How foreigners are screwing up Afghanistan

Brian Stewart on the totally uncoordinated efforts to help Afghanistan

The biggest problem trying to follow the Afghanistan conflict is that it is such a bits-and-pieces kind of war.  

None of the main actors — military, civilian or diplomatic — seem to have a clear grasp of the big picture, nor really any plan deserving to be called a strategy.  

Afghanistan is NATO's first war of the post-9/11 era, but it meanders on year after year in a remarkably half-hearted and unco-ordinated fashion.  

True, there has now been a surge in the number of U.S. forces there and the marines have just launched a large offensive in the south.

This, however, follows eight years of drift in which Washington, as it now freely admits, gave totally inadequate attention to a fight it was supposed to be leading. It was too distracted by Iraq.

Two Talibans

European allies, meanwhile, remain strikingly reluctant to help their fellow NATO members and have been slow to live up to their own pledges to assist the beleaguered Afghan government.

A Canadian member of the Kandahar reconstruction team helps Afghan workers on a road improvement project in Panjwaii district. (DND/Canadian Press)

Even those alliance members doing the heavy counter-insurgency in the south — including Canada, Britain and the Netherlands — tend to fight their own narrow campaigns within their own selected provinces.  

In truth, not even the Taliban give undivided attention to the struggle. They too are there in, well, bits and pieces, sometimes focusing on Afghanistan, sometimes on neighbouring Pakistan.   

We should remember that the number of full-time guerrilla fighters inside Afghanistan is believed to be less than 15,000, an extraordinarily small force to conduct an insurgency within such a large country.

Their tactics of random bombings, drug running, and the intimidation of civilians are potent insurgency tools. But they are clearly not enough to close the deal because they have been unable to mobilize mass support behind their cause.  

Mao's classic guerrilla formula — "swim like fish in the sea in the people" — does not seem to be any part of Taliban planning.

The movement is far too hostile to 50 per cent of the population, women, to count on wholesale support. They're also too tribal and repressive by religious instinct to fire up a nationwide insurgency.

Rampant duplication

So given the relative weakness of the Taliban insurgency, it is all the more striking that the combination of 90,000 foreign troops, the economic clout of the international community and the Afghan government has failed to mobilize military forces and civilian reconstruction projects more effectively.

Part of the problem is that, from the beginning, NATO has been unable to co-ordinate its actions properly, with several members refusing even to concede they are part of a counter-insurgency effort.

There are now 26 separate Provincial Reconstruction Teams working separately in 26 different Afghan provinces, a mish-mash of different plans, timetables and budgets.

This means there is still no comprehensive approach to reconstruction in Afghanistan, despite the fact that everyone acknowledges that rebuilding the place is as critical to the counter-insurgency as the military effort.

Worse, though, is that foreign benefactors continue to bypass the Afghan government's own efforts to improve the lives of its civilians, including the internationally praised National Solidarity Program, designed to connect rural populations to the government and bring them into the decision-making.

One thing that works

In nearly 28,000 villages, community development councils have been set up with elected local members, including women, to identify development projects, design construction and spend up to $60,000 per village on things like schools, water pumps, irrigation systems and local roads.

The villagers pay 10 per cent of the total costs themselves and the local councils are adding a fresh layer of civic government across the country.

Corruption is a serious problem in Afghanistan, of course, but the National Solidarity Program seems to have the transparency needed to control it.

World Bank auditors have found the councils to be overwhelmingly honest, in part because budgets are pinned on school notice boards.

What's more, because the projects are run by locals, the Taliban dare not destroy them, as they so regularly do the foreign-run projects, because they want to try to keep the local population on their side.

Above all, the National Solidarity Program provides much-needed credibility to the Afghan government and has the ability to slowly strengthen the sinews of governance across the country.

At least Canada gets it

Senior Canadian officers have been proclaiming the value of the NSP for years, noting early on that it is far more important for the Afghan government to gain legitimacy and credit for project spending than for Canada to try and win the so-called hearts and minds on its own.

Many foreign agencies, however, refused to take a back seat and insisted that they spend on their own projects, which are in turn to be greeted with flag-waving and ceremonies to praise the donors.

It's an outdated attitude that does nothing for the situation on the ground and often leaves these projects in a weakened condition and subject to Taliban crowing about the ineffective Hamid Karzai government dominated by foreigners.

As Afghanistan's minister of rural development, Mohammad Ehsan Zia, has complained, these many, parallel projects "have seriously diluted the effectiveness of development assistance and compromised the legitimacy of government. 

"When people believe it's the international organization that provide services and infrastructure to their villages — not the central government — this only fuels the insurgency, as the population is frustrated that their democratically elected government is failing to respond to their needs."

None of this makes sense. Canadian and allied soldiers are risking their lives to give the Afghan government a chance to develop as a national entity at the same time as foreign donors simultaneously undercut government legitimacy by denying the very development aid it needs to win support.

One can only hope that by the time all the bits and pieces of this conflict are finally put under some kind of rational direction it won't be too late for this long-tortured nation.