The road to a stable Afghanistan is through…the Pakistani countryside?
By Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, published by Foreign Policy
Since NATO’s Lisbon summit in November 2010, debate has raged over the decision to draw-down troops from Afghanistan by 2014. And in less than a month, NATO is to hold its 25th heads of state summit in Chicago on 20th May. Unsurprisingly, among the summit’s major themes will be the seemingly intractable Afghan question, controversy over which has continued with increasingly ferocious attacks by militants – the synchronised 18-hour assault on Kabul on April 16 being an outstanding example – along with persistently strained U.S.-Pakistani relations since NATO airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November. But rather than endlessly debating troop numbers – whose link to stability is at the least exceedingly unclear – NATO allies would be better off focusing on how to maximise the impact of programs which pave the way for long-term stability by dramatically re-shifting the focus of aid funding from security to development.
The full transition of responsibility for Afghanistan’s security from NATO to Afghan forces poses deep questions about the efficacy of international intervention and traditional military approaches. For some critics calling for a faster transition to Afghan control, NATO’s presence is the problem. Two years ago, NATO Afghan war veteran Lt. Col. Thomas Brouns warned presciently that “the possibility of strategic defeat looms” as “violent incidents” increase in direct proportion to the troop surge. The war is “a losing battle in winning the hearts and minds of nearly 30 million Afghans.”
Others argue that a quick NATO withdrawal could be a grave mistake, precipitating a downwards spiral into endless civil war – a view expounded last year by the German military, the RAF, and a British government review ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron. Even the Afghan defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak warned of the potentially catastrophic ramifications of a more abrupt withdrawal – no doubt fearing a Taliban come-back in the wake of the vacuum left behind by NATO’s departure.
Amidst all the controversy about NATO in Afghanistan, the curious assumption is that the country’s stability is somehow purely correlated with troop numbers, rather than underlying socio-economic conditions and political accountability. Indeed, commentators have overlooked the single component of international intervention which has had resounding success – development aid, through Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Programme (NSP). Under the programme, the Afghan government disburses grants to village-level elected organisations, Community Development Councils (CDCs), which in turn identify local priorities and implement small-scale development projects.
The NSP has reached out to 24,000 villages, mobilising nearly 70 percent of rural communities across all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces – including enrolling over 100,000 women into new local CDCs. An independent evaluation by academics from Harvard, MIT and the New School 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” leading to “an improved security situation in the long run.”
Yet the evaluation report also observes that development mitigates militancy only in regions facing “moderate violence” – but not where there are “high levels of initial violence.” Here, the impact of the war is palpable – 2011 saw a record number of 3,021 Afghan civilian deaths. And a UN assessment for that year found the average monthly number of “security incidents” – such as gun battles and roadside bombings – was 39 per cent higher than the preceding year.
So if the exit strategy is the right one, it’s still not enough. From June 2002 to September 2010, the United States – though the largest NSP donor – has given $528 million to the programme (as well as another $225 million from FY 2010 funds, with Congress appropriating a further $800 million or so). This is a tiny fraction in the total of about $18.8 billion in foreign assistance over the last decade, and much more needs to be done. Over two-thirds of Afghans still live in dire poverty; only 23 per cent have access to safe drinking water; and just 24 percent above the age of 15 can read and write, according to the UN High Commission for Human Rights. Thus, a recent report by the Center for a New American Security urges that the US government “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.”
Yet the NSP is a virtual carbon copy of a longstanding development model being implemented just across the border in rural Pakistan, including the Taliban’s strongholds in the northwest frontier province: the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN). As Pakistan’s largest NGO, the RSPN has run quietly for nearly thirty years, with a staggering success rate – having mobilised over 4 million Pakistani households through local community organisations, provided skills training to nearly 3 million, and reached approximately 30 million people.
The RSPN’s model – replicated so successfully in Afghanistan under the NSP – is distinguished by its unique 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 immediate, tangible impact. The programme thus empowers villagers to see themselves as citizens with the skills, tools and acumen to work together in managing disbursement of government funds to lift themselves out of poverty.
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 enrolled 681,000 women in community activism – the largest outreach to poor rural women of any Pakistani organisation. That is why the RSPN’s work is so critical to the future of the country – for a strong, representative Pakistani state to emerge, it must be grounded in strong 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.-U.K. aid budget to Pakistan. The ongoing debate about troop numbers and drone strikes – while important – has served to distract attention from the critical role of development aid in building resilience to radicalisation. Thus, across the region, the obsession with traditional security solutions has arguably been its own worst enemy. As the countdown to withdrawal continues, the international community must strengthen and expand these proven development models. Otherwise, the quagmire will become an abyss.