Dispatch

The Militarization of Afghan Aid

The most dangerous threat to “winning hearts and minds” in Afghanistan could be the counterinsurgency itself.

MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images
MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images

Jalalabad -- This capital of Afghanistan's eastern Nangahar province is harder than ever to navigate. The usual Afghan potholes have now been augmented with speed bumps, making the journey from the airport -- once a 15-minute ride -- into a long, bone-jarring drag. Aid agencies rely on their sturdy white SUVs to brave the rough terrain. But though the vehicles offer robust protection from the rough terrain, they may expose humanitarian workers to another far more complicated danger: being mistaken for military personnel. Until recently, NATO forces also used white vehicles in their military fleet. So to the annoyance and alarm of many aid groups, there was no way of telling one from the other.

The color issue has now been resolved; NATO agreed to repaint its vehicles by July 1, or several weeks ago. But the story is symptomatic of a wider and more precarious phenomenon: the blurred line between aid work carried out by civilians and security work carried out by the military. Alas, much of the humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan has become secondary to -- or worse, dependent on -- the military's counterinsurgency plans. In their effort to deny the terrorists a space to operate among the civilian population -- taking away their "incubator of choice," as British Foreign Secretary David Miliband puts it -- the commanders in Afghanistan tend to make security, development, and reconstruction all subservient to counterinsurgency goals.

Jalalabad — This capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangahar province is harder than ever to navigate. The usual Afghan potholes have now been augmented with speed bumps, making the journey from the airport — once a 15-minute ride — into a long, bone-jarring drag. Aid agencies rely on their sturdy white SUVs to brave the rough terrain. But though the vehicles offer robust protection from the rough terrain, they may expose humanitarian workers to another far more complicated danger: being mistaken for military personnel. Until recently, NATO forces also used white vehicles in their military fleet. So to the annoyance and alarm of many aid groups, there was no way of telling one from the other.

The color issue has now been resolved; NATO agreed to repaint its vehicles by July 1, or several weeks ago. But the story is symptomatic of a wider and more precarious phenomenon: the blurred line between aid work carried out by civilians and security work carried out by the military. Alas, much of the humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan has become secondary to — or worse, dependent on — the military’s counterinsurgency plans. In their effort to deny the terrorists a space to operate among the civilian population — taking away their "incubator of choice," as British Foreign Secretary David Miliband puts it — the commanders in Afghanistan tend to make security, development, and reconstruction all subservient to counterinsurgency goals.

So why should we worry if civilian aid and military operations mix?

Put simply, the long-term goals of aid work differ drastically from the short-term goals of counterinsurgency. While NGOs might strive to lift literacy rates by boosting enrollment at school, the military might build an impressive classroom in the name of "winning hearts and minds" but leave no teachers behind to staff it.

But more dangerous is the risk that the local populace will perceive aid agencies to be aligned with the external military force. That mere perception — true or not — heightens insecurity for aid workers and recipients, ultimately restricting humanitarian access to communities in need. As the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office concluded, NGOs "were generally attacked for being perceived as intrinsic to the military and political objectives" of the coalition forces.

For months, aid groups have urged the U.S. administration to take note of this dangerous conflation. In March, 11 NGOs wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, noting that "In Afghanistan’s cultural and political environment, it is difficult for military actors to achieve sufficient levels of community ownership and trust which are vital for aid effectiveness." Some of the same NGOs in April wrote to heads of NATO countries, including President Barack Obama, urging them not to use military forces for "relief or development activities to attempt to win people’s hearts and minds for tactical, counter-insurgency or other military objectives."

In short, aid organizations want the military to specialize in what it does well — enhancing security — and leave the humanitarian work to civilian groups. Few in the military have experience in the delicate fields of development and post-conflict reconstruction. The military has only weak links to the communities where they try to work. Their linguists are few and spread thinly. And because the military thinks tactically, not in terms of development, their projects tend to be less effective on the ground. When one former aid worker complained about a counterproductive military aid project, "the military explained that the goal of their project was not development, but to win friends and push into areas they had not yet reached," she later wrote.

That approach is not helpful — neither for Afghanistan nor for U.S. military efforts there. Instead, what the military can do — and needs to do — is to train and support local security forces, which are still woefully few. Just 650 Afghan troops participated in the latest operation in Helmand province, "Strike of the Sword," alongside 4,000 U.S. Marines.

The task of development, meanwhile, should fall to humanitarians, who have a proven track record on working in communities. Ninety-nine percent of the International Rescue Committee (IRC)’s 431 staff in Afghanistan speak one or more local languages because, like most aid groups in the country, IRC employs almost exclusively Afghan nationals. It is Afghans themselves who advise IRC’s head office about how best to serve their people. And they know this better than anyone.

There are signs that the military is starting to come around. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently: "It’s not about how many enemy we kill; it’s about how many civilians we protect" from the insurgents. In the long term, that will mean leaving behind a strong Afghan force to keep the peace.

On the civilian side there are positive signs, too: Earlier in July, the U.S. Embassy sent out a memo describing its "new approach in Afghanistan," which it calls "Afghanization." The idea "is to support Afghan leadership, Afghan capacity-building efforts at all levels, Afghan sustainability (for, with, and by the people), and to increase local procurement initiatives such as ‘Afghan First’."

It sounds remarkably like what many aid groups are already doing.

Anna Husarska is senior policy advisor at the International Rescue Committee.

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