Thursday, March 6, 2008

Disaster: the ugly truth and more

Most readers will have already perused Graeme Smith's latest report, written with Paul Koring. Here it is, edited down a bit, and followed by some similar material:

The ugly truth in Afghanistan

KABUL AND WASHINGTON — When managers from all the major humanitarian agencies in Kandahar gathered in a high-walled compound to swap war stories last month, it wasn't the tales of kidnappings and suicide bombs that caused the most worry. Nor was it the reports of insurgents enforcing their own brutal laws and executing aid workers.

"The scary thing was, no foreigners attended the meeting," a participant said. "Everybody had evacuated."

Most aid organizations quietly withdrew their international staff from Kandahar in recent weeks ...

Corrupt police prowl the intersections, enforcing a curfew for anybody without that night's password, or bribe money. The officers seem especially nervous these days, because the Taliban hit them almost every night with ambushes ...

Insurgent attacks have climbed sharply in Kandahar and across the country. ...

The United Nations's count of security incidents in Afghanistan last year climbed to 13 times the number recorded in 2003, and the UN forecasts even worse this year. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization says insurgent attacks increased 64 per cent from 2006 to 2007. In the first two months of this year, some analysts have noticed a 15- to 20-per-cent rise in insurgent activity compared with the same period last year, raising alarm about whether the traditional spring fighting season has started early.

... No districts of the province — in fact, no districts in the country — were labelled "extreme risk" on the UN's threat assessment maps in May of 2005.

[In 2005 it] was widely believed that a few thousand troops could stabilize a province such as Kandahar.

"In retrospect, it was naive," said a Western security official in Kabul. "It was a mistake."

By the time Canada's battle group arrived at the beginning of 2006, warning signs were already emerging that the project would not go as planned. The killing of a Canadian diplomat in January of that year prompted Ottawa to cut its provincial reconstruction team from 250 to 120 people early in the year, including a temporary evacuation of all civilian staff, and the Canadians found themselves locked in major clashes with the largest groups of Taliban ever seen in the country since their regime had collapsed.

... The latest map, updated in December, shows 14 of 17 districts in Kandahar are entirely designated as extreme risk.

Military commanders often sneer at the United Nations threat maps, saying that civilian analysts exaggerate the risks, but security officials say the UN mapping generally reflects the military's own classified analysis, and it's far from the only measure by which Afghanistan's security has worsened in the past two years.

In a blunt assessment this week, Vice-Admiral Michael McConnell, the U.S. intelligence czar, admitted that the Karzai government controls less than one-third of the country. The Taliban hold 10 per cent on a more-or-less permanent basis while the rest is run by local warlords, he said, describing the situation as deteriorating.

Even that gloomy picture may represent an airbrushed version of events, some analysts say, because increasing collusion between Taliban and local powerbrokers — criminal groups, warlords, drug barons, ordinary farmers and even government authorities — allows the insurgents to operate freely in districts without exerting visible control. ...

Even if villagers aren't afraid of the Taliban, many join up because they find the new government unpalatable. No regime has ever been overthrown at the ballot box in Afghanistan, so political opposition often becomes part of the insurgency.

Many Afghans view the government as a family business, reaping the spoils from foreign donors at the expense of those who don't belong to the well-connected tribes or family networks. ...

"That's where we're seeing the growth in this insurgency, from the local grievances," Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said.

The increases in bloodshed have been dramatic: Last year, more than 6,500 people, most of them ordinary Afghans, were killed in the violence, as compared with roughly 4,000 in 2006, and 1,000 in 2005. ...

On most days, fewer than 600 Canadian soldiers are "outside the wire" of NATO's sprawling base at Kandahar Airport, a number that everyone concedes is far too few to conduct a classic counterinsurgency campaign.

For rough comparison, NATO sent 40,000 troops into Kosovo — a place roughly one-quarter the size of Kandahar and with no active insurgency in 1999. More than one-third of them are still there eight years later. In fact, NATO has five times as many troops deployed in Kosovo as Canada has in Kandahar.

Comparisons with other insurgencies show a similar shortfall of soldiers in the Afghan war: Conflicts in Somalia, Malaysia, Sierra Leone, East Timor and Iraq all required far more troops per capita than NATO has devoted to Afghanistan. ...

U.S. commanders have been saying that Canada and other NATO countries have been too "soft," too hesitant to pursue the Taliban into their rural strongholds.

The Canadians, by contrast, have often quietly denigrated the American forces from whom they inherited Kandahar in 2006, saying the U.S. soldiers were more interested in "search-and-destroy" operations than holding key zones and trying to bring development in limited areas.

Canadian and Dutch forces in the south have pointedly avoided major sweeps through far-flung Taliban enclaves in the past year, and even avoided patrolling some Taliban-held villages just 15 kilometres outside of Kandahar city, saying they don't have the necessary troops.

That cautious approach will likely end with the arrival of the Marines. ...

"Existing measures to promote peace in Afghanistan are not succeeding," said a report published this week by Oxfam International. ...

[The report's author] said he has grown enthusiastic about an approach called "community peace-building," which envisions local meetings to solve the squabbles over land, water or patronage that often simmer underneath the broader reasons for conflict. The solutions may not resemble the kind of Afghanistan that outsiders want, he said, but in some places they may bring peace.

"The secret to success will be not imposing Western ideas and values," he said. (link)
The Financial Times discusses the bleak situation for aid workers and NGO employees in Kabul:
Kabul’s war for talent
By Jon Boone

KABUL (Mar 6) - The United Nations is scrabbling to find not just a new leader for its mission in Afghanistan, after the country’s president spectacularly nixed the candidature of Paddy Ashdown in January. From top to bottom of the organisation, and its myriad agencies working in Afghanistan, recruiters are struggling to fill positions. ...

With its restaurants, swimming pools, and even the occasional bar, the country’s capital had a campus-style vibe for its large, and largely youthful international community. On January 14 that all changed when a self-proclaimed Taliban hit squad launched a raid on the city’s poshest hotel, the Serena. Eight people died, and so did Kabul’s nightlife.

The UN and nearly all diplomats have been banned from the restaurants that Taliban has said are now in its sights. ...

And there’s growing unease, [says Joanne Trotter, head of external relations at the Aga Khan Foundation in Kabul] in the development community that the Afghan government does not really want them in their country. Kabul’s development community returned from an important conference of donors in Tokyo this month, depressed that government ministers increasingly blame the international community for Afghanistan’s problems.

“That original partnership doesn’t really exist any more,” Ms Trotter says. “Our objectives have diverged and that does make people question whether we are wanted here.” ... (link)
Speaking of aid, here's the Guardian's Conor Foley outlining the horrendous situation:
Afghan wasteland

The Guardian (UK)
By Conor Foley

... Most humanitarian aid workers had mixed feelings about the arrival of the PRTs. On the one hand we welcomed anything that could bring greater security to Afghanistan's anarchic countryside, but, on the other, we were concerned that the "mixing of military and humanitarian mandates" could affect the way in which we were viewed in the field. This latter concern was borne out as the Taliban increasingly started targeting humanitarian aid workers as "part of the occupation forces", murdering dozens of my friends and colleagues.

Six years into the occupation, it is clear that the PRT strategy has failed. Even a recent World Bank report recommended that they should be scaled down and phased out in many areas and humanitarian aid organisations have become increasingly vocal in criticising the strategy on which they are based. The problem is that aid is being poured into areas, not on the basis of where it is needed, or can do any good, but solely because of its supposed ability to buy the allegiance of local populations.

The US government, which is by far the biggest donor, is spending over half of its aid in the four southern provinces which are now effectively under the control of the Taliban. This money almost entirely bypasses Afghanistan's central government, which weakens its ability to build up national capacity, and is instead being channelled through US private contractors, who absorb a significant proportion of it in profits and security overheads.

The UK government has a better record of providing direct budget support to the Afghan government, but it has also scaled back its humanitarian assistance funding and channelled the bulk of what remains into Helmand, where it is having difficulty finding projects to spend it on. As one aid worker put it to me: "They are still relying on Quick Impact Projects after six years, which suggests that the projects have not been very quick or had much of an impact."

Afghanistan is a desperately poor country and it needs long-term assistance and support. It has so far received $15bn (£7.6bn) in aid, which should have gone a long way towards meeting many basic needs. But the money has been spent appallingly in ways that have done little to help the Afghan people and much to fuel resentment. ...

For all the rhetoric about "helping Afghans to rebuild their country", most aid is currently being distributed as largesse in a vain attempt to consolidate military conquests. There is little joined-up planning. Schools are being built with no teachers and hospitals with no doctors or medicines. ...

The broader question remains, though; why is the west continuing to try and implement an aid and reconstruction policy which is clearly not working? The UK International Development Act specifies that aid should be given for the purpose of reducing poverty. Assistance for other purposes, such as to advance certain political or commercial objectives, is challengeable in court. ... (link)
Meanwhile, Afghan refugees are remaining refugees rather than face the mounting insecurity:
Insecurity hindering return of Afghan refugees to their homeland, says UN agency

27 February 2008 –Many Afghan refugees living in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan are reluctant to return to their homeland due to the deteriorating security situation there and difficulty in sustaining their new lives, a senior official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said today.

Erika Feller, UNHCR's top protection official, has been meeting with refugees and the authorities in Iran, which is currently hosting some 920,000 Afghans who have fled violence in their country over the course of the past 20 years.

“What has struck me during this visit is the variety of situations Afghan refugees are living in and the fact that the lack of security in Afghanistan is topmost in influencing their decisions to return home,” Ms. Feller said, as she wrapped up her five-day mission.

During the peak of the refugee returns in 2004, there were up to 5,000 people going back to Afghanistan every day; that was the same number of returnees in all of 2007. ... (link)

Speaking of the UNHCR, author Agata Bialczyk of the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre recently issued a critical report on the agency. It is available in pdf here. It is called ‘Voluntary Repatriation’ and the Case of Afghanistan: A Critical Examination.

Here are some excerpts:

My analysis shows that [the UNHCR's bi-weekly updates] most frequently mention issues surrounding practical and procedural information on the repatriation programme itself. Issues related to assistance, development and reconstruction are emphasised very frequently and in most detail. ...

It appears that although the issue of security is mentioned in every single information update, it does not provide a comprehensive account of the security situation. Information on security is broken down into regions and only isolated incidents of security threats are mentioned, on less than one page. The following UNHCR statement provides an illuminating example of the paradox of such references to the security situation: ‘The most important information for Afghan refugees is the security situation in their villages and provinces’ (IRIN 2003). However, there is no mention of persisting security patterns in the whole of Afghanistan with reference to which ethnicities or groups are still likely to be targeted or persecuted by which factions. ...

This information portrays the government and state of Afghanistan as successfully developing into a democratic one. The weak and fragile power base of the central government is not addressed once in these updates.

With regard to the prevailing economic situation, the updates merely state the prices of essential commodities and only since December 2003. An overview of Afghanistan’s major cities is provided detailing the costs of wheat, flour, bread, diesel, sheep, and the current exchange rate. A comprehensive analysis of the devastated and fragile socioeconomic situation in Afghanistan is not accurately depicted in these information updates. ...

Furthermore, these updates are issued on a biweekly basis and only provide information on current developments and situations within the specified two weeks. Refugees are unlikely to have read and followed this campaign over long periods of time, therefore only getting a glimpse of the situation in Afghanistan not a summary or evaluation of the situation over time.

... Interviews conducted by Amnesty International with returnees revealed that ‘they did not have access to objective, accurate and neutral information on the conditions to which they were returning in their villages or places of origin’. ... Amnesty International pointed out that ‘[r]eturnees feel deceived by reports, coming from host countries and UNHCR, that they could return to Afghanistan in safety and dignity’.

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