Reflections on Aid and Security in Afghanistan

This is a follow-up to the excellent and timely comments by Professor Roland Paris on the implications of an attack by the Taliban on a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, a few weeks ago.

Taliban attacks are common in Afghanistan, including in the heavily fortified capital city, Kabul. Armed guards, sniffing dogs, concrete barriers, road blocks, search checkpoints and sand bags piled up against steel walls have turned the once-pleasant city into a war zone.

Officials fielded but not able to perform essential functions cannot help deliver the international community’s promises on development in Afghanistan.

The frequency of attacks on the Afghan National Security Forces and allied troops has been increasing since at least 2007. Afghan central and provincial government buildings have not been spared. Foreign embassies have been attacked. Sporadic targeted attacks on shops, restaurants and hotels catering to Westerners and upscale Afghans also occurred in the past, although less often.

A year and a half ago, a supermarket within walking distance of the Canadian, UK and Japanese embassies and World Bank and IMF representatives’ offices was attacked. A Canadian woman employed by a UK-based firm was severely injured but survived. In the aftermath, Afghan friends advised me to go when necessary to Afghan corner stores stuffed with imported products but not frequented by foreigners. Should similar advisories not be issued to civilian workers contracted by donor agencies?

Every attack targeting foreigners invariably results in tighter security regulations to be observed by foreign government officials at embassies. This explains why no foreign government officials were involved in the Lebanese restaurant attack. Expatriate civilian workers, however, are not required to observe these regulations. Places frequented by foreign civilians remain soft targets. The number of foreigners (13) killed in the most recent attack on the Lebanese restaurant carried weight and thus made international news headlines.

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The tragic death of two civilian workers engaged in auditing Canadian-funded aid projects hit home, and the death of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) representative in Kabul was also shocking. I recall having lengthy conversations with him every day when I stayed at the IMF guest house during my visits. He felt comfortable in Kabul and roamed without armed guards. His death is an enormous loss: Afghans lost a friend and benefactor, while the international community lost an insightful and credible advisor.

A well-designed attack by only four Taliban, who managed to kill more than triple their number of foreigners in the diplomatic enclave of the capital city, is a clear indicator of the consistently declining security situation in the country. It also shows the advances made by the Taliban and the failures of the international community’s Afghan mission. One of the former Ministers of Interior tells me that the Taliban fighters (numbering no more than 35,000) are far outnumbered by the hundreds of thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan—yet the country still remains insecure. Increasing insecurity will certainly reduce voter turnout for the upcoming elections in April.

In the aftermath of the attack and the deaths of Canadian civilians, some Canadian journalists focused on the potential impact on future aid commitments by donors, especially by Canada. Aid pull-back is certainly possible, but it is unlikely that this specific incident will be a major contributory factor to any aid cut. The lack of an environment conducive to effective aid utilization could certainly prompt foreign governments to reduce allocations.

The U.S. Congress just halved non-military aid to Afghanistan (though the recent attack did not dictate that decision). The Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) left unsigned, and the potential of U.S. adoption of the ‘zero option’ of leaving behind no troops after 2014, however, will have a very large and devastating impact on both military and civilian aid commitments.

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As per Roland Paris’ analysis, the monitoring of aid financed programs is a matter of concern. Security restrictions for Canadian and other donor government officials have already been stretched to the extent of confining them round the clock within embassy compounds, except for occasional meetings with Afghan government officials. Paris refers to the reports of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR), which reflect the sorry state of USAID-funded projects that lacked appropriate oversight by officials based at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

Canadian journalists investigating some Canadian-financed projects reported that no visits—none ever—were made to the project sites by former CIDA staff in Kandahar, due to security restrictions. Even the location of many of the schools built with Canadian funding was not known to Canadian officials. Consultants evaluating Canadian-financed programs say that projects right in Kabul itself are subject to the same fate.

Under such circumstances, our officials’ link with realities can be thin at best, if not fully broken. How effective could our programming and implementation be under such constraints? Programs in conflict countries demand intense and consistent oversight to ensure achievement of the planned development results. For proxy oversights, consultants are contracted at steep costs for intermittent monitoring visits. With violence against foreign civilians on the increase, recruitment of civilian workers, even at higher costs, might be difficult. The minimum and occasional oversight will then be impossible.

It is expensive to field government personnel in situations of insecurity. Officials fielded but not able to perform essential functions cannot help deliver the international community’s promises on development in Afghanistan. The security costs of the war in Afghanistan (including the security costs of delivering aid) have been excessively high. Could the escalating costs be lowered by trimming the size of the personnel at the embassy in Kabul?

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