Ulterior motives are hard to hide: the militarisation of aid work in Afghanistan

There’s an article up at the Huffington Post on the dangers associated with blurring the line between traditionally neutral humanitarian work and counterinsurgency in places like Afghanistan. According to the article:

A meeting this month in Kabul turned acrimonious when USAID and Department of Defense (DoD) officials briefed international aid agencies on the new policy of the US government. The plan, titled Civilian-Military Cooperation Policy, outlines that USAID will “cooperate with DoD in joint planning, assessment and evaluation, training, implementation, and communication in all aspects of foreign assistance activities where both organizations are operating, and where civilian-military cooperation will advance USG foreign policy.”

I kind of wish I was back at the office now (the organization I work for is  USAID-funded and has a project in Afghanistan) so I could ask colleagues their thoughts on this in person.

One attendee of the Kabul meeting made made a point that deserves more attention:

A delegate from InterAction, the world’s largest NGO coalition, representing 172 organizations, accused USAID and the DoD of a classic “bait and switch.” InterAction had previously supported DoD allocating budgets for “reconstruction, security, or stabilization assistance to a foreign country,” but now they felt that the motivation was ” to fund development projects favored by the military”.

Michael Kleinman at Humanitarian Relief has another post up about the dangers attached to the militarisation of aid work. Kleinman argues that:

[…] closer ties between USAID and the DoD certainly don’t make the situation any safer for aid workers, but that the real problem lies even deeper.  The brutal truth is that insurgents in Afghanistan and elsewhere increasingly view US (and western) NGOs as anything but impartial, independent and neutral.

Hence, for instance, the comments made by the Taliban after killing three IRC staff and their driver in Afghanistan this past August, accusing the victims of being part of the “foreign invader forces“.

This isn’t simply a result of closer ties between the US military and USAID.  Many in the NGO community would also blame the military for engaging in reconstruction and development activities that “blur the lines” between soldiers and aid workers.  But again, I think this is far too simplistic.

Sure, and the “lines” are never going to be crystal clear, but there’s a distinct danger in arguing that too far. For example, you get crap like this from Ann Marlowe, who argues that not only should aid and development work be militarised, but the military is far better suited for aid and development work than NGOs are:

Greg Mortenson [of Three Cups of Tea] and his colleagues built 55 schools over a decade in some of the most remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Beginning in 1994 in one Shia village at the base of K2 in Pakistan, he started the Central Asia Institute, which expanded its activities into one Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan and finally into a remote northern Afghan province on the Pakistani border.

Mortenson’s struggles and achievements are memorably described in his book, co-written with David Oliver Relin, and they are remarkable. But contrary to the impression he gives in his very anti-military book and contrary to what many Americans assume, his work, and probably that of all the school-building charities in Afghanistan combined, is dwarfed by the school-building achievements of the American Army in Afghanistan.

I’ve previously reported how in 15 months, from January 2007 to the end of March 2008, the U.S. Army built 53 schools just in one eastern Afghan province, Khost. (It has since broken ground on 25 more.) School attendance in the million-population province has risen from just 38,000 in 2002 with 3,000 girls attending, to 210,000 at the beginning of the 2008 school year in March, 21% of whom are girls. (Yes, in this deeply conservative, remote province, that percentage represents a step forward.)

[…] Hundreds of thousands of the children of the Pashtun belt here owe their education to the U.S. Army. Its efforts here need to be expanded and supported. And young Americans who want to help the children of Afghanistan probably can do so best by joining the group that’s doing the most for them–the U.S. Army.

Of course, many of the schools the US Army builds are not sustainable, and nearly all of those built by Mortenson’s organization are. Why? Because Pakistanis and Afghans in the regions Moretenson works in know that he and his employees aren’t part of a counterinsurgency campaign. Their goals aren’t political, and all they want is to provide education to children who would otherwise go without.  One can also assume the fact that Mortenson and CAI have never recklessly bombed the people of the region also helps.

Anyway, a recent report on civil-military relations and NGOs by the European Network of NGOs in Afghanistan (ENNA) offers some suggestions for how to proceed from here:

  • NGOs should unite around advocacy to donors to promote more effective and sustainable civilian modalities for aid funding. NGOs that currently accept funding from military operations should reflect in a serious fashion on the high risk of negative implications for the safety and security of their own staff, programmes and beneficiaries, as well as the wider NGO sector in Afghanistan. Particular attention should also be given to building the capacity of local NGO partners to engage in policy dialogue and effective programming on a sustainable basis.
  • Development and humanitarian funding should be channelled through civilian funding instruments and agencies, not military or integrated civil-military institutions. These funding modalities should be carefully managed in order to minimise the risk of implementing agencies becoming perceived as aligned with military forces involved in combat operations. Funding relations should also be reviewed to ensure that they do not undermine local governance institutions through creating parallel structures or additional layers of sub-national governance.
  • There is a crucial need for a neutral and impartial UN capacity to coordinate civil-military relations and humanitarian response. To this end the capacity of the relevant UN agencies responsible for these tasks should be further strengthened and clearly delineated from the political roles within those agencies. Additional support will also be required for NGOs, especially Afghan NGOs to engage actively with this coordination mechanism.
  • While capacity-building of local and national authorities to manage and implement programmes is an important and legitimate long-term objective, Afghanistan currently faces more immediate governance challenges in terms of resolving the political disputes and grievances driving conflict in the country. Greater focus and a more coherent strategy should be placed on tackling these political challenges.

Food for thought.