Transatlantic Briefing No. 8-06

I have a sinking feeling that the NATO will be left holding the bag in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the ‘International Community’ has pledged to help that country rebuild itself from years of war and authoritarian rule. From a quick look at the dailies all one can see is 'NATO accidentally bombs civilians', 'NATO does not have enough troops', 'NATO is failing to provide security', 'NATO is not rebuilding the country quick enough'. Last time I looked NATO was a military alliance charged with assisting the Government of Afghanistan in providing security and stability. I did not know that the Alliance was a one stop fix-it shop for failed states.


 Right now it seems that the mission in Afghanistan is hanging on a precipice and could tilt either way. NATO has finally assumed total control over all forces in Afghanistan, but it now has to deal with the repercussions of past policies. A hostile south today is partially a result of leaving it for last and focusing on stability in Kabul and North first. The aim here is not to disparage this strategy. Rather, it is to highlight some of the drawbacks the initial strategy posed and to recognize that the Alliance is not  primarily responsible for where Afghanistan is today. While the Alliance is doing a more than admirable job in attempting to produce security across the country – and most of the country is more or less peaceful at the moment – there is much work to be done. The stability and security that NATO creates will only last if it is followed by immediate and long term reconstruction efforts. NATO can help in achieving these tasks, but it cannot do it alone.


First, where is the international community? What is the United Nations doing in Afghanistan? The answer is not very much. What about international donors? At the London conference in 2006 they pledged 4,921 billion dollars. Sounds like a lot, but the reality is that is a pretty paltry sum. A Rand Study reveals that the per capita comparisons put donations to Afghanistan to shame. In Bosnia the aid flow was $679 per capita, in Kosovo $526, and in East Timor $233. Afghanistan on the other hand has received a rock bottom $57 per capita. And this is supposed to fund the rebuilding of a country just slightly smaller than the state of Texas? A country that has been an imperial buffer state for centuries that has suffered nearly constant war since 1979 and was ruled by an authoritarian bunch of tyrants whose idea of progress resides in 13th century Islamic thought? On top of this there is a serious difference between aid money that is pledged and aid money that is actually given. The two previous donor conferences held in Tokyo (2002) and Berlin (2004) ended up delivering less than half of the $28 billion promised. Of that sum only $4 went to rebuilding projects. At this same time drug revenues outpaced international aid by a two-to-one margin. Is it really so hard to figure out why Afghanistan is a narco-state?


Secondly, assuming the money actually gets to Afghanistan, there is the issue of actual on the ground reconstruction efforts. There are literally hundreds of Non-governmental Organizations working on the ground in Afghanistan to provide humanitarian relief. They are engaged in immediate projects helping to provide clean water and medial care. They are engaged in long-term projects aimed at constructing a durable infrastructure. These tasks are all complementary to NATO’s goal of providing security and stability. They are also concurrent to many of the tasks that NATO’s provisional Reconstruction Teams are doing across the country. Just a few weeks ago in Afghanistan I was chatting with a nice Swede at their PRT near Mazar-e-Sharif in the North of Afghanistan. I asked him about coordination with NGOs in the area. He told me there is no coordination between NGOs and his PRT. It is the same across the entire country. So basically the NATO PRT has no idea what projects NGOs are engaged in unless the NGO volunteers the information. This seems nonsensical. The blame cannot be placed at the feet of NATO alone. While I am not sure exactly what efforts are being made by NATO to engage with NGOs, I do know that NGOs do not want to get too involved with NATO. They fear that their association with NATO will taint their image as independent organizations and that this will make it more difficult to do their jobs. In fact, the NGOs do not even like the NATO PRTs as they think it confuses the locals as to who’s who. The PRTs engage in reconstruction tasks and use white vehicles similar to the ones used by aid organizations. The ISAF vehicles, however, are marked with the large green ISAF emblem and the military on the ground told me that insurgents specifically target NGO convoys, not PRT missions, because they know that the aid organizations do not have weapons to defend themselves. Despite the fact that the ISAF vehicles are white, soldiers travel with them in the unmarked vehicles and the PRTs can scramble heavier forces when needed. Armed with only cell phones and not keeping NATO informed of their actions, NGOs are easy targets indeed.


While I can understand some of the sentiments of the NGOs it seems absurd not to coordinate activities on the ground. They are the targets of insurgents not because they are perceived to be ‘associated’ with NATO, but because they are attempting to provide services that will help rebuild the country. If they are successful the people of Afghanistan will maintain their support of NATO and the international NGOs in the country. Without the support of the population the Taliban will not be able to return to power.  They will attempt to disrupt daily life and reconstruction efforts as much as possible to prevent this outcome and they will start with the most defenceless targets – NGOs. Because of this, and because the power of many working together is always more efficient than the power of one, NATO and NGOs need to start coordinating their activity before it is too late. In the meantime, the rest of the international community should cough up the money they promised to Afghanistan, and while they are at it find some more. Doing this mission on the cheap is going to have one outcome – failure. Everyone will lose, not the least NATO and of course, Afghanis, to whom we owe a decent shot at success.


Dr. Michael J Williams

Head, Transatlantic Programme

The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute.

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