Afghanistan

Militarizing the civilian surge

When releasing his new plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama promised a “civilian surge” to complement the increase in troops. While the rhetoric is certainly appealing, numerous problems have already arisen, from the revelation that the State Dept. only has 18 Pashto speakers, to the fact that the supplemental funding request Congress passed contains ten times more military funding than civilian, to the report that Secretary Gates intends to fill those positions with military reservists because of the lack of capacity in the civilian agencies.

Anna Husarska of International Rescue Committee has an important piece in the Washington Post today about another problem with US attempts at reconstruction and development in Afghanistan–militarizing humanitarian work:

Integrating more civilians into military structures means further militarizing what has traditionally been humanitarian work. This is not in the interest of the Afghan people, who expect security from coalition forces and assistance from civilian aid agencies.

The main destination of this “surge” will be the U.S.-led provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), whose performance in Afghanistan has been criticized by humanitarian groups on the ground: One aid worker from a European nongovernmental organization said they behave like “Humvees in a china shop.”

While working in the eastern city of Jalalabad last year, I heard many tales that amounted to such porcelain-breaking. The main victims were the communities the PRTs were seeking to help. An Afghan working for an Asian NGO recounted how 15 Humvees entered their compound unannounced and the uniformed “farenjee” (Afghan for “foreigners”) began conducting quick medical examinations — 45 seconds per patient — while photographing the process to document their outreach. (After complaints from the NGO, the Americans said they spent 105 seconds per patient, not 45.) There was the time that armed, uniformed Americans arrived at an orphanage, I was told, to distribute pencils and notebooks. In the process, the Americans terrified the female employees of the orphanage and the young children. An Afghan doctor from an American NGO told me his concerns about the welfare of communities where the PRTs distribute medicines from their Humvees: The labels are in English or Urdu, he noted, not Pashto, the language spoken in the region.

I visited Jalalabad again in May. The aid agency I work for, the International Rescue Committee, continues to implement programs there, but even now the ever-deteriorating security environment means we mostly have to rely on our trusted staff of Afghans. I did get to visit the American PRT in Jalalabad, where I was received by a senior civil affairs officer. He told me and an Afghan colleague of mine that Americans were no longer going out to villages uninvited. I suggested that the danger still existed for locals contacted by the PRTs — these Afghans could be branded collaborators. But the officer saw no problem. “Our presence forces them to make a choice: Either they support the government or they support the Taliban,” he said. And he added, “It takes a little bit of courage if you want to be free; freedom does not come free.”

My Afghan colleague later told me of recent incidents in which a mullah was killed in Chaparhar, apparently for working with government and coalition forces, and another mullah was decapitated in Khogyani for allowing his two sons to serve in the Afghan National Army, which was trained by the U.S.-led coalition.

Contact with the foreign troops, it seems, does not come free, either.

This is a problem for the current situation in Afghanistan as well as a long-term issue that the US government must address. It is time for our government to recognize that civilian tools like development, aid and diplomacy are integral to our national security, and make serious investments in building our civilian capacity rather than throwing money away on wasteful military projects.

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