Wednesday, 16 July 2008

We cannot afford this

Anything published in the MSM has to be treated with a great deal of caution but, health warnings aside, the latest piece in The Times on Musa Qala makes an interesting contrast with an earlier report on the MoD website.

The MoD report, published three months after the successful military operation to re-take the town from the Taleban paints an unashamedly optimistic picture of the reconstruction process. It tells us that, "the process of returning the town to a bustling centre of commerce is well underway". Musa Qala, it says:

…is gradually beginning to return to some sense of normality, the reconstruction and development works a testament to the comprehensive joint efforts of the local government headed by Governor Mullah Salam and supported by elements of the UK Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and other elements of the British military.
Eight months down the line, however, The Times offers a very different "take". Its piece is headed, "Bungs and bungling in Musa Qala: British dreams of building utopia crumble", written by Anthony Loyd from the town, the title very much conveying the tenor of the report.

Loyd reminds us that, following its recapture, the British were "keen to capitalise on their first tangible victory in 18 months," and announced "a series of projects to rebuild the town, while the Afghan Government vowed to reverse years of neglect."

Framing the piece, Loyd quotes David Slinn, the Foreign Office chief in Helmand shortly after British troops entered the town, stating: "If we can't get it right in Musa Qala then we can't get it right anywhere."

From there, it is all downhill. In the baking July heat, with temperatures soaring to 52C (125F) in the shade, the sun burns down on a rather diminished reality, writes Lloyd: "Stalled development projects, misappropriated funds, corruption, intimidation: the British stabilisation strategy has encountered a sobering set of obstacles in Musa Qala that have left it well short of the utopian state imagined in winter."

Adding colour to that assertion, we learn of a challenge from one elder during last week's shurah meeting between the town leaders and British officers. The man says, "It is the eighth month of government here. ISAF, the Afghan Army, the Afghan police - can they show the work they have done in this district? … You must show your work here. Civilians need to understand that you are working for them."

Thus the theme develops as we find that:

From the start, the British Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) - the joint civilian and military organisation based in the capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah - was powerless to prevent Afghan subcontractors from carving up British-funded projects among themselves.

The ensuing bungs, bribes and embezzlement ensured that much of the money disappeared long before it could be spent on reconstruction projects, some of which are now falling apart as a result of inferior materials and shoddy construction.
It falls to the hapless Justin Holt - the Royal Marine colonel sent to Musa Qala last month as stabilisation adviser – to explain to the shurah: "I am very aware that when a contractor is given a contract, he subcontracts it many, many times before the building starts … I agree with members of the shurah that in eight months there hasn't been much visible progress. But we've learnt some valuable lessons."

Much featured by the earlier MoD report was the main bazaar road in Musa Qala, 500 yards long and funded by the British to a tune of £100,000 – and this "is one such lesson"? Though only three months old, it is already the target of Afghan ire:

"The contractors made it out of poor-quality cement and gravel and now it is ruined," Mullah Abdul Salaam, the Governor of Musa Qala, said. "No one in the bazaar is happy with the project. The contractors didn't spend all the money they were given by the PRT."
The health clinic, we are told - yet another British project (£115,000) - provokes similar comment among locals. The Afghan head of the Health Department has not been able to approve the clinic for use, despite three visits, as there is no running water and no electricity, few doors are in place and the plasterwork crumbles. The contractor, who was due to be dismissed two days ago unless he had rectified the problem, had allegedly multiplied material prices threefold between what he actually paid and what he charged.

To add to these woes, we then learn that the town mosque, central to local concerns since it was destroyed by the British during fighting two years ago - listed as the prime Afghan-funded reconstruction project - is still in ruins. Residents have demanded a bigger mosque than the one offered, while the donor Afghan Ministry for Rural Rehabilitation and Development is accused of short-changing the contractor, who cannot move materials overland anyway, as the Taleban prevent road access.

It gets worse:

The Governor of Helmand attempted to lay a foundation stone at the site in May but aborted the plan when his helicopter was hit by a rocket as it was about to land. Nothing has happened since.

The electricity supply, though improved over the past month, is still worse than it was under the Taleban. Locals say that it now generates between three and five hours of power every four days, as opposed to the one day off, one day on supply they had during Taleban rule.

Only one Afghan ministry has an office in the town despite assurances in January of full government presence in Musa Qala. Meanwhile, the British-funded cash-for-work scheme, under which locals were paid $8 (£4) a day for casual labour, had its labour force cut by 75 per cent at the weekend after a deadline had expired for the Afghan managing the scheme to present his accounts - adding about 200 men to the list of unemployed.
"There was a lot of destruction here during the fighting with the British," Mullah Salaam said. "There has not been the same amount of reconstruction."

The picture thus painted is unremittingly black, although Loyd does offer a counterpoint, conveying "some notable successes". Local commerce is thriving in a hugely improved security environment. A six-strong military stabilisation team has made progress in establishing local governance and an Afghan civil secretariat, an executive and judicial shurah have been formed to work in conjunction with Mullah Salaam (the current Governor and a former Taleban commander, was appointed after British forces retook the town last year), a crucial step in empowering Afghans to take control of their affairs.

In the security domain, British troops have done their best to mould local militias into a police force that, while far from exemplary, is an improvement on what it was before despite the dubious past of the individuals concerned. In its defence, the PRT insists that the creation of local governance is a more vital strand in the "Helmand Road Map" than reconstruction.

Nevertheless, given the totemic role of Musa Qala in British efforts to stabilise Helmand, adds Loyd, it is surprising that it has taken seven months for the PRT to send a permanent stabilisation adviser to join British soldiers in the town. Further PRT advisers are due to arrive later this summer, part of an enhanced deployment throughout Helmand.

He concludes that, If their entry allays the concerns expressed by the Musa Qala shurah, it may yet have some way to go in recapturing confidence in the British troops - and the soldiers' confidence in the administrators. "They wouldn't know how to pour p*** from a boot if the instructions were on the heel," one soldier remarked. "That's the PRT."

On the back of this report, we also get a narrative from Times columnist Magnus Linklater, who remarks that Musa Qala "is where the battle for the Afghan soul will be won or lost." Linklater too speaks to Justin Holt, who "has a clear view of his role":

He aims to introduce workable systems, such as a structure for wages, a proper legal process, adult literacy courses, accountability through the local shurah or council, respect for the Afghan national police - all within a society which he describes as "like 13th-century England with mobile phones."

This means working with men such as the governor, Mullah Salaam, who is widely distrusted, both by British officers and local people. It means accepting - for the time being - the opium money that funds the local economy. It means dispensing a primitive form of justice that would be incomprehensible in Britain. It means, in effect, going native while crawling towards democracy - the beard that Holt has grown to gain respect in the shura is the visible symbol of his determination to work with the grain of local tradition, not against it.

No one could claim that Musa Qala is safe or stable enough yet to count as a positive gain for the coalition forces. If that is ever achieved, it will be done not by force of arms but by the dull, unsexy but vital symbols of a civil society at work - accounts, spreadsheets and the competent use of public money. If that sounds familiar, well it is the way that we once built an empire.
All of this is what is called in official jargon, "The Comprehensive Approach". The MoD report we have cited enlists the PRT's Stabilisation Advisor, Richard Jones to tell us that it:

… is really all about ensuring that all the elements of government necessary to rebuild and stabilise an area like Musa Qala fall into place … It is really a reflection of the complexity of conflict nowadays that you have to have the involvement of not just the military but also the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.
About this, though, we wonder. Linklater, in his report, talks to Louise Perrotta, the "stabilisation adviser" in Garmsir. She thinks it important to get "inside the heads" of villagers, and to try to understand things from their point of view. Their thought processes do not always conform to Western concepts, she says. They are more "elliptical".

One has to admire the optimism of Mz Perrotta, if at the same time we also suggest that she is somewhat misguided. While she and, undoubtedly, her colleagues in Musa Qala are indulging themselves in getting "inside the heads" of villagers, the town of Musa Qala is a troubled island, surrounded by hostile elements where a local contractor cannot move materials overland as the Taleban prevent road access.

Linklater suggests that what is needed "is a proper civilian structure, manned by trained experts, not soldiers," adding that, "So far, however, it has proved too dangerous for non-military staff," then failing to see the inherent contradiction in his own statement, sharing the lack of clarity which seems to afflict the "stabilisation" advisors.

Essentially, with the current security situation, the civilian staff cannot deliver – something which we have seen from another worker in Helmand. But, without reconstruction, there will be no lasting security. Thus, if the civilians cannot deliver, the only logical conclusion is that reconstruction – at least in the early stages - must be a military function.

Time and again we see Afghanis, not unreasonably, asking for results and, time and again, as in Musa Qala, we see the coalition forces and their supporting agencies promise much and deliver little.

In the very nature of human relationships, this is a recipe for failure. He who delivers more than he promised very often gets more kudos than someone who delivers even more but promised the moon and fell short. Once again, we have to refer to Petreus and his injunction about managing expectations.

Holt may warble about having "learnt some valuable lessons" but he and his employers need perhaps to come to terms with the idea that Afghani reconstruction is not an exercise in on-the-job training for British officials. Rather than "learning valuable lessons", a more rigorous approach guided by a different ethos, under the title "right first time", might be more productive.

Getting it right is not rocket science – and building 500 yards of substandard road through the town centre is not it. Spending a little less time getting "inside the heads" of villagers and building a road to reconnect Musa Qala with the rest of the world might be a good start.