Afghanistan: can aid make a difference?


Along with troops, the UK is pouring aid into Afghanistan. But is it working? Jonathan Steele gets a first hand view of life inside Helmand province

Jonathan Steele

Women police officers undergoing training
Afghan women police officers undergoing training at Lashkar Gah under British supervision. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Imagine a two-mile journey from Britain’s military HQ in Helmand to the shooting range where Afghan police train under UK supervision. Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, has hosted British troops for more than four years, so you might think the trip would be an easy commute.
Think again. Wedged into flak jackets with helmets at the ready, Guardian photographer Sean Smith and I sit in the front vehicle of a three-car convoy of armour-plated land cruisers with darkened windows driven by weapon-carrying security guards. The armoured glass in the front passenger’s window sports an ominous perforated crack like a star burst. “I see you’ve taken at least one bullet,” I comment after one of the guards finishes briefing us on how to operate the two-way radio in case he and his colleague are incapacitated.
“Actually, it was just a stone,” he replies. “Small boys throw them. They take time to aim, so it’s better to be in the lead vehicle. You usually get past before they’re ready.” As we set off on our 10-minute trip he picks up his handset to launch into a running commentary of potential threats for the benefit of the cars behind. “Static tuctuc [three-wheeler] on right. White Toyota, no licence plate, approaching from side road. Multiple pax [passengers]. Tuctuc on left, has eyes on us. No pax . . .”
It’s our first morning in Lashkar Gah and I wasn’t expecting this. Yes, the 18-minute helicopter ride from the huge transit airfield at Camp Bastion in northern Helmand had ended with swerves and tilts at little more than 15m (50ft) above Afghan family compounds before we reached Lashkar Gah. But I had thought the town itself might be safe.
We reach the shooting range. In light blue, knee-length coats and trousers, the women police look very smart, but what is most striking is the head gear – scarves covering the chin as well as the hair, and wraparound reflective sunglasses, giving them a totally anonymous, ninja-like appearance.
Piles of folded-up burqas lie on the bench beside them where we enjoy soft drinks before they take up the new pistols two British police trainers have brought. “Lashkar Gah has 16 policewomen but only three are willing to wear their uniforms to work,” Roshan Zakia, the senior officer, explains. The Taliban sometimes attack people seen as collaborating with the government of Hamid Karzai and foreign forces.
Zakia is one of those who does not hide her job. Three men came to her door recently and beat her up until neighbours saved her. It was not the only case of intimidation we were to hear during our 10-day stay in Helmand.
But it is not easy to report my impressions of Helmand’s challenges. I was invited by our own Department for International Development (DFID), but everything I write has to be submitted to the Ministry of Defence and cleared for publication. Britain is trying to bring good governance to the people of Afghanistan, among which I thought was respect for press freedom. But no journalist can travel with the British in Helmand if he or she has not given signed agreement to an annex to the MoD “Green Book” which sets out the procedures for coverage, including the requirement for pre-publication approval of all text, audio, and pictures. A soldier even sits in on my interviews. No wonder American journalists decline to report on the British in Helmand. Their own government makes no such demands of the embedded press. Astonishingly, I learn the Newspaper Publishers Association, the National Union of Journalists, the Society of Editors and the BBC were consulted in producing the Green Book.
A policy that aims to bring services to ordinary people within weeks of the military’s advances
Huge insecurity, the persistence of the Taliban and British defensiveness about the story they want the media to tell accompany us throughout our time in Helmand.
The last was strange, given that both the British and Americans can point to progress. Their counter-insurgency strategy of “shape, clear, hold, build, and transfer” aims to bring services to ordinary people within weeks, if not days of the military’s advances. Before troops go into an area, the plan is to have a “district delivery package” geared up and ready to follow. Install a district governor and key officials, set up a community council, offer cash-for-work programmes, open health clinics and schools, appoint officials to handle local disputes and get police, judges and prosecutors in place to deal with crime.
Eleven of Helmand’s 14 districts now have a governor and some officials, compared with only five two years ago. Schools have reopened with almost 80,000 children enrolled today, virtually double the number of 2007. Police are being trained at the rate of 150 new recruits every month.
British and US forces are trying to pave the way for economic development by removing IEDs, patrolling the main roads and making it possible for bazaars to reopen and commerce to revive. DFID is funding a programme to give farmers wheat seed to replace poppy production. Loans are going to small businesses.
The schemes are supervised by the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Lashkar Gah, a mixed civilian and military enterprise. The US now has more troops in Helmand than Britain, but the PRT is still a UK-run affair of some 150 people, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the MoD, and DFID all represented. The number includes a growing presence of US civilians, plus some from Denmark.
They live inside a heavily fortified compound of watchtowers, tents and air-conditioned trailers that also houses Task Force Helmand, the UK military headquarters. Overland travel for civilians is confined to armed convoys of the kind that took us to the police shooting range. Travel to any of Helmand’s district centres is by helicopter only.
Claims that UK and US forces – and through them the Afghan government – now control most of Helmand are exaggerated. Until you visit the area, it is hard to envisage that their presence is actually confined to a few towns in this rural province. They sit in a series of security bubbles labelled “main bases”, “forward operating bases” and “patrol bases”, each of diminishing size, with the patrol bases home to anything from a dozen to 100 troops. The latest tactic is to set up “line of sight” checkpoints, mainly manned by Afghan police, on the roads between towns so that travellers are always watched. Local government offices are also located in guarded compounds where, for safety reasons, officials often live as well as work.
PRT officials and military spokesmen use various phrases to define success. The government has “extended its reach”, or “can now exert influence” or “has a presence” in this or that new district. Every press release makes the same point. The unspoken assumptions are that they are playing a zero-sum game and territory won from the Taliban is territory denied to them. But this is asymmetric warfare and those Taliban – the majority – who are local farmers usually disperse before major operations begin. They pursue the struggle by other means: IEDs and rifle fire from ambush positions; intimidating government officials with assassinations; and “night letters” warning them of the risk of working with foreigners, just as the mujahideen did when Soviet troops were in Helmand 30 years ago.
The latest resistance pinprick seems to be the stoning of Afghan government and foreign vehicles. One day I sat in on an hour-long “Pashtu for Beginners” class for British troops. Offering language tips is an intelligent move and attendance was impressive. On a blisteringly hot afternoon almost 15 young men turned up, perhaps aided by the fact that their instructor, a fellow soldier in combat fatigues, was a pretty blonde. After we had rehearsed several standard phrases – How are you?, I’m not an enemy, I’m a British soldier – one squaddie asked: “What’s the Pashtu for ‘Stop throwing stones at us’?”
We had a more graphic illustration of the point on a visit to a girls’ high school in Lashkar Gah. The school also teaches boys up to the age of 12. Dozens were racing round as our armoured convoy parked under the playground’s only trees beyond a sign saying that USAID had helped to rebuild the school. Twenty minutes into my interview with the deputy head, a security guard came in and warned us that we might have to leave soon. Boys were starting to stone the land cruisers. He rushed back five minutes later and ordered us to don our helmets and run to the cars, which the guards had managed to move closer to the building. We beat a hasty retreat while the kids carried on stoning as the convoy moved off.
The stoning may have been spontaneous, but a source told us the widespread scale of it was new and appeared to be a tactic organised by the Taliban. On the local radio stations that they have set up, the British and Americans put out messages urging Afghans not to let their children help the Taliban.
Most Helmandis live in the province’s fertile central area along the Helmand river and the adjacent irrigation canals. Expatriates call it the “green zone” because of the stark contrast with the khaki desert. But the name is also a reminder of Baghdad’s Green Zone, where many of them did earlier service. The hallmarks of foreigners’ lives in both places are insecurity and isolation from ordinary people.
Talking to Helmandis in the green zone’s villages is as impossible for embedded journalists as it is for PRT officials and UK troops. But we asked to meet Afghan NGOs, though we knew conversation would be limited while a soldier sat beside us. The request ran into problems. “They won’t come to the PRT and they don’t want to have vehicles from the PRT coming to their offices,” we were told.
The PRT’s Afghan interpreters live in the compound and even they are afraid to go into Lashkar Gah when off duty in case of reprisals. They come mainly from Kabul, and on the job some wear baseball caps and scarves round their faces to avoid identification.
A survey found that the government’s justice system was trusted by just 7% of Afghans
To fill the knowledge gap, DFID has been smart enough to commission opinion surveys with Afghan interviewers. One done in Helmand last spring reported on the province’s mix of justice systems. When disputes arise, the first port of call is the committee of village elders and mullahs. If they fail to solve them, cases go to district governors or Taliban commanders.
The survey found that many people are satisfied with the security and justice the Taliban provide. More than half the male respondents called them “completely trustworthy and fair”. They did not demand bribes, though they took money in other ways, through taxes on farm crops, road tolls and zakat (donations for the poor). Women were far less positive, with only a quarter saying they trusted the Taliban.
The government justice system was heavily criticised for bribery and favouritism and was trusted by only 7% of men and women. “Most ordinary people associate the government with practices and behaviours they dislike: the inability to provide security, dependence on foreign military, eradication of a basic livelihood crop (poppy), and as having a history of partisanship (the perceived preferential treatment of northerners)”, the survey reported.
To counter people’s adverse perceptions of the government the rule of law team in the PRT is working with Afghan officials to build up a reformed justice system. It is part of what is called the Helmand Institutions Building Programme. They took us to Nad Ali, a district centre they consider a showcase and model for other centres to follow as they capture them from the Taliban. Here, too, insecurity was massive. Although Nad Ali is only 15km (9 miles) from Lashkar Gah, travel was by helicopter. Kicking up clouds of dust, we landed in a medieval compound of ancient mud-brick walls, now known as FOB Shawqat. Until the British arrived it was the town’s livestock market, transformed now into a rectangular fortress of three tiers of Hesco barriers (wired sacks full of loose stones and other ballast), freight containers, tents, and camouflaged watchtowers.
Two weeks before our visit, the Taliban launched a two-hour attack on one of the watchtowers. Troops are warned that the risks of direct fire and suicide attacks on Shawqat are “substantial”. Under heavy guard we were allowed to walk 45m from the base to a new bazaar built by the British for a ribbon-cutting ceremony by Habibullah, the district governor. But when we went to his office later, 180m away, it was in armoured vehicles. They also insisted this was necessary when they took us on a trip to the old bazaar, where we were allowed to dismount and walk around for stilted interviews with shopkeepers.
In the governor’s offices, we met three newly appointed officials – a judge, prosecutor and investigator. The latter two told us they had started making trips to villages to explain their work but had only held two trials since August. They face a long road ahead.
The longest road of all is the effort to improve life for Helmand’s women. After toppling the Taliban, George Bush and Tony Blair encouraged their wives to proclaim the arrival of a new dawn for Afghan women; liberation from the burqa and the chance for education again. The number of girls in school has become one of the regularly repeated measures of change.
Progress is substantial but what happens when girls leave school? Where are the jobs, and what are British and US aid programmes doing to encourage female employment? Are they taking steps to deal with some of the grim justice issues that women raised in the DFID-sponsored survey? Women complained of domestic violence, multiple marriages, honour killing and the archaic practice known as bad, under which young girls are given to other families in exchange for unpaid debts or as compensation if someone from the other family has been killed.
PRT officials arranged for us to see a group of women in Lashkar Gah. We meet in the Department of Women’s Affairs, the only neutral venue they consider safe. About a dozen turn up. Their overriding concern is jobs: in conservative Pashtun society, many husbands refuse to let their wives go out of the house or family compound and if they do permit them, there are few jobs for women apart from teaching.
At the girls’ high school, Rahela Safi, the deputy headteacher, said almost 10,000 girls were enrolled. They study for only two or three hours a day because teachers have to do three shifts. Some girls are in their early 20s, having missed out during the Taliban period. But though they study subjects from maths to biology and computer sciences, most end up – if they find a job at all – teaching the next generation of girls.
The provincial education department in Lashkar Gah has 70 employees. All are men. Money is being allocated to set up a women’s education unit, which will be staffed by women, though again it will only be women working with and for women. The PRT itself employs no women interpreters. When I raised this, a (female) British civilian adviser suggested the question was culturally insensitive since it assumed there were women available who had language skills and permission from their families to work alongside men. To which one reply might be that the PRT could get the facts by advertising on the radio in Kabul or Lashkar Gah and seeing what response they receive.
The provincial council in Lashkar Gah has three women, but only one of Helmand’s district community councils, selected by local elders under UK and US supervision and financed by the US and the UK, has women representatives.
Washington and London seem happy to try to alter Afghan culture when it comes to the economy, but when that culture undermines women’s rights, there is less energy. “Is it our goal to change Afghan society or deliver basic services and security and make it able to have a representative government?” asks Arthur Snell, a Foreign Office man who serves as the PRT’s deputy head. “It would play into the Taliban’s hands if they could say the foreigners are here to undermine Afghan traditional society. You have to strike a careful balance.”
An aid programme that will take years to deliver comprehensive results
So can the UK’s Helmand aid and development programme make a difference in counter-insurgency terms, by giving the Afghan government legitimacy and weakening the Taliban?
First of all, it must be said it has come very late. “The key moment was the summer of 2008 with the decision to develop the districts outside Lashkar Gah,” says Nick Abbott, head of DFID’s Afghanistan team. But why wasn’t this done in the spring of 2002 as soon as the Taliban were toppled? Remember Blair’s boast that Britain would not walk away from Afghanistan? In the wake of Bush’s rush to topple Saddam Hussein, he promptly did. This allowed the Taliban to recover and re-emerge, using the argument that the latest foreign occupiers had brought no benefit to ordinary people in the Pashtun heartlands.
Second, the aid programme will take years to deliver comprehensive results. Schools and health clinics can be built relatively quickly but giving people justice, honest police and officials who observe the rule of law – the issues on which the Taliban are seen as strong – will need much more time.
Third, it raises the question of the high cost of delivering aid in a war zone, given the huge danger facing foreigners who provide and try to monitor it. The same money would go much further if spent in needy developing countries that are at peace. Aid could return to Afghanistan once Afghans have settled their conflicts. Yet DFID is going in the opposite direction by planning to increase its spending in Helmand and the rest of Afghanistan next year.
Fourth, aid as counter-insurgency endangers the work – and lives – of independent NGOs by linking them with foreign forces in people’s minds, a point frequently made by groups such as Oxfam as well as Afghan NGOs. While foreign governments’ aid goes up, charitable aid diminishes.
Fifth, does aid really enhance the legitimacy of Afghan government representatives in Helmand? Under US counter-insurgency doctrine (Coin), which Britain endorses, “government-in-a-box” is supposed to drop in as soon as troops flood into an area and force the Taliban underground. The difficulty is that the US and UK do not choose the officials who arrive to fly the government flag, since the Karzai regime is supposed to be sovereign.
Much of the British and US effort in Helmand this year has gone on preventing a former provincial governor, Sher Mohammad Akhunzada, and a former police chief, Abdul Rahman Jan, from continuing to exert influence locally. On suspicion of corruption, the British persuaded Karzai to remove them four years ago, so they were furious when a delegation of Kabul ministers brought both men to a meeting of local elders in Nad Ali in February. Diplomats say Akhunzada, now a senator in Kabul, “still enjoys direct access to Karzai”.
Less senior officials are also a concern. Officials who served in the PRT earlier this year say they believe several members of current Helmand governor Gulabuddin Mangal’s team diverted British funds from a programme to get farmers to plant crops other than poppies. They bought low-quality wheat seeds and fertiliser in place of what they were supposed to give farmers, and pocketed the difference. The lists of beneficiaries were also said to have been rigged in favour of friends of Mangal’s staff. When the British complained, the governor mobilised the National Directorate of Security and several staff were arrested.
Sixth, does aid undermine the Taliban? Most Taliban commanders seem to recognise that people want schools and health clinics and it is counterproductive to destroy them. In some places, they have even tried to get credit by saying their presence forces the foreigners to pay to build them. “There is huge pressure in newly cleared areas to open schools and we only do it with buy-in from the local population. The Taliban haven’t been active in attacking schools. There have been no attacks on girls’ schools in Lashkar Gah since 2005. There was one in Gereshk in April this year,” says Brett Rapley, the PRT’s education adviser.
Health clinics have also largely been spared. “Before I came here,” says Dr Jonathan Cox, the PRT medical adviser who is a colonel in the regular army, “I thought the Taliban would be burning clinics down. That’s not the case. They seem not to burn them down or blow them up. They don’t even do it to clinics we’ve built.”
“Women teachers who live in Taliban-influenced areas outside the security bubble and come in to work are sometimes intimidated,” says Rapley. Medical staff appear to be better off. “There is surprisingly little intimidation of health and clinic workers in lonely places. If it’s a local [as opposed to an out-of-area or foreign] insurgent, he must know his family must be using that clinic and when the war is over he will need one himself,” says Cox.
Coin’s key test is whether Taliban members are giving up. General David Petraeus, the US commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan, has stepped up the use of drones and special forces to assassinate Taliban commanders, claiming substantial success. But critics say the supply of new Taliban is inexhaustible and new commanders may be more ruthless than those they replace.
If one aim is to frighten the Taliban into dropping their guns, the carrot is the “re-integration” programme, rolled out this year, which offers Taliban benefits for a return to civilian life. PRT officials in Helmand decline to give figures on how many have come forward but suggest it is only “dozens”. There can be a problem if former Taliban get jobs or vocational training while there are no rewards for other Afghans in Helmand or more peaceful provinces.
Amnesty is also a difficult issue. Should a Taliban member who has killed Afghans or foreign troops escape retribution? If not, what of the anomaly that the Afghan government and parliament are full of men with blood on their hands from earlier phases in the country’s three decades of war? And why would Taliban commanders give up if they know they’re going straight to jail?
In Lashkar Gah, they showed us the DFID-funded new Afghan prison. Until September last year the old building was in chaos, controlled by its own inmates. The new one has carpeted cells where inmates sleep on two-tiered bunks or the floor. The Afghan governor, a jovial figure in vest and tracksuit, put his arms round inmates in avuncular style. One wing housed former Taliban, I was told. They let me select four to interview on why they had switched sides, but all denied any link with the movement
A survey commissioned by DFID last year examined why Afghans join the Taliban and the other insurgent group, Hezb-i Islami, and how much local people support them. They interviewed 192 people in Kandahar, Wardak and around Kabul (but for security reasons not in Helmand). Only 10 supported the government. The rest saw it as corrupt and partisan. Most supported the Taliban, at least what they called the “good Taliban”, defined as those who showed religious piety, attacked foreign forces but not Afghans and delivered justice quickly and fairly. They did not like “Pakistani Taliban” and Taliban linked to narcotics. But support for the “good Taliban” was expressed with no enthusiasm and mainly, it seemed, because of a lack of alternatives.
Few respondents said they understood why foreign forces were in Afghanistan. The majority wanted a lifting of UN sanctions on senior Taliban so the government could get them back into Afghan political life and negotiate a withdrawal of foreign forces. Older respondents said this should be gradual to avoid another collapse into civil war as happened when Soviet forces left.
The latest DFID-funded survey in April and May this year interviewed 450 people in various districts of Helmand as well as Kandahar, Kunduz and Nangarhar. They included pro-government people, others who were sympathetic to, or members of, armed groups, and fence-sitters. They were asked if they supported re-integration, whether it was feasible and how it linked to “reconciliation” (negotiations with Taliban leaders). Only two opposed it. The vast majority said re-integration at the local level would only work if combined with reconciliation at the top. The process would be long, they thought, but should start soon. Many repeated the earlier survey’s point that foreign forces should not leave completely until there was agreement with the Taliban so as to avoid a relapse into civil war.
Full marks to DFID for commissioning these surveys, though officials may be disappointed that respondents had little to say for development aid. “There is no evidence from this study . . . that providing basic services in insurgency areas wins hearts and minds particularly if they are protected by foreign forces,” last year’s survey concluded. It is a powerful point, and nothing they showed me in Helmand disproved it.

Related Articles

Bolivia. Una opción civilizatoria con rostro indígena


Acceder al gobierno nacional: un paso de esperanza El gobierno que emergió en Bolivia en diciembre de 2005 y asumió

Muammar Al Gaddafi asegura que no dialogará con rebeldes libios


El líder de Libia, Muammar Al Gaddafi, aseguró que no dialogará con los rebeldes libios. (Foto: teleSUR) El líder libio,

Gül’s Iran visit shows Turkey’s limits in push for democracy


MAH?R ZEYNALOV ?STANBUL Turkish President Abdullah Gül had talks with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday to discuss

No comments

Write a comment
No Comments Yet! You can be first to comment this post!

Write a Comment