign is that it takes time, because it’s in the minds of people, and its people take time to be convinced,” he said.

He also cautioned against drawing conclusions by extrapolating from Marja alone. The operation, he said, opened provincial roads. Six months ago, the provincial governor, Gulab Mangal, could barely travel; now he covers much of the province.

“You’ve got a central Helmand that is linked together, and in economic terms can develop,” General Carter said. “So I think people tend to make the mistake of just thinking about Marja.”

Meanwhile, Marines are wounded by bombs or shot each week. The violence in itself does not mean that the campaign is lost. Fighting is normal to war, a concept sometimes played down in discussions about the United States’ counterinsurgency doctrine, which emphasizes developing relationships with the population and helping government agencies gain credibility and provide services.

Those directly involved caution that a few months of fighting is not necessarily a basis for grim forecasts, especially during the first summer in a former Taliban enclave. American commanders have been voicing frustration nonetheless, as was evident last month in Gen.Stanley A. McChrystal’s description of Marja as “a bleeding ulcer.”

The remark underscores perhaps the clearest conclusion that can be drawn thus far. Even before the last troops of the Obama administration’s surge arrive in Afghanistan, high-level American commanders appear pressed for time, no matter the complexities faced by troops on the ground.


In Afghan region, U.S. spreads the cash to fight the Taliban

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; A01

NAWA, AFGHANISTAN — In this patch of southern Afghanistan, the U.S. strategy to keep the Taliban at bay involves an economic stimulus.

Thousands of men, wielding hoes and standing in knee-deep muck, are getting paid to clean reed-infested irrigation canals. Farmers are receiving seeds and fertilizer for a fraction of their retail cost, and many are riding around on shiny new red tractors. Over the summer, dozens of gravel roads and grain-storage facilities will be constructed — all of it funded by the U.S. government.

Pumping reconstruction dollars into war zones has long been part of the U.S. counterinsurgency playbook, but the carpet bombing of Nawa with cash has resulted in far more money getting into local hands, far more quickly, than in any other part of Afghanistan. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s agriculture program aims to spend upward of $30 million within nine months in this rural district of mud-walled homes and small farms. Other U.S. initiatives aim to bring millions more dollars to the area over the next year.

Because aid is so plentiful in Nawa — seemingly everyone who wants a job has one — many young men have opted to stop serving as the Taliban’s guns for hire. Unlike neighboring Marja, where insurgent attacks remain a daily occurrence, the central parts of Nawa have been largely violence-free the past six months.

But the cash surge has also unleashed unintended and potentially troubling consequences. It is sparking new tension and rivalries within the community, and it is prompting concern that the nearly free seeds and gushing canals will result in more crops than farmers will be able to sell. It is also raising public expectations for handouts that the Afghan government will not be able to sustain once U.S. contributions ebb.

“We’ve blasted Nawa with a phenomenal amount of money in the name of counterinsurgency without fully thinking through the second- and third-order effects,” said Ian Purves, a British development expert who recently completed a year-long assignment as the NATO stabilization adviser in Nawa.

U.S. officials responsible for Afghanistan policy contend that the initiative in Nawa, which is part of a $250 million effort to increase agricultural production across southern Afghanistan, was designed as a short-term jolt to resuscitate the economy and generate lasting employment. They say concerns about overspending are misplaced: After years of shortchanging Afghans on development aid, the officials maintain that they would rather do too much than too little.

“Our goal is to return Nawa to normalcy, to get folks back to their daily lives of farming, and that requires a large effort,” said Rory Donohoe, USAID’s agriculture program manager in Helmand province.

Of particular concern to some development specialists is USAID’s decision to spend the entire $250 million over one year in parts of just two provinces, Helmand and Kandahar. In Nawa, which has a population of about 75,000, that works out to about $400 for every man, woman and child. The country’s per-capita income, by comparison, is about $300 a year.

“This is a massive effort to buy people off so they won’t fight us,” said a U.S. development officer in southern Afghanistan.

The spending here is a preview of what the Obama administration wants to accomplish on a larger scale. USAID’s “burn rate” in Afghanistan — the amount it spends — is about $300 million a month and will probably stay at that level for at least a year.

The White House recently asked Congress for an additional $4.4 billion for reconstruction and development programs in Afghanistan, with the aim of increasing employment and promoting economic growth in areas beset by the insurgency.

Although some of that money will be directed through Afghan government ministries and local aid organizations to fund projects designed and run by Afghans, most of it will go to large, U.S.-based development firms with the ability to hire lots of people and spend lots of money quickly.

Among the programs in the pipeline is a $600 million effort to improve municipal governments across the country and to increase the provision of basic services to urban dwellers. The program is supposed to include extensive day-labor projects to pick up trash and plant trees, and it calls for the contractor to implement “performance-based” budgeting systems within two years, something that most U.S. cities do not have.

USAID also envisions spending $140 million to help settle property disputes. One of the agency’s hoped-for achievements is to train Afghans to appraise and value land.

Some development specialists question whether Afghanistan can absorb the flood of money, or whether a large portion will be lost to corruption, inefficiency and dubious ventures funded to meet Washington-imposed deadlines.

“We’ve turned a fire hose on these guys — and they can’t absorb it,” said a development specialist who has worked as a USAID contractor in Afghanistan for three years. “We’re setting ourselves up for a huge amount of waste and fraud.”

Improving farming
The $250 million agriculture program is the Obama administration’s principal effort to create jobs and improve livelihoods in the two provinces where U.S. troops are concentrating their counterinsurgency mission this year. It was designed to address what senior administration officials, particularly presidential envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, deemed to be scattershot and underfunded initiatives over the first eight years of the war to assist farmers, who make up most of the country’s workforce.

The program aims to make farms more productive, thereby increasing employment and living standards. It would do so by cleaning canals so more water gets to crops, offering subsidized seeds so farmers would be encouraged to switch from growing opium-producing poppies, establishing cooperatives to share tractors and constructing a network of gravel roads so they can take their goods to market.

To forge links between residents and their government, a 42-member community council decides which canals to clean and which roads to improve.

USAID selected International Relief and Development (IRD), an Arlington-based nonprofit development firm, to run the program. To get the work started quickly, the agency gave the company the $250 million as a grant last summer, instead of hiring it under contract to do the work, which would have taken longer.

Grants also involve fewer auditing requirements for USAID, but once awarded they limit the government’s ability to make changes.

The program has been a hit with Nawa residents since the day it began in December, largely because of the plentiful cash-for-work opportunities. Once the day labor began, unemployment disappeared almost overnight.

The initiative has put money in the pocket of almost every working-age male in the district. More than 7,000 residents have been hired for $5 a day to clean the canals, and a similar number of farmers have received vouchers for heavily discounted seeds and fertilizer. Thousands of others have benefited from additional forms of assistance through the program.

“We had nothing here before — only bullets,” said Gul Mohammed, a lanky tenant farmer, as he scooped mud from a narrow canal. He said the day labor is essential to feeding his family because he decided last fall, after a battalion of U.S. Marines arrived in Nawa, not to plant poppies on his 6.5-acre plot.

Now he is growing wheat, which fetches only about a quarter of what he would have made from poppies.

“We are so thankful for this work,” he said. “Without it, we would be going hungry.”

Local infighting
USAID’s decision to involve the community council in the disbursement was intended to help build local governance. It has done that, but it has also generated new frictions in the district.

When the council was formed last fall, the seven principal tribal leaders in the area decided not to participate. They did not want to risk the Taliban’s wrath by siding with the United States and the Afghan government. But now that the council has the ability to influence millions of dollars worth of projects, the leaders want a piece of the action.

The senior elder, Hayatullah Helmandi of the Barakzai tribe, has launched a campaign to discredit the council members, calling them opportunists and drug users. “The Marines should be working with us,” he said.

The infighting has prompted concern among some U.S. officials in the area. “These tensions probably wouldn’t be so severe if there wasn’t as much money involved,” one of them said.

Then there is the question of what to do with all the additional crops grown this year. Purves estimates that the program will increase agricultural production by tens of thousands of tons across central Helmand province.

“What on Earth will happen to that?” he said. “There’s no way all of that can be gotten to market, and even if it could, there simply isn’t a market for that much more food.”

Holbrooke and USAID agriculture experts want to construct cold-storage facilities so the produce can be trucked to markets in other parts of Afghanistan or exported to nearby countries. But that effort will not be completed in time to help farmers with this year’s crop.

The effort to spend the program funds as fast as possible has resulted in some items going to waste, according to people familiar with the effort.

Plastic tunnels to allow farmers to grow crops over the winter were not distributed until February — well after the winter planting season — so many of them simply used the plastic as window sheeting for their mud huts. The metal rods were turned into fences.

The cash-for-work programs are so plentiful and lucrative that some teachers and policemen sought to enroll before U.S. and Afghan officials barred their participation.

Among Nawa residents, the biggest worry is what will happen when the program ends Aug. 31. U.S. officials hope this effort will result in new farm jobs, but nobody thinks it will be enough to employ all of those participating in the day-labor projects. Although USAID is considering a follow-on agriculture program, it is not clear whether the labor component will be as large as it is now.

If not, Afghan officials said their government does not have the resources to make up the difference.

“Those cash-for-work men — half of them used to be Taliban,” said the district governor, Abdul Manaf. “If the Americans stop paying for them to work, they’ll go back to the Taliban.”

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Hopes for Afghan Community Councils to Undermine Taliban

NYT, by CARLOTTA GALL, Published: June 19, 2010

NADALI, Afghanistan — More than 600 men, most of them farmers with weathered faces and rough hands, sat on the ground under an awning, waiting all day to deposit their ballots in plastic boxes. They had braved Taliban threats and road mines to come here to select a district council, part of a plan to strengthen local government in the most unstable parts of Afghanistan.

“The important thing is we are trying to build trust between the people and the government,” said Qari Mukhtar Ahmad, a senior cleric attending the election last month. “This district was under fighting for a long time, but now there is peace and we have to listen to the people and bring them together.”

Peace is a relative term in Nadali, a district in the southern province of Helmand with one of highest levels of roadside bombs per square mile. Government officials still have to fly by helicopter from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, rather than risk the 20-minute drive.

The district encompasses Marja, a Taliban stronghold where United States Marines have been battling insurgents since February. Marja remains largely ungovernable, but the operation broke the hold of the Taliban in the rest of the district, making it stable enough to try to set up some local representation.

The election here, an exercise in nation-building from the ground up, is part of a pilot program to set up 100 district councils to provide representative government in places where government has largely been absent. But the councils, backed by the British and American governments, also represent a critical element of counterinsurgency strategy: if they succeed, the hope is they will convince people that there is a viable alternative to Taliban rule.

Since the beginning of the year, 35 such councils have begun work in nine provinces, and the American and British governments have pledged financing to establish 100 by July 2011, officials said. The ultimate goal is to have directly elected councils nationwide.

“It is a vital, basic element of administration,” said Christopher Demers, an adviser for theAgency for International Development in Kandahar. “Building a people’s body like this is important, it is giving people an opportunity to speak with the government.”

Military officials in the United States-led coalition have often expressed frustration at the inability of the Afghan government to move quickly into secured areas and start governing. Yet Afghan officials say that it is a lengthy task to build an administration from scratch and gain the trust of a population that has suffered at the hands of predatory officials and repeated military operations by foreign forces in recent years.

In many districts, like Nadali, there is little government presence, often only a district chief and a police chief, both appointed by the central government in Kabul. They have few resources or personnel. Most district chiefs have no official car and an official budget of only $12 a year, the United Nations said last year.

One of the successes of the Afghan government over the past eight years has been the National Solidarity Program, which set up small development councils across the country to undertake small reconstruction projects in every village. Yet it takes six months just to elect and train community councilors and two years to complete a village project, said Wais Ahmad Barmak, deputy minister in the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, who has 30 years experience in community development.

In the most insecure areas, like Helmand, the ministry has had to suspend its work, he said.

In Nadali it has taken a year of visiting villages and persuading people to cooperate with the government to get them to the point of electing the district council, said the district chief, Habibullah Shamlani, a former police academy instructor.

After several gatherings around the district, 600 representatives were selected to come and vote for 45 councilors, all of whom must live in the district, a change from the absentee landlords or tribal chiefs who have traditionally made the decisions.

“This district council should make all the decisions which affect the life of the district,” said Jelani Popal, who leads the local government directorate, an arm of the national government that is running the program. “We will use them for security reasons, like reintegration, they will be very active in deciding about development, but also governance, they can communicate or channel the grievances of the people to the governor and district governor.”

Those who took part in the selection said they were taking the risk because they needed representatives to intercede with the government and the foreign forces on a variety of problems from securing the release of detainees and compensation for war damage to resolving tribal and land disputes and winning development assistance for their areas.

“We hope the government will do something for us if we have this district council and we can share our problems with the higher authorities,” said Feda Muhammad Khan, an elected councilor. “We are fed up with the fighting, and there is a drought, and we are hoping peace will knock on our door.”

One of the main tasks of the council will be to persuade local insurgents to give up the fight and return to a peaceful life in the community, or if not to move away and stop destabilizing the area, Mr. Shamlani, the district chief, said. Already 40 people who were with the Taliban have been persuaded to quit fighting, he said.

“We are working step by step,” he said. “We cannot put too much pressure on the people to reject the Taliban. Gradually now, people have found some courage to point out who are Taliban. If things are sustained the same as now I am hoping by next year we will know who is behind it all.”

The key has been to deliver on promises of assistance and treat the people well, he said. “It takes time; you have to go and talk a lot and spend money,” he said.

But there is already evidence that the Taliban are fighting the councils much as they have resisted other government initiatives.

Some of the participants said they risked assassination if the Taliban in their area discovered that they were cooperating with the government. At least five councilors have been killed and one has been wounded since the four councils were formed in Helmand Province, officials said, presumably by the Taliban.

And the representatives choosing the council here included Taliban members, several participants said. They, too, wanted representation to help win the release of their people who have been detained.

Maj. Abdul Salam, who runs the police criminal department in Nadali, said the fact that 600 representatives showed up was itself a vote of confidence in the process.

“These people are here because they have some hope that the government is gaining strength and they are hoping they can defend themselves,” he said. “But you are right, they are in some danger.”

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.


Donor Meetings in Kabul

Michael’s June trip to Afghanistan involved a flurry of meetings and presentations as he advanced Afghan partnerships and sought international funding for Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.  Significant progress was made during this time, with specific focus on developing a 50,000 USD key initiative to train Afghans in video production and documentary storytelling. There are now 21 Afghan television stations, an astounding figure considering that much of the country has no access to electricity – no matter television.   Not one station, however, shows documentaries.

While there is a developing video-journalism and filmmaking community in Afghanistan there is limited experience with long-form documentary filmmaking. It is essential for Afghans to be communicating their issues to the Afghan public and the international community.  Currently the majority of information is provided by internationals.  Foreign journalists and storytellers predominately concentrate on the activities of their nationals. There is little of interest to them about what Afghans are doing for themselves.  It is very important for Afghans to hear from Afghans about what is and isn’t being accomplished by Afghans.

The Killid Group (TKG, see the page: Project Partners and Advisors to learn more), BTKW’s Afghan project partner, organized one gathering at the recently restored Queen’s Palace at the Bagh-i-Babur Gardens.

About 40 people from foreign embassy’s policy and development desks, UN agencies, the international and local non-governmental community and local media organizations and filmmakers, attended the presentation. After a brief introduction from TKG founder and president, Sahir Zahine, Michael outlined the project’s goals and showed our ten-minute introductory film.

Tariq Ismati, Executive Director of the National Solidarity Program (NSP), the Afghan government community development work highlighted in our film, also invited Michael to present the project during the NSP’s quarterly donor meeting on June 20th. We are extremely thankful to Tariq and the NSP staff for helping us coordinate this opportunity to communicate with funders who support Afghan led development work.  Some excellent conversations were started at this meeting with potential to bloom into support for the film and training program.

photos by Mirwais


World Bank Provides Additional Support for National Solidarity Program

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2010 — The World Bank approved a $40 million grant to the Government of Afghanistan today to support the Third National Solidarity Program (NSP III). NSP III builds upon the achievements of the first two phases of the NSP, widely recognized as one the most successful development programs in Afghanistan.

Under NSP III, the roll out of elected Community Development Councils (CDCs) to every rural community in Afghanistan will be completed. These Councils, made up of both men and women, determine the use of small grants to build essential infrastructure depending on the particular needs of the village. By channeling resources to democratically-elected CDCs, the program not only increases the access of rural communities to basic services and infrastructure, but also fosters participatory involvement and accountability in village level development.

The NSP has empowered rural people including women, strengthened local governance at the community level, enhanced social cohesion and promoted conflict resolution,” said Nicholas J. Krafft, World Bank Country Director for Afghanistan and Bhutan. “With the grants provided to the Community Development Councils, investments in rural infrastructure will not only empower the rural poor but will have longer term positive impacts on their quality of life.”

In addition to World Bank financing, the National Solidarity Program has been supported by some 20 donors who contribute to the World Bank administered Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), to the Japanese Social Development Fund (JSDF) or support the program bi-laterally. NSP III is a $1.5 billion program which will be implemented over the next five years. Since the inception of the first NSP program in 2003, 17 million rural people in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces have benefitted from improved infrastructure such as access to water, electricity and roads through the NSP. 22,000 CDCs have been elected and over 40,000 village level projects have been completed. Another 10,000 sub-projects are nearing completion. From 2003 until June 2010, NSP has disbursed over $700 million directly to communities.

This program will reach out to every rural community in the country making NSP a truly national program,” said HE Jurullah Mansoori, Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. “It will consolidate, leverage and sustain gains made in social capital and community institutions by providing a second round of grants, ensuring quality of physical investments, continued good governance and the meaningful and active participation of women throughout the process. Communities will also be encouraged to federate and cluster to engage with other government programs.”

Under NSP III, a number of innovations have been introduced to support the Government of Afghanistan’s vision for the CDCs as the sustainable institutions of village level government. First, NSP III will support the completion of the roll out of initial block grants to the remaining 10,320 communities so that the program will cover all rural communities in Afghanistan. Second, in view of the immense developmental needs of the rural population, a second round of grants will be provided to 17,400 CDCs that have successfully used their initial grant. Third, and most importantly, NSP III will focus on improving the institutional quality, sustainability and governance of CDCs and enhance their ability to engage with other institutions.


For more information on the National Solidarity Program in Afghanistan, please visit:

NSP Feature Story:

NSP Website:

For more information on the World Bank in Afghanistan, please visit:

For more information on the ARTF, please visit:


Return to Afghanistan

The photos below are from my flight from Dubai to Kabul.  In our recent video it is said that “for many Afghans you are a foreigner whether you are from 7 or 7000 miles away.”  Looking down at this extreme landscape it is much easier to understand how isolated many Afghans are and why the war is not against one ‘Taliban insurgency’ but against thousands of proud communities, traditional tribes, opportunist thugs and gangs as well as many fundamentalist religious groups.  Combine the divisions created by this landscape with cultural and religious traditions that are the most conservative anywhere and add 40 years of survival through wars and poverty is it any wonder that many Afghans – especially those in the 80% of the country that is rural – are suspicious, paranoid, xenophobic and easily moved by conspiracy theories? Here is a slice of the landscape that forms the foundation of the Afghan character.

The foreign forces are more visible at the airport and in the city then when I was last here in October 09.  For some years the strategy has been for foreign forces to maintain a low profile in and around Kabul.  The intent is to give the Afghan population the impression if not the belief that their capitol can be protected by the Afghan police and military.  The dramatically deteriorating security situation is making this more difficult.

In the evening a Takhari folk music recital organized by the Aga Khan Music Initiative for Central Asia. This evening’s concert was part of an ongoing program, supported by Norway and the United States, to invite musicians from the provinces to Kabul to rehearse, record and perform.

Ustad Rajab, 90 years old, sang a form of Takhari music called Goraghli.  Goraghli means “born in the grave” and comes from a Turkmen legend, telling of how Princess Mahilal, the sister of the King of Turkestan, becomes pregnant as a result of the gaze of a stranger.  Nearing the time of the birth of her child and ashamed of the stories that others tell defaming her character, she prays for death.  Before her child is born she dies and is buried by her family.  Her child is born in the grave, and a horse called Madian hears the child’s cries, digs the baby out and raises it. [from the Aga Khan program notes]


Corruption in the Pentagon is no match for the Afghan government

Tomgram: Christopher Hellman, May 20, 2010

When it comes to the Pentagon and the U.S. military, wherever you look, theres money being handed out.  Wildly and in staggering amounts.  Early this month, for instance, the U.S. Army announced that it had awarded KBR, the private contractor which was once part of Halliburton, a contract worth up to $568 million through 2011 for military support service in Iraq.

This is the same KBR that has been accused of improprieties of all sorts.  As it happened, the Army made its announcement, noted Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News, only hours after the Justice Department said it will pursue a lawsuit accusing the Houston-based company of taking kickbacks from two subcontractors on Iraq-related work. Even though the company has been the object of numerous investigations and law suits, and is the Blackwater (now Xe) of construction firms, as well as a prime victor in the Bush administrations military privatization sweepstakes, this was a no-bid contract.  Given the Pentagons spending track record, none of this should surprise you.

Or consider Mission Essential Personnel, a firm that, unlike KBR or Halliburton, youve undoubtedly never heard of.  No wonder: only three years ago, it was a tiny military contractor taking in $6 million a year.  Recently, however, it garnered a one-year $679 million contract to field a small citys worth of translators to help out American forces in Afghanistan. (And again — surprise, surprise! — a no-bid contract.) Not bad, writes the invaluable Noah Shachtman at his Danger Room website, for a company thats been accused of everything from abandoning wounded employees to sending out-of-shape interpreters to the front lines.

Or heres another Shachtman find: defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton managed to corner a bevy of contracts worth $400 million in recent weeks to help fight future cyberwars, despite a stated Pentagon policy of relying less on outside contractors. In fact, the Pentagon is only now — and only modestly — reining in its long-running senior mentors program in which retired generals and admirals on the payroll of defense contractors (and on military pensions ranging up to $220,000 a year) are brought back as consultants at prices that run to $440 per hour. In some cases, reports USA Today, mentors were paid by the military to run war games involving weapons systems made by their consulting clients.

Theoretically, the military is known for discipline — but not, it seems, when what’s at stake is either spending our money or keeping track of it.  Unfortunately, when it comes to the Pentagon budget, few in this country have cared to pay much attention.  Fortunately, the National Priorities Project has.  It has been trying to put the realities of that ever more bloated budget on the national agenda for a while.  Now, NPPs Christopher Hellman suggests that a window of opportunity is opening, even if just a crack at the moment, for doing just that.  The question is: Will we pry it open further or slam it shut?  Tom


Bill for Afghan War Could Run Into the Trillions

Bill for Afghan War Could Run Into the Trillions … and doesn’t include effective social and economic development
Monday 17 May 2010
by: Eli Clifton 
Inter Press Service

Washington – The U.S. Senate is moving forward with a 59-billion-dollar spending bill, of which 33.5 billion dollars would be allocated for the war in Afghanistan.

However, some experts here in Washington are raising concerns that the war may be unwinnable and that the money being spent on military operations in Afghanistan could be better spent.

“We’re making all of the same mistakes the Soviets made during their time in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, and they left in defeat having accomplished none of their purposes,” Michael Intriligator, a senior fellow at the Milken Institute, said Monday at a half-day conference hosted by the New America Foundation and Economists for Peace and Security.

“I think we’re repeating that and it’s a history we’re condemned to repeat,” he said.

Intriligator also argued that the real, long-term cost of the war in Afghanistan may completely overshadow the current spending bill.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes estimated that the long-term costs – taking into account the costs of taking care of wounded soldiers and rebuilding the military – of the war in Iraq will ultimately cost three trillion dollars.

Intriligator suggested that a similar calculation for the costs of the war in Afghanistan would indicate a long-term cost of 1.5 to 2.0 trillion dollars.

“Why are we putting money into Afghanistan to fight a losing war and following the Soviet example rather than putting money into [our] local communities?” he asked.

The Senate has been under pressure to approve the spending bill before the Memorial Day recess at the end of the month.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the 59-billion-dollar bill drafted by the committee’s Chairman Daniel Inouye and Sen. Thad Cochran.

Gaining the approval of the Senate Appropriations committee may be the easy part in the push to get the bill to Obama’s desk by the end of the month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already indicated that the spending bill will face more intense opposition in the House as congressional Democrats are predicted to offer put up some resistance to the funding for Obama’s 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan.

Experts at the event today expressed their concern with both the physical cost of the war as well as the tradeoffs in spending required by the ongoing costs of fighting the Taliban insurgency.

“The climate bill, for all its defects, if it has a prayer of passing, might provide some of the money we need to keep the momentum on building a green economy going. But so could the savings from an Afghan drawdown,” said Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Intriligator emphasised the human cost of fighting a counterinsurgency campaign not just for U.S. soldiers but for Afghan civilians.

“We can’t distinguish the insurgents or Taliban from the rest of population so we kill a lot of innocent civilians,” he said.

A number of think tank events this week and the Obama administration’s push to gain support in Congress for the supplemental appropriations bill coincided with a high-profile visit last week by Afghan President Hamid Karzai who spent four days in meetings with Obama and members of his cabinet as well as with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Karzai’s trip to Washington and the warm reception afforded to him by the White House and lawmakers appeared to be part of a public relations offensive to build support in Washington for Karzai’s government and Obama’s troop surge.

Karzai’s visit came as polls have shown a major downturn in U.S. support for the war in Afghanistan and support amongst NATO allies has been dwindling.

In early April, news emerged that Karzai, in a closed door meeting, threatened to drop out of politics and join the Taliban.

A senior Obama administration official retorted that Karzai might be sampling “Afghanistan’s biggest export” – a reference to the widespread opium cultivation in Afghanistan.

The publicity campaign is facing an uphill battle this month but the administration has much to gain by putting a good face on the U.S. relationship with Karzai.

Indeed, the White House will need Karzai’s cooperation if it is to get Congressional support for passing the spending bill and will require Karzai’s assistance if Obama is to meet his goal of beginning U.S. troop withdrawals by mid-2011.

Karzai’s trip appears to have made some progress in showing off a “reset” relationship between the Obama White House and the Karzai government but a number of voices here in Washington are raising concerns over whether a U.S. victory in Afghanistan is possible by mid-2011 or at any time in the near future.

“The fear was that if we withdraw from Afghanistan there will be civil war and external great powers will take sides. Is that worse than losing American soldiers day after day? So there’s a civil war. So the regional great partners take sides. Why wouldn’t they? It’s their neighbours. It’s their borders.” said Michael Lind, policy director of the Economic Growth Programme at the New America Foundation, at Monday’s conference.


Continued expansion into Africa of military

Continued expansion into Africa of military only approaches to instability and ‘terrorism’

Military Manoeuvres in the Sahel
By Brahima Ouédraogo

A U.S. Marine debriefs a Malian counter-terrorism unit after mission rehearsals as part of Operation Flintlock 2010. / Credit: Max Blumenfeld/U.S. AFRICOM
A U.S. Marine debriefs a Malian counter-terrorism unit after mission rehearsals as part of Operation Flintlock 2010.
Credit: Max Blumenfeld/U.S. AFRICOM

OUAGADOUGOU, May 14, 2010 (IPS) – Military exercises are under way in the Sahel region as part of the United States-led Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Partnership. Participating militaries are enthusiastic, but civil society cautions that force may not be enough to ensure regional security.

In recent years, the area between the southern limits of the Sahara desert but north of where West Africa’s savanna begins – has been the theatre for operations by militia groups linked to Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (known by its French acronym AQMI). In addition, organised crime syndicates conduct racketeering and smuggling activities in the region.

Operation Flintlock 2010, taking place from May 3-22, is the latest in a series of annual U.S. military exercises in Africa, and will include forces from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Chad and Tunisia. Some 1,200 soldiers will be involved: 600 U.S. Special Forces, 400 from the various African armies, and 150 drawn from European countries, including France and the United Kingdom.

“The goal is to establish trust and build relationships with military forces of other countries,” said Anthony Holmes, deputy to the commander of civil-military activities of the U.S. military command for Africa (AFRICOM).

The manoeuvres, which will be supervised by U.S. officers, are being run from a Multi-National Coordination Centre set up for the purpose in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

“The purpose of this exercise is to improve cooperation and interoperability of West African, U.S. and European forces and to enable communication and coordination between various forces from a dozen countries,” Holmes told IPS.

“Our task is even broader given the proliferation of arms and regional crises which offer an opportunity for terrorist groups to inflitrate and carry out their deadly actions,” Burkinabé defence minister Yéro Boly told journalists during the launch of the exercises in Ouagadougou on May 3.

“It is a great opportunity for us to get a maximum of experience and become more seasoned and better face the new challenges that appearing in today’s world,” said Boly.

For several years, U.S. Special Forces have supported the Algerian army against AQMI. Observers of the security situation in the Sahel say AQMI is made up of highly mobile groups that operate across an immense arid area nearly impossible to control.

The U.S. also regularly gives Malian soldiers anti-terrorist training as part of a programme begun in the early 2000s and encompassing many Sahelian countries.

AQMI was accused of several attacks over the last few years and is currently holding two Spanish citizens hostage. The group is also thought to be behind the kidnapping last April of a French national in Niger.

But Holmes said the current military exercises will not try to free hostages. “It’s not a question of solving the hostage situation. The countries where the kidnappings took place are responsible for that.”

In April, Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger established a military command centre in southern Algeria to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts.

Legislators from the Kidal region of northern Mali recently warned authorities of Al-Qaeda recruitment among the Arab and Touareg populations in that area.

But the legislators stated their preference for economic development rather than military operations. They argued that development would prevent Al-Qaeda from exercising any influence over young Malians.

Burkina Faso’s defence minister agrees. “The solution to terrorism cannot be just military simply because terrorism isn’t an identifiable enemy; the response should also be economic, because we must fight some of the fundamental causes of terrorism which are poverty and inequality in resource distribution between countries,” Boly said.   Alexandre Pagomziri Ouédraogo, head of human rights and fair governance at the Centre for Strategic Studies for Africa (CESA – the Centre d’études stratégiques pour l’Afrique), told IPS: “The fight (against terrorism) is very important, but the way it is conducted may discourage African countries, who see it as a territorial struggle between larger, more powerful nations.”

African governments, he added, are more preoccupied by poverty and exclusion. “The fight against terrorism needs to incorporate poverty reduction and improvement of living conditions in African countries.”

AFRICOM is not insensitive to these assessments. According to the planners of Flintlock, the exercise also includes civillian activities, such as providing health care to communities and veterinary assistance for livestock in the areas involved.


Previous Events


One Third of US Drone Victims are Civilians

One Third of US Drone Victims are Civilians

The report, by the Washington-based New America Foundation, will fuel growing criticism of the use of unmanned drones in the fight against al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, who use Pakistan as a base for attacks on Nato forces in Afghanistan. Critics say their use not only takes innocent lives, but amounts to unlawful extra-judicial killing of militants. The report by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann found that 32 per cent of those killed in drone attacks since 2004 were civilians. Their report, The Year of the Drone, studied 114 drone raids in which more than 1200 people were killed. Of those, between 549 and 849 were reliably reported to be militant fighters, while the rest were civilians. ‘The true civilian fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 32 per cent,’ the foundation reported.  Read the full report here:


What Can be Done About Conflict in South Asia?

From End Poverty in South Asia – A blog to promote dialog on development in South Asia


What can be done to reduce conflict in poor regions? A speech given by Indian Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh on Internal Security and Law and Order in 2005, sums up the story of conflict and development: “…development, or rather the lack of it, often has a critical bearing, as do exploitation and iniquitous socio-political circumstances. Inadequate employment opportunities, lack of access to resources, under developed agriculture, artificially depressed wages, geographical isolation, lack of effective land reforms may all impinge significantly on the growth of extremism…Whatever be the cause, it’s difficult to deny that extremism has huge societal costs. Investments are unlikely to fructify, employment is not likely to grow and educational facilities may be impaired. Direct costs would include higher costs of infrastructure creation as contractors build “extortions” into their estimates, consumers may be hurt due to erratic supplies and artificial levies. In all, the society at large and people at large suffer. Delivery systems are often the first casualty. Schools do not run, dispensaries do not open and PDS shops remain closed.”

Reducing conflict and violence is a prerequisite to political stability, which, in turn, is the prerequisite for implementing pro growth policies. Even in a best-case scenario, the presence of low-level conflict constrains the policies governments can implement to promote growth. Policy makers in South Asia have tried various policies to reduce conflict.

Additional to bolstering resources for security forces and conducting negotiations with insurgency groups, economic solutions can be extremely effective in reducing conflict, whereby the government expands welfare programs and reduces poverty in the conflict-affected areas to undercut the support for the insurgency. This approach is consistent with economic backwardness as a cause of conflict. This approach has been tried in some conflicts in South Asia, but it has failed because of poor choices of economic policies and poor implementation in conflict regions.

Policy choices and their implementation are critical in preventing an escalation of conflict and in post-conflict reconstruction. Economic policies should be geared not just to maximize growth, but also to address the distributional or political factors that led to the conflict. Policy choices must be structured to reduce real or perceived inequities. Aid agencies should work through the existing government institutions, be pragmatic in order to create jobs quickly, and in most cases, work on short-term economic goals first and address medium-term and longer-term efficiency considerations later. This approach calls for humanitarian treatment of conflict-affected people, closure of refugee camps, and reintegration of refugees within society.

Many of the internal conflicts in South Asia have cross-border dimensions. The Taliban in Afghanistan obtain significant support from Pakistan’s border areas. The Maoists in Nepal formed close links with the Maoist movements in India. Many separatist groups in India’s northeastern states have training camps and cells in neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Bhutan. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other Tamil separatist groups in Sri Lanka have traditionally enjoyed support from the Tamil Diaspora in India and other countries. In such a context, regional cross-border cooperation is an essential part of any counterinsurgency strategy. Considerable potential exists for regional cooperation in reducing conflict, but this has been an underutilized strategy in combating terrorism in South Asia.

South Asian governments have taken a variety of different approaches to counter terrorism. Reviewing these approaches in the South Asian and global context, it appears that the armed forces or local militias have not been especially effective in combating terrorism. Strengthening police forces or conducting negotiations to induce insurgents to join the political mainstream appear to be more effective approaches. Social welfare programs rather than just economic incentives hoping to revive growth can be useful complements to this political accommodation approach. Regional cooperation initiatives, which have been underutilized so far, are likely to be important in countering terrorism going forward. The challenge is to balance these different approaches toward countering conflict, as well as the optimal economic policies to be adopted in post-conflict environments.


A Better Strategy for Afghanistan

Huffington Post,  December 14, 2009
Jeffrey Sachs, Economist and Director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University

President Barack Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan does not pass the tests for war that he offered in his Nobel Lecture. Afghanistan is being preyed upon by a limited insurgency that feeds on Afghanistan’s poverty and desperation. Most Afghans do not support the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, but are vulnerable to their pressures. Young unemployed men often join militant factions out of the need to earn a meager income to eat and feed their families. In these circumstances, the fight against poverty should be dominant in the fight against terror and instability. Yet Obama’s policy in Afghanistan almost completely neglects the strategy of economic development, and relies almost entirely on the military.

Fighting poverty would obviate the need for extra US troops, and would pave the way for a drawdown of troops. The US military already vastly outnumbers Al-Qaeda and the Taliban insurgents. The problem is that extreme poverty overwhelms the fragile social fabric of the countryside. Afghanistan will remain unstable and vulnerable until this poverty is addressed. Obama acknowledged such realities in the Nobel Lecture by declaring that “a just peace . . . must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.” Yet the war policy fails to act on this insight.

Obama has hardly mentioned Afghanistan’s poverty in his recent speeches and deliberations. He has not announced or unveiled a development strategy. He has no experts on development among his war counselors, despite the fact that Afghanistan is one of the very poorest countries in the world (ranking 181th out of 182 in the UN’s Human Development Index). Child mortality, at 235 deaths per 1,000 births according to the UN, is staggering, easily one of the highest rates in the world. Has anybody in the Administration focused on these basic realities and their implications for instability?

We will spend around $100 billion in 2010 on the military approach compared with just $2 billion or so on economic development in Afghanistan, a 50-to-1 ratio. If we raised the development budget to even $10 billion, and deployed it thoughtfully and consistently, the benefits for the Afghan people would be so strong that we could avoid the surge altogether, save $40 billion, and could quickly reduce the current level of military spending, saving even more money and lives, Afghan and American. Our existing troops would be more than sufficient to protect the development activities because the communities themselves would also strongly defend themselves and their economic gains. Indeed, with stronger and reinvigorated local communities, we could quickly and safely turn security efforts over to the Afghan people themselves.

So why do we ignore this more peaceful and less expensive path? Our country has relied so heavily on the military for so long – and despite so many failures by now — that the public has completely lost the confidence, spirit, programs, memory and even human interest of fighting poverty as a strategy of consolidating stability and national security. The war industry, a mega-business out of all proportion to the miniscule “peace industry” composed mainly of NGOs, completely dominates the lobbying scene. The public opposes “wasting” a few billion dollars to help impoverished people, yet then supports wasting tens of billions of dollars on a military approach destined to fail.

The extreme skepticism over development is based on often-repeated myths rather than actual experience. There are countless development successes, yet often at modest scale because of the limited funding behind them. These successes are based on local development initiatives that bypass the corruption in Kabul (and the corrupt contractors lobbying in Washington). In rural societies like Afghanistan, development takes places in local villages and towns. That’s where the efforts should be focused, not on illusory “anti-corruption” campaigns in the capital city.

A recent New York Times story reported on such successful efforts in rural Afghanistan, with the right ingredients, but as usual at too small a scale (because of limited funding). Here’s what the New York Times reported.

In the village of Jurm, “People here have taken charge for themselves – using village councils and direct grants as part of an initiative called the National Solidarity Program, introduced by an Afghan ministry in 2003. Before then, this valley had no electricity or clean water, its main crop was poppy and nearly one in 10 women died in childbirth, one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Today, many people have water taps, fields grow wheat and it is no longer considered shameful for a woman to go to a doctor . . . Local residents contend that the councils work because they take development down to its most basic level, with villagers directing the spending to improve their own lives, cutting out middle men, local and foreign, as well as much of the overhead costs and corruption. ‘You don’t steal from yourself,’ was how Ataullah, a farmer in Jurm who uses one name, described it.”

Meaningful economic progress in Afghanistan villages could be achieved at around $100 per villager per year, meaning that the annual cost of stationing one soldier — $1 million — could instead support annual economic development of a community of perhaps 10,000 people. Even at $200 per villager, we’d still reach 5,000 people. That’s right, the approximate trade-off is meaningful help for an entire village versus stationing one more US soldier. Extrapolating, we could easily help all of Afghanistan’s villages with plenty more left over for the big-ticket infrastructure –local roads, highways, power, and connectivity – all for a small fraction of the cost of the surge. Of course, I am presupposing that we adopt a delivery system relying on local services and construction, and not putting the money through the hugely overpriced US mega-contractors.

The truth is that our government is geared to expanded war while disdaining or utterly neglecting the opportunities through non-military approaches. Those are viewed as soft, naïve, and “for them,” while war is viewed as hardheaded and “for us.” The tragedy is that war is breaking our economy and society, while attention to economic development and poverty reduction might just help to solve some deeper crucial problems in the world, including US national security.


Involving Afghans for Success

From: End Poverty in South Asia, A blog to promote dialog on development in South Asia


Current rehabilitation and development rhetoric calls for listening to the Afghans and giving them the lead. Sadly, actions too often defy these wise words. The challenge is to make way for genuine in depth Afghan involvement at a time when the problems inherent in a lackluster government beset with corruption are so complex, and, particularly, when the aid-dispensing agencies so often disregard coordination and cooperation.

Politics within the prevailing environment of conflict imposes a sense of great urgency, no doubt, but many basic development principles are being set aside when they are most needed. Plans that rest on massive projects designed by outsiders lavishing too much money and demanding instant implementation are bound to be ineffective. Quick fixes never have worked. Throwing around money indiscriminately just compounds problems and raises new dilemmas. Sustained development, as has been established for decades, requires patient on the ground interactions over time.

The current swing toward agriculture and its affiliated components is welcome – if it results in better integrated multi-targeted planning linking local producers, processors, small industries, storage facilities and markets. Small dams built and maintained by the people themselves for irrigation and electricity to support small industries processing local produce make sense, for instance. The ultimate aim is to enable people to stay in their own areas enjoying their own social and cultural customs and ideals instead of joining the unhappy disoriented masses now crowding the cities. But this means much coordination and cooperation and sincere community involvement.

Such participatory activities will also avoid contributing to the sense of dependency that is fast undermining the ideals of self-sufficiency and independence that have always been sources of pride for Afghans. Communities traditionally came together to perform tasks for the common good. One example would be the repair of weirs that diverted water from rivers into irrigation channels. Building these weirs was the height of the summer’s excitements greatly enjoyed by each and every man, woman and child up and down the length of the irrigation channels. Thus was community cohesiveness strengthened. Nowadays villages too often wait for outsiders to perform the tasks they once so enjoyed. Similar dependency attitudes threaten to dominate minds in many sectors.

On another level, there are many skilled, talented, creatively motivated and dedicated young men and women in both private and government sectors that ought to be supported in developing decision-making authority. Not just for implementing projects, but in exerting genuine influence over policy, program design and resources. Initially specialists for guidance will be required, but inculcating a sense of ownership will build confidence and with confidence a regard for responsibility. Once a sense of ownership is present, mutual respect and trust will also grow and feelings of alienation will lessen. Deteriorating trust between foreigners and Afghans, Afghans and foreigners, and Afghans and Afghan is now of great concern. Little sustainable development can be accomplished without restoring an environment of trust.

Afghanistan’s youth need to be able to look to the future with confidence and trust. It is said that over half the population is under the age of 25. Their burgeoning pop culture devoted to mod fashions, electronic gadgets and enticing entertainment is exuberantly alive, not only in Kabul but all across the country. These young people thirst for knowledge. Universities and private learning institutions are packed yet jobs are hard to come by. The Ministry of Labor reports that young people account for 70% of Afghanistan’s 3 million unemployed. Neither are jobs available, nor decision-making roles within the still fragile democratic framework. Disillusioned, unemployed youth are a dangerous commodity in any society. All the more so when insurgents sit poised to lure them to their ranks.

Skills training and meaningful job creation related to the nation’s needs therefore become major priorities. Stop gap, short term unsustainable projects that serve merely as facades are not the answer. Expectations and aspirations are high among the youth, but these positive attitudes can easily turn to despair and lead to corruption, crime gangs, and an incipient drug culture, aside from militancy. One study estimates that the average age of suicide bombers is 23 and that 80% of those involved in terrorist activities are unemployed. Efforts to engage these potential leaders of tomorrow in satisfying, constructive nation-building can only strengthen stability and prosperity. A special emphasis on leadership development is crucial.

Now is an ideal time to initiate imaginative people-oriented programs in all sectors. The explosion in communications technology allows information to flow more easily at a time when the population at large is far more open to receive new ideas than they were before the war. Afghans are maximizers and will take to ideas they see as beneficial for themselves and their families. They have shown incredible resilience over these years of turmoil and have themselves devised all manner of coping mechanisms in the midst of conflict. Given access to knowledge that will enhance their livelihoods and give them confidence, they can, and will, by themselves, reach many eagerly sought development goals without needing to become dependent on outsiders. There is an emerging consensus among Afghans as to the need for good governance and a functional national economy buttressed by judicial reforms.

To ignore this new awareness is to court disaster.


U.N. Rejects ‘Militarization’ of Afghan Aid

New York Times, 2/17/10, by ROD NORDLAND

KABUL, Afghanistan — Senior United Nations officials in Afghanistan on Wednesday criticized NATO forces for what one referred to as “the militarization of humanitarian aid,” and said United Nations agencies would not participate in the military’s reconstruction strategy in Marja as part of its current offensive there.

“We are not part of that process, we do not want to be part of it,” said Robert Watkins, the deputy special representative of the secretary general, at a news conference attended by other officials to announce the United Nations’ Humanitarian Action Plan for 2010. “We will not be part of that military strategy.”

The American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has made the rapid delivery of governmental services, including education, health care and job programs, a central part of his strategy in Marja, referring to plans to rapidly deploy what he has referred to as “a government in a box” once Marja is pacified.

Mr. Watkins did not specifically criticize the Marja offensive, saying, “It is not the military that will be delivering the services, they will be clearing the area so the government can deliver those services.”

However, the United Nations would not be participating, he said.

Wael Haj-Ibrahim, head of the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs here, said the military should not be involved in providing health care or schools.

“If that aid is being delivered as part of a military strategy, the counterstrategy is to destroy that aid,” Mr. Haj-Ibrahim said. “Allowing the military to do it is not the best use of resources.” Instead, he said, the military should confine itself to clearing an area of security threats and providing security for humanitarian organizations to deliver services.

“The distribution of aid by the military gives a very difficult impression to the communities and puts the lives of humanitarian workers at risk,” Mr. Watkins said.

Last month, eight leading humanitarian organizations working in Afghanistan, including Oxfam and ActionAid, issued a joint report that was highly critical of the International Security Assistance Force, as the American-led NATO force is known, because of “the international militaries’ use of aid as a ‘nonlethal’ weapon of war.”

They maintained that this violated an agreement between international forces and the United Nations that the military’s primary role should be to provide security and, only when there is no other alternative, to provide limited developmental and humanitarian assistance. The agencies maintain they are able to work in conflict areas of Afghanistan when local residents see them as independent and not connected with the military, and this approach puts that at risk.

“Military-led humanitarian and development activities are driven by donors’ political interests and short-term security objectives and are often ineffective, wasteful and potentially harmful to Afghans,” a statement by Oxfam said.

The United Nations officials expressed the same concern, though more diplomatically, and one official, who did not want to be quoted by name because of the political sensitivity of the issue, said the United Nations had repeatedly raised those concerns with the international forces without success.

The American military refers to its strategy, first enunciated in Iraq in 2006, as “clear, hold and build.” Previously there were insufficient foreign and Afghan troops in Afghanistan to pursue that strategy systematically because they were unable to hold large areas for long periods of time. The offensive in Marja is intended as a showcase where the strategy can work, and the coalition says it has adequate forces now to do that.

“Clear, hold and build, it’s short-sighted for two reasons,” the United Nations official said. “Territory changes hands in a conflict, and if the services are associated with a particular group, it will be destroyed.” That has happened often with projects like schools and clinics around the country.

The officials were particularly critical of NATO’s planned “civilian surge,” bringing in more government-financed aid workers involved in projects like the country’s provincial reconstruction teams, which are located in each province and designed to provide fast-track development and aid services in their areas.

These reconstruction teams are NATO groups run by various allied countries, including Canada in Kandahar, and Britain in Lashkar Gah, and they primarily disburse development and aid money locally in each province.

Many of the reconstruction teams, the official said, see their role as providing services in exchange for intelligence-gathering and political activity directed against the insurgents. He declined to identify any that operate under that premise, although he added that not all did so.

In many parts of the country, only nongovernmental organizations are able to operate safely because of the security situation, and they fill the gap in governmental services.

Because the reconstruction teams are run by foreigners and are associated with their countries’ militaries, they need to go out with heavy security, and aid groups worry that locals begin to associate all aid workers with the military.

Oxfam said the military “was going way beyond its remit” in Afghanistan, citing an American Army counterinsurgency manual that defines humanitarian aid as a “nonlethal weapon.”

A statement issued Wednesday by the international forces emphasized the military’s new, population-centered approach to fighting the insurgents. “The conduct of Operation Moshtarak is visibly demonstrating that the force has changed the way it operates and that it is working with and for the people of Afghanistan,” the statement said, referring to the Marja offensive. It also suggested the military phase of the operation could be protracted.

“The insurgents are tactically adept, have resilience and are cunning, so continued tactical patience on the part of the combined force is important. Mining is significant in areas, and the combined force must be very deliberate in its movement in order to minimize local Afghan and combined force casualties.”

The United Nations’ Humanitarian Action Plan has a proposed budget of $870.5 million, a substantial increase over previous years, because the increased level of NATO military activity has led to increased needs for services in many parts of the country, according the United Nations.


The challenges of development work led by foreign troops

This story is a wonderful example of why indigenous development work, such as the National Solidarity Program, should be the foundation of Afghan economic development rather than foreign troops.

Forces Strain to Hire Afghan Allies

SENJARAY, Afghanistan—Capt. Jeremiah Ellis is a man with a problem: how to spend a million dollars.

TALMONEYAmerican troops under his command moved late last year into this town of 12,000 people, a Taliban stronghold just west of Kandahar. Now, armed with more than $1 million in coalition funds, Capt. Ellis is trying to dent the insurgents’ lingering power by jump-starting development projects.

Yet, the only construction work here so far has been the hammering of U.S. Navy Seabees, or construction troops, erecting a vast American base overlooking Senjaray. The town’s unemployed men prefer to stay home, for fear of Taliban retribution.

“You can have all the money in the world, but no one will pick up a shovel until they feel secure,” says Capt. Ellis, who commands the Dog Company of the 1st Battalion of the U.S. Army’s 12th Infantry Regiment.

Yaroslav Trofimov/The Wall Street Journal
Elders in Senjaray show troops their proposed site, outside town, for a Western-funded irrigation project.


Capt. Ellis’s experiences in Senjaray set the stage for the anticipated coalition campaign in Marjah, in neighboring Helmand province, where the strategy also includes an effort to convince residents it is safe—and beneficial—for them to work with the coalition.

Providing potential insurgents with jobs is a key priority for commanders in recently secured areas of southern Afghanistan, such as Senjaray.

“When these guys will be busy, they will not grab their Kalashnikovs or be influenced by the insurgents,” says Canadian Brig. Gen. Daniel Menard, commander of Task Force Kandahar, a joint American-Canadian force that includes the unit Capt. Ellis commands.

In some parts of Kandahar province, such as areas of Dand and Arghandab districts, these public works—mostly digging irrigation canals—have already begun.

Since arriving in Kandahar province last summer to reinforce embattled Canadian troops, Capt. Ellis’s battalion managed to reassert control of this stretch of the highway, reducing the frequency of roadside bombings from several every day to one every few days. The Canadians built a large, modern school in Senjaray several years ago, but it has been shuttered since the Taliban booby-trapped it in 2006. Virtually no other work has been carried out here since then. “We couldn’t give money away because the people were afraid the Taliban would kill them,” says Canadian Sgt. John Carew, who works here on civil-military cooperation.

Senjaray is considered relatively secure because American troops here can work with a local tribal strongman who’s allied with Kabul, Hajji Abdullah Khan, better known as Hajji Lala.

In town, only the Taliban dare to defy the will of Hajji Lala, who has a personal force of 40 guards assigned by President Hamid Karzai. The guards are paid for by the central government and wear Afghan National Police uniforms.

A recent meeting between Capt. Ellis and the town’s elders to discuss development plans was preceded by a shootout. Three Taliban fighters tried to ambush one of the policeman. The policeman was unhurt, and one of the Taliban was injured and captured.

But as Capt. Ellis rolled into Senjaray’s police compound, Hajji Lala wasn’t celebrating. The injured attacker, he said, was a local kid from a well-known family. “The Taliban are from here, they’re not coming into Senjaray from the outside,” Hajji Lala said. “Half of the village elders and the village people support them. If we start working on projects, people will be killed.”

Sipping on tea, Capt. Ellis countered that waiting for weeks until Afghan army units and additional Afghan policemen are deployed in Senjaray may be an even riskier strategy considering that fighting here reaches its peak around May.

“Every day, more fighters are arriving from Helmand and Pakistan, and if we don’t start soon, my concern is that we won’t be able to start at all,” Capt. Ellis said.

Minutes later, four turbaned, bearded elders walked into the compound, stoically submitting to frisking by young American soldiers. Capt. Ellis’s own dream is to reopen the Senjaray school—but, unless a permanent security force were deployed next to the building, the Taliban would booby-trap it again within days. He agreed with the elders that the first priority should be clearing silted irrigation canals.

“But we don’t need your soldiers—stay away from there. Come by just once a week to see how the work is progressing,” demanded one of the men, Hajji Hani Pia.

As Capt. Ellis agreed, the stickiest point turned out to be how to pay these 300 day laborers. The elders wanted to disburse the money—some $6 a day per worker—warning that any foreign presence would turn the site into a Taliban target. “If you promise me the whole world, I will not accept it,” declared one of the elders, Hajji Jalat.

The Canadian officers quickly interjected, saying their national rules require them to be present on pay day, to make sure the laborers funded by Canadian taxpayers actually exist, and that the money doesn’t end up in the elders’ own pockets—as has usually happened in the past. “I don’t want 300 workers being pissed off with us because they’re getting a fraction of what they’ve been promised,” said Canadian Petty Officer Kelly Webb, the coalition’s district official in charge of civil-military cooperation.

As Hajji Lala, the local chieftain, responded indignantly that he was insulted by such suggestions of corruption, Capt. Ellis offered a quick-witted retort. “I trust the Pashtun people and know that you wouldn’t do anything dishonorable,” he said. “But American or Canadian people would steal the money, and so we have to follow the American and Canadian rules.”

After hours of haggling, the two sides reached a compromise: The workers will be monitored by a concealed video camera on pay day, their receipt of the coalition’s cash documented on tape.

A few minutes later, the American and Canadian convoy rumbled onto the Kandahar-Helmand highway, following the elders to a site where they wanted the work to begin. As the miles added up, Capt. Ellis realized that the Afghans were taking him far outside Senjaray.

Finally stopping outside the gates of his batallion headquarters, the elders led the American to a dry canal bed and perched themselves on the ground—in the safest spot in the district.

Capt. Ellis wondered quietly about who owned the poppy fields around, and expressed his surprise at being so far from Senjaray and its citizens.

The elders ignored his protests. “This is where we will start digging,” said Hajji Hani Pia. “But the workers must not find out that the money is coming from the foreigners. Nobody should tell them.”

Then, he pointed at the poppy fields to the east: “That land there belongs to me,” he said, “that one to Hajji Jalat, and that one over there, to Hajji Lala.”

Work should start soon, says Capt. Ellis.


Military Aid Puts Lives at Risk: Aid Agency Report

A group of aid agencies released a report yesterday giving their perspective on the impact of the military being involved in reconstruction and development in Afghanistan.

Report abstract:  As political pressures to “show results” in troop contributing countries intensify, more and more assistance is being channelled through military actors to “win hearts and minds” while efforts to address the underlying causes of poverty and repair the destruction wrought by three decades of conflict and disorder are being sidelined. Development projects implemented with military money or through military-dominated structures aim to achieve fast results but are often poorly executed, inappropriate and do not have sufficient community involvement to make them sustainable. There is little evidence this approach is generating stability and, in some cases, military involvement in development activities is, paradoxically, putting Afghan lives further at risk as these projects quickly become targeted by anti-government elements.

Read the report: Quick Impact Quick Collapse:_The Dangers of Militarized Aid in Afghanistan

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