How better development could yet save Afghanistan
By Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, published by Europe’s World
Afghanistan, to no one’s surprise, has come to dominate NATO summits. At their Lisbon meeting in November 2010, NATO countries decided to withdraw troops by 2014, and the issue again topped the agenda at this year’s meeting in Chicago in May. Controversy is never far away, whether fired by militants’ assaults on Kabul and around the country, as in April, or by eruptions in U.S.-Pakistani relations.
The full transfer of responsibility for Afghanistan’s security from NATO to Afghan forces poses profound questions about the efficacy of international intervention, and traditional military approaches to it. For some critics NATO’s presence is the problem and they call for a speedier transition to Afghan control. Two years ago, NATO Afghan war veteran Lt. Col. Thomas Brouns warned presciently that “the possibility of strategic defeat looms” as what he termed “violent incidents” increased in direct proportion to the troop surge at that time underway. The war is “a losing battle in winning the hearts and minds of nearly 30m Afghans,” he said.
Yet the argument that NATO’s withdrawal could be an equally grave mistake is compelling. In the aftermath of withdrawal there is a risk of a downwards spiral into endless civil war – a view expounded last year in reports by the German military, the UK’s Royal Air Force, and a government review ordered by British Prime Minister David Cameron. Even the Afghan defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak has warned of the potentially catastrophic consequences of an abrupt withdrawal – no doubt fearing the return of the Taliban in the vacuum left behind by NATO’s departure.
NATO officials are also understandably anxious. A secret NATO report leaked in February this year revealed that the Taliban’s strength and morale remains intact despite the NATO surge, with the movement’s militants increasingly convinced “their control of Afghanistan is inevitable.” No wonder, then, that U.S. policy has shifted from outright rejection of Taliban overtures after 9/11 to courting the rebels in what seems a desperate effort to bring the war to a close. Officials now concede that NATO will retain a presence in Afghanistan in the context of a “strategic partnership agreement” with Kabul for “long-term co-operation” on security issues.
So what to do? Amidst all the controversy about NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, the curious assumption is that the country’s stability somehow correlates with troop numbers, rather than with underlying socio-economic conditions and political accountability. Commentators have generally overlooked the single component of international intervention which has had resounding success – development aid through Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Programme (NSP). Under this, the Afghan government disburses grants to village-level elected organisations – Community Development Councils (CDCs) – which in their turn identify local priorities and implement small-scale development projects.
The NSP has now reached out to 24,000 villages, mobilising nearly 70% of rural communities across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces – including enrolling over 100,000 women into new local CDCs. An evaluation by independent U.S. experts found that the NSP had led to significant improvement in villagers’ economic wellbeing and their attitudes towards the government reducing the number of people willing to join the insurgents and leading to an improved security situation in the long run.
The report also observes that development mitigates militancy only in regions facing what it termed “moderate violence” – but not where there are “high levels of initial violence.” The impact of the war is such that 2011 saw a record 3,021 Afghan civilian deaths, while a UN assessment of last year found the monthly average of security incidents like gun battles and roadside bombings was 39% higher than in 2010.
So if NATO’s exit strategy is right, it’s still not enough. From June 2002 to September 2010, the U.S. – though the largest NSP donor – has given $528m to the programme (as well as another $225m from 2010 funds, with Congress appropriating a further $800m or so). This is a tiny fraction in the total of about $18.8bn in foreign assistance over the last decade, and much more needs to be done. Over two-thirds of Afghans still live in dire poverty; UNHCR says only 23% have access to safe drinking water; and over three-quarters of adults are illiterate. The Center for a New American Security has urged that the U.S. government should “not only continue its [NSP's] funding but should also help expand the program across Afghanistan. Only through steadfast support of the NSP and similarly structured enterprises can hard-won military gains be consolidated into an enduring, Afghan-led peace.”
The NSP is almost a carbon copy of a longstanding development model in rural Pakistan, including Taliban strongholds in the northwest frontier province. Called the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN), it is Pakistan’s largest NGO, and has run quietly for nearly 30 years, with a staggering success rate; it has mobilised over 4m Pakistani households through local community organisations, provided skills training to nearly 3m, and in all reached some 30m people.
The RSPN model being replicated in Afghanistan under the NSP is distinguished by a participatory approach, based on partnership with communities. The programme began in the early 1980s through the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), in the Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan regions. Under the leadership of Nobel Prize nominee Shoaib Sultan Khan, the AKRSP model was replicated by establishing a further ten autonomous Rural Support Programmes (RSP) across three quarters of the country’s districts – which together form the umbrella that is the RSPN.
The secret of the RSPN’s success is deceptively simple. The poor are mobilised to establish local community organisations where citizens are involved in every aspect of decision-making – designing and selecting projects, managing them, and monitoring expenditures – in projects which have an immediate and tangible impact. The programme empowers villagers to see themselves as citizens with the skills, tools and acumen to manage the disbursement of government funds.
In the northwest province of Chitral, for instance, local micro-scale hydro-electricity projects now supply power to over half of the population. Elsewhere, RSPN has empowered locals to establish 1,449 community schools whose pupils out-perform their peers from government schools, and has enrolled 681,000 women in community activism – the largest outreach to poor rural women of any Pakistani organisation. In short, the RSPN’s work is critical because for the Pakistani state to be strong, it must be grounded in local civil society institutions capable of holding it to account and engaging with it constructively.
But like the NSP, the RSPN receives only a fraction of the overall U.S.-UK aid budget to Pakistan. The security debate about troop numbers and drone strikes has distracted attention from the role of development aid in building resilience to radicalisation. The obsession across the region with traditional security solutions has arguably been its own worst enemy. During the countdown to withdrawal, the international community must strengthen and expand these proven development models. If not, Afghanistan’s quagmire will become an abyss.