March 12, 2012

This Weekend’s News: In Afghanistan, an Uphill Battle for Aid and Development Groups

The disturbing report of a U.S. Army sergeant slaying at least 16 Afghan civilians on Sunday in southern Afghanistan is the most recent in a series of incidents exacerbating tensions between Afghans and Americans. Three weeks ago, the U.S. military accidentally burned copies of the Koran at Bagram Airbase that incited deadly anti-U.S. demonstrations across the country. These incidents are not only exacerbating tensions between U.S. military personnel and Afghans in the near term, but may also undermine the ability of U.S. aid and development personnel from establishing the presence and relationships they need with Afghans to complete development projects essential to the country’s long-term stability.

On Sunday, The New York Times published a report citing concerns that aid and development companies share about Afghanistan’s deteriorating security environment. The spate of demonstrations set off by the Koran burnings three weeks ago and added to by the U.S. Army sergeant’s killing of at least 16 civilians, coupled with the Karzai government’s plan to ban private security companies by the end of March, is worrying aid and development groups charged with carrying out projects in some of the most volatile regions of the country. According to The New York Times, the situation has “left the private groups that carry out most of the American-financed development work in Afghanistan scrambling to sort out their operations, imperiling billions of dollars in projects.” The prospect that these development projects could be left unfinished “threatens a vital part of the Obama administration’s plans for Afghanistan, which envision a continuing development mission after the end of the NATO combat mission in 2014,” The New York Times report added.

According to reports, many of the aid and development companies are worried about how they will protect their personnel, especially given the Afghan government’s decision to abolish private security companies and to rely on “a hastily raised Afghan force” to provide protection. Moreover, given the recent reports that uniformed Afghans have killed U.S. service personnel in recent weeks, one can imagine the level of confidence these aid and development groups have in the ability of Afghan forces to provide for their security, especially in volatile regions like southern Afghanistan. “The management at a company that does aid and development work for the American government knows that some of its employees in Afghanistan are keeping weapons in their rooms — and is choosing to look the other way,” according to The New York Times.

The Obama administration’s plan to continue a development mission after the end of military operations in 2014 is not only an element of the long-term U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership, but is quite essential to the country’s long-term security and stability. In particular, agricultural development, including improved irrigation for farming and land-use practices, will be critical for the country given that more than 30 percent of its GDP comes from agriculture and ranching. What is more, infrastructure development and improvement will be important from helping diversifying the country’s economy.

It is unclear to what extent the recent upheaval in Afghanistan is a systemic challenge for the range of American and non-American aid and development groups operating in the country. The New York Times reported:

Many of the independent aid groups that are not tied financially to the United States say the unrest has hardly affected their operations in large part because they do not believe Afghans associate their groups with the United States. The groups also rarely rely on private security guards the way the aid agency contractors do, and thus are not affected by the Afghan government’s abolition of the security companies.

Regardless it is clear that the security environment has some impact on the ability of these groups to carryout successful development projects. In that light, it is important to remember that these incidents we are seeing too often in the news not only have short-term consequences for stability and security in Afghanistan, but could contribute to long-term instability by exacerbating tensions between Afghans and western aid and development groups trying to complete critical projects intended to provide for Afghanistan’s long-term prosperity.