A Path to Peace: Demilitarize Aid in Afghanistan

by Theo Sitther

President Barack Obama began his term in office by framing the war in Afghanistan as the biggest foreign policy challenge of his presidency. Later this year we will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 tragedy. The Afghan people will also commemorate the tenth year of an ongoing, seemingly endless bloody war with an ever-increasing casualty count on all sides.

Afghan civilians have borne the brunt of the violence; 2010 was one of the most deadly years for civilians. According to the United Nations, civilian casualties increased by 15 percent in 2010 with at least 2,777 deaths.

In addition to the ongoing violence and instability, Afghanistan remains in a state of dire poverty and despair. In short, billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars spent to ostensibly build a stable country and “defeat terrorism” have proven to be a complete failure.

A key component of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is to address issues of poverty and development. The Obama administration recognizes that “success” in Afghanistan includes a viable reconstruction and development strategy, although U.S. engagement in the country over the last nine years has heavily focused on the military and has largely neglected the basic needs of Afghan citizens.

Much of the development aid in recent years from the United States and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies has been channeled through military means. In 2009 the U.S. Army published the “Commander’s Guide to Money as a Weapons System,” a manual that instructs military commanders on how to use development aid to gain support of the “indigenous population to facilitate defeating the insurgents.” Programs that aim to alleviate poverty have been integrated into a counterinsurgency strategy in order to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people.

This militarized development aid is often carried out by Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Provincial Reconstruction Teams are military units with civilian personnel embedded in them, responsible for development and reconstruction efforts. The use of PRTs in Afghanistan has become widely accepted as the new model for development. This, however, presents some serious problems.

Militarized aid undermines long-term sustainable development.

The military often lacks the capacity, expertise and knowledge to carry out sustainable development and reconstruction projects.

According to a 2008 report by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services, some PRT members reported dissatisfaction due to lack of planning and coordination by units engaged in “short-term ‘feel good’ projects (with success measured by money spent or satisfaction of the local governor) without consideration of larger strategic and capacity-building implications.”

Furthermore, because the military as an institution is designed and trained for security purposes and not for development, the use of the military for development and reconstruction projects tends to focus efforts in areas where it serves strategic military or political interests rather than where it is most needed.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and development agencies, on the other hand, respond to communities that are most in need. NGOs are often better positioned to make a long-term commitment to sustainable development, whereas the military may shift its resources and efforts due to changes in the security situation or shifts in deployment cycles.

Militarized aid is a waste of money.

The use of the military to carry out development projects in Afghanistan means that much-needed resources are taken up by the PRT program that could otherwise be used for long-term sustainable development projects that work to meet human need.

The Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) is a program that provides funding directly to a military commander to be spent on development efforts, and is a primary funding source for the PRTs. Since 2004 Congress has appropriated $2.64 billion for CERP. This amount is higher than the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) global education budget, and it exceeds the total amount the Afghan government spends on health and education.

Furthermore in a 2009 report to Congress, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction stated that “there has been no standardized measurement of the effectiveness of the PRT program . . . no metrics have been devised to provide data on the quality, impact, and usefulness of PRTs and their efforts. While PRTs have collected data such as projects completed or dollars spent, these figures are inadequate to determine a Provincial Reconstruction Team’s effectiveness.”

More recently in January of 2011 the special inspector general reported on $49.2 million wasted in one province alone and in a press release stated that “building multimillion dollar projects, and then trying to figure out a sustainability plan, is a nonsensical way of planning.” The absence of adequate planning, monitoring and evaluation instruments means that money and time may continue to be invested in unsustainable and ineffective projects.

Militarized aid turns development into a weapon of war.

It infringes on humanitarian space, the ability of NGOs to operate independent, impartial humanitarian programs for those who need it most without fear of attack from armed actors.

Sustainable development must be independent of and neutral to military and political allegiances. Many NGOs, such as Mennonite Central Committee, have worked in Afghanistan for decades by building trust and crossing the lines of conflict to provide aid to anyone who needs it.

Humanitarian principles, not military strategy, must guide development. The U.S. strategy of militarized aid in Afghanistan has undermined humanitarian space and has blurred the lines between military action and humanitarian objectives.

Andrew Wilder, a research director at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, has conducted extensive research on the effectiveness of militarized aid. He states:

Foreign aid should focus on promoting humanitarian and development objectives, where there is evidence of positive impact, rather than on promoting counterinsurgency objectives, where there is not. Without compelling evidence to the contrary, the United States should stop wasting money on a “weapons system’’ that seems to be largely based on wishful thinking and the delusion that money can buy Afghan hearts and minds.

Numerous examples show it is possible to meet human need, independent of military and political considerations:

  • The Afghan Ministry of Education has worked with NGOs to establish more than 1,000 schools, providing access to primary education for nearly 7 million children.
  • The Ministry of Public Health through its Basic Package of Health Services program has worked to provide basic healthcare to 85 percent of the population.
  • The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development launched the National Solidarity Program (NSP) in 2003, to build the capacity of local communities to carry out their own development processes. So far the NSP has served over 26,000 villages across all 34 provinces. (For more information on the NSP, see page 7.)

Peace is possible in Afghanistan, but only through genuine efforts to address the underlying causes of poverty, conflict and insecurity. The United States must be willing to make a long-term commitment to demilitarize Afghanistan and to commit to long term sustainable development efforts.

While taxpayer money continues to be wasted through a military strategy that has shown little success in Afghanistan, Congress is looking to cut funding to civilian aid agencies and much-needed domestic programs.

Ending wasteful militarized aid strategies and supporting Afghan efforts like the NSP could go a long way toward achieving peace and helping to meet human need here in the United States and in Afghanistan.

1 Comment

  1. Neufelder

    Thoughtful. If only the military machinery and industry could be or have a tenth of it’s budget directed at sustainable and realistic development.

    Wouldn’t it be amazing to think that the military budget could be redirected to help the local people and (where appropriate ) traditional leaders would use locally trusted ways & means to certify community “ownership” of both the ideas, and the long-term management and funding formulae.

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