Thursday, 26 June 2008

Winning the war - Part XI: Vacuum at the centre

Habib, the labourer, looks at the new mansions in Shirpur and sees injustice. "These people are very bad people. That money was for us and they took it," he said. "The Taleban time was very bad and now it is very bad for the poor. Where is the difference?"

So runs the concluding paragraph of a piece written in November 2006 by Associated Press staff writer Kathy Gannon, published in The Boston Globe and no doubt elsewhere, now archived on an Afghani web site.

It makes the point, as do many other pieces over the years, that much of the aid money that has flowed into Afghanistan has done little to alleviate poverty, ending up instead financing expatriate salaries and expenses, and funding the extravagant lifestyles of ministers, high officials and contractors, all with their hands in the pot.

This was precisely the point to which we alluded in our previous part, airing complaints about high salaries, and the huge amount of aid which was siphoned off before it got near the people for whom it was intended. According to the Kabul-based Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA), of the $25 billion in aid to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2008, only some $15 billion had been spent and, for every $100 spent, sometimes only $20 actually reaches Afghan recipients.

In this context, the reference to Shipur is an interesting one – a suburb of Kabul which was forcibly cleared of impoverished squatters, and small businesses (pictured) with plots of land then sold at bargain-basement prices to "ministers and commanders", for development of palatial residences. The picture at the top shows one such, which just happens to belong to the minister of agriculture – funded from the aid budget.

Although occasional, critical references to the huge disparity of wealth do find their way into the media, they are relatively rare – and represent only a tiny proportion of the overall coverage.

But the story of conspicuous wealth in Kabul, with its high-priced shopping malls, prestige hotel developments, apartment rents approaching those of London and Paris, and streets choked with SUVs, is one that has been told at length.

The hopelessness of the situation is summed up by a a Chemonics worker, recently back from Helmand. She was left troubled "by a foreign aid process in which an idea is hatched in a nest of good intentions and self-promotional spin in Washington and implemented, at least in this case, without a comprehensive situational assessment." She added: "The combined results of policy hubris and the for-profit's reckless mismanagement of the project made me less proud to be an American, and glad to get out alive."

The picture is almost uniformly bleak, with rampant corruption in high places, supporting and protecting the opium trade and gun running, failed aid schemes and even teachers going on strike over low wages.

Here, the story is a familiar one. Ostensibly, the developments in education have been a success story: almost six million children are now in school compared with 2001 when there were maybe a million, but no girls. But, behind that headline figure is massive underfunding of the system. Teachers complain that their incomes have barely changed since the Taleban regime was overthrown and, with basic living expenses increasing, they are struggling to survive.

A diagnosis is articulated by Aziza Khalil, a chemistry teacher, who complains: "The problem is with the people in high positions. They steal the money given to the ministry of education and build themselves a house, a beautiful castle."

That story needs to be re-told and heavily emphasised to illustrate that the flood of aid money pouring into Afghanistan is actually doing more harm than good. With over 70 percent of the spend devoted to just two of the 31 provinces, Kabul and Kandahar – where president Hamid Karzai was born – the rest of the aid is spread so thinly as barely to have an effect, giving rise to growing discontent, the nature of which can only help fuel the insurgency.

Furthermore, that situation is being made worse by the return of an estimated five million refugees since 2001, some forcibly repatriated from Iran and Pakistan, which is imposing considerable stress on already inadequate services, and adding to the growing unemployment.

Worse still, because of the uneven distribution of aid, and the flood of money into Kabul, there is considerable rural drift to the city. The population was estimated at around three million in 2004 but is currently growing at about five percent a year, representing a yearly increase of 150,000 people. This growth has led to proliferation of "informal housing" – i.e., slums – which now shelter a staggering 80 percent of the city's population and cover over two-thirds of its residential land area. Most lack basic infrastructure, including access to water, sewerage, and drainage.

Therein lies an intractable problem for the coalition forces and their member nations. Heavily involved in the counter-insurgency, they rely – as we have pointed out earlier on several occasions – on a sound political framework in which to operate. Then, crucially, in terms of "nation-building", the absolute requirement is gradually to build the capacity of the central government, enabling it to take over the functions of the external agencies – including their armed forces.

The ultimate "victory" is one that will then allow the bulk of the coalition forces to be withdrawn but, as pointed out in the US Army counterinsurgency manual, written by General David Petreus, "Victory cannot be gained until the people accept the legitimacy of the government mounting COIN and stop actively and passively supporting the insurgents."

As it stands, there is no immediate prospect of this happening. To the contrary, the central government is weak, ridden with corruption and largely ineffective. Its reach is so limited that president Karzai is mockingly referred to as the "Mayor of Karbul" - his priorities so far adrift that his personal website fails to offer anything on rural development (pictured left).

In that environment, even the most effective military action cannot prevail. As Petreus himself noted in his manual:

When Col. Harry Summers allegedly told a North Vietnamese counterpart in 1975 that "You know you never defeated us on the battlefield," the reply supposedly was, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant." Military actions by themselves cannot achieve success in COIN. Tactical actions must not only be linked to operational and strategic military objectives, but also to the essential political goals of COIN. Without those connections, lives and resources may be wasted for no real gain.
And we are almost back in a Vietnam situation, where the US backed the anti-Communist politician Ngo Dinh Diem, who proved likewise to be corrupt, ineffective and unpopular.

The current problem – as with Vietnam – is that if the outsiders interfere with the national leadership then they are seen as meddling, and any new leader is then dubbed a "puppet", losing any chance of gaining legitimacy. Already, Karzai is thus considered by many, but there is little to be gained by replacing him. There is every chance a replacement could be worse, and any attempt to depose Karzai could completely destabilise an already fragile situation.

As for the options presented to the coalition forces – and especially the UK – these appear to be very limited. The advice of former Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Michael Jackson is, essentially to "hang in there" – expressed in these terms:

We must understand that it will take time, and we must have the will to achieve what we have set out to do. It follows that we must, therefore, be willing to provide the means required.
The means required, however, in the absence of the support of the population, is the massive domination of the territory, requiring troop levels that are inconceivable high. Even given the will, the coalition forces could not provide enough men. And, with lower force levels, over time, we face the continual attrition, mounting casualties and decreasing public support. Something more tangible must be done.

Following our own narrative, the obvious first step would seem to be a complete reappraisal of the aid provision. Given an Afghani government which is manifestly incapable of managing its distribution, means need to be found of by-passing the central apparatus and getting it directly to the places and people where it is needed.

However, with that must come a complete reappraisal of priorities. The focus of aid – short of satisfying immediate humanitarian needs and undertaking important public health works to minimise epidemics of infection disease – should be solely directed at wealth generation. Given that the country is primarily agricultural, the only way it can do this is to concentrate on high value produce and, since there is no domestic market which could absorb the capacity, this necessarily requires the rapid development of export markets.

This, in fact, was pointed out in 2003 in a comprehensive report by the Asian Development Bank which, with remarkable clarity, stated:

The recovery process outlined in this report has a 5-year timeframe. In this period the emphasis will be on achieving a large measure of self-sufficiency, especially in cereal production. This is a household priority, given the legacy of the past 25 years, which has left so many families unable to feed themselves. However, while self-sufficiency is a household and social priority, economically it may not be the preferred option, because achieving a high level of dependency on domestically grown cereals would depend on using high-cost irrigation systems. A longer-term development framework might involve the importation of most cereals, while Afghan agricultural production systems focused on a range of cash crop exports. Achieving this potential will depend on the outcomes of the medium term development framework.
That "5-year timeframe" has now expired and the country has vastly improved its own self-sufficiency. It is time to move on to the longer-term development framework. Here, the Bank states:

In 1978, Afghanistan's population of 14 million was self sufficient in cereals and had a flourishing export market in horticultural products. The present population is estimated at about 20 million, with a rural population of around 16.5 million. In the past 20 or so years, agricultural technologies have advanced substantially, enabling agricultural systems to more than keep pace with population increases. On this basis, and assuming a stable and secure political environment, it would be realistic to expect Afghanistan's return to its 1978 status in the not too distant future.

The process of recovery has started, but requires further elaboration to ensure that all concerned are contributing constructively to this common goal. Recovery of the rural sector will depend upon balancing sustainable natural resource use and population pressures. As the economy remains overwhelmingly rural and agricultural - 80–85% of Afghans depend upon natural resources for their livelihood - the pace of recovery in the rural sector will largely determine the overall rate of economic recovery.
That last sentence says it all, yet the lesson has not sunk in. The current "recovery" is completely dependent on the continued flow of aid which is sustaining an entirely artificial economic boom. The main growth industry is servicing the aid and NGO communities. This cannot continue.

Here, I am reminded of my own experience in the early 70s, when I spent a prolonged period working on a Kibbutz in northern Israel. Although surrounded by orange groves, I noted that the one fruit we never seemed to have were oranges. Commenting on this to my hosts, I was told rather sternly that they were solely produced for their thriving export market, which the State of Israel had assiduously developed. "When we are rich", my host said, "we can eat oranges – for now, we sell them". That is how it should be in Afghanistan – which could learn many lessons from Israel.

As to the wider development of the country – with the generation of wealth comes a tax base. The next priority, therefore, is to develop a taxation system which can call in a share of that wealth, which can then be used to reinforce wealth generation and also fund public services.

Thus, the order of play should be to concentrate aid on wealth generation, from which the government can benefit through increased tax income which it can then use to fund further development.

Therein also lies the elements of "nation building". As long as non-essential (i.e., non wealth creating) development is undertaken by agencies other than the central government, that government is marginalised.

If the government is cut out of the aid loop and is forced to earn its keep through its tax system, it must engage with its own people, upon which it will depend. As it stands, Karzai's main paymaster is the donor community. For as long as the money keeps flowing, he does not need his people and – sheltering behind the protection of the coalition forces – he can afford to ignore their needs.

There, then, lies economic and political basis for the military strategy which must be adopted - almost. There is another source of money that must be dealt with ... the flow of money from drug processing and distribution. This, the military must deal with (with some help - about which more later) combined with devoting its resources to pursuing licit wealth creation. It must provide the security for it, and prevent interference. Everything else is secondary. More than that, it is - as the anonymous North Vietnamese officer put it – "irrelevant".

How it should go about this, we will look at in the next and what may be the final part.