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Afghan thoughts

December 1st, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

[An expanded version of recent article for the Times]

Three years ago I was preparing to go to Afghanistan to make a Despatches Special for C4 with the intrepid Pakistani journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy about what conditions for ordinary Afghans were like. We wanted to make it in the winter of 2006-07 because there was talk of a Spring offensive from the Taleban – which indeed came – and came – and has kept coming ever since.

The difference in the country between then and now is striking. 

In early 2007, five years after the allied invasion, we could travel in relative security to every corner of the country except Helmand and the south, which was already dangerous (although as noted in my review of Sarah Chaye’s excellent book on Afghanistan, Kandahar was still a place a foreign journalist could live and work).

Kabul felt safe — we went shopping in the old hippy hang-outs along Chicken Street; Rory Stewart showed us his Turquoise Mountain Project where craftsmen were regenerating parts of the old city. In Herat, near the border with Iran, we went looking for carpets (having a former Taleban fixer with me helped to persuade the shop to give me a good price).

However, it was clear that ordinary Afghans felt both their Government and the West had failed in the task of reconstructing a country of which the economy had, quite literally, been shot to pieces.

It is not widely known that the Russians systematically smashed many of the ancient irrigation systems during the course of the brutal war against the Mujahidin in the 1980s. Opium poppies are one of the few crops that can be grown without restoring those canals and dams: a huge but vital project if serious alternative crops are to be developed. Nor has there been a co-ordinated attempt to create any sort of manufacturing base.

It’s an easier calculation to send more troops than to build a factory. The UK’s annual military budget for Afghanistan is in the billions; that of aid in the millions. At breakfast in our hotel, not one item had been grown or made in the country — it had all been flown in.   Even chicken has currently to be air-shipped from Poland – although has already been proved in neighbouring Pakistan, poultry and dairy farming can transform the fortunes of rural communities with some careful seed money. 

Infant mortality rates in hospitals — a key index of healthcare — were still worse than almost anywhere in Africa. We filmed appalling scenes as doctors struggled with inadequate resources. Money was simply not getting through to the places that needed it. A headmistress in the northern town of Taloqan, far from the Taleban powerbase, told us that, despite numerous appeals, they had not received funding to reopen her girls school properly.

I’ve just received a letter from the admirable voluntary worker with whom we stayed in Taloqan. His work was to help remote small villages to build schools and wells. Now he is almost unable to leave Taloqan. He can only see the villagers that he used to help when they come to town. It’s a tale repeated by many aid workers. Kabul is attacked by suicide bombers who have penetrated government ministries and the main “foreigners’ compound” hotel. Aid workers and journalists have been kidnapped in just about every corner of the land.

What has gone wrong? It is not just military indecision. During the first five years, the Allies failed to provide the financial infrastructure necessary for the reconstruction of the country. This may be partly because the British Government pursued a policy described by David Page, of the charity Afghanaid, as the “militarisation of aid”. Rather than give money to more stable parts of the country where there was a real chance of getting the economy restarted, funds were directed to areas of military engagement, such as Helmand, in the hope that “hearts and minds” would be won over.

This sounds fine in theory, but in practice money spent rebuilding a war zone — with the likely prospect that your work will be bombed to smithereens — might have been better targeted at places where full economic regeneration had some chance. No wonder previously peaceful areas are so susceptible to the Taleban advance when they see no gain from that peace.  Samangan in the north was desperate for a dam to irrigate potential wheat fields and orchards – but instead has seen a far more expensive project in Helmand take shape, with frantic military engagements to try to hold it.

Nor is Britain’s insistence on directing funds through the Afghan Government, rather than directly to aid organisations or local government, the most efficient way of getting money to where it matters. Put bluntly, a great deal gets sliced off.

Why do politicians so consistently sideline the need for economic reconstruction? Perhaps it is easier to deal in troop numbers or regional politics — moving armies and flags around the map — than the complex long-term question of civilian aid. In all recent discussion of Afghanistan this has been skated over.



Relative Total Spend in Afghanistan by USA during campaign as of 2008.   Source:  Senlis Council (ICOS)


When Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, recently listed in the Times his four requirements for success in Afghanistan — to make the Karzai Government more accountable, to negotiate with neighbouring countries, to shift military strategy and to talk to the Taleban — he signally failed to address the one central objective without which all others are pointless — as do other politicians.

Without an immediate increase in civil aid that we send alongside any military initiative, it won’t make any difference how many troops are sent — and we risk repeating the same mistake that was made after the invasion, when buoyed up by military success, the Allies completely failed at the far more important task of economic reconstruction.

The amount we send for reconstruction should be as important as the number of troops; yet the money spent on aid is a tiny fraction of the military budget — less than a tenth, according to the OECD. Let’s see a commitment to raise and target it properly — then talk about how many more lives we propose to risk.


 Charities that ensure aid directly reaches those who most need it in Afghanistan include Afghanaid and Afghan Connection 

see article as published by the Times


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