An Ex-CIDA Officer’s Reflections on Afghanistan: Looking Back, Looking Forward

The departure of Canadian troops from Afghanistan does not mark the end of Canadian aid to that country. To move forward, however, Canada must accept the strategic mistakes of the past and record the lessons learned, not only to avoid the same pitfalls but to address public accountability requirements. The following reflections are intended to show why this is imperative.

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Looking back to 2003, the year of my arrival in Afghanistan, I saw optimism etched on the faces of men, women and children. Kabul was vibrant with life: Kabuliwallahs in their majestic turbans engaged in business, women in hijab (but not burkha) bargaining with vendors, children’s laughter filling the streets.

The Afghan government was led by the most reform-minded and best ministers that a country could hope for. The Ministers of Finance, Rural Development, Health and Foreign Affairs were world-class leaders and willing partners of the international community.

Canada’s decline as an effective donor started in 2007, when it accepted the recommendations of the Independent Evaluation Commission led by John Manley.

Through a World Bank Trust Fund, Canada gave millions of dollars in support of programs designed and implemented by the Afghanistan government, which promoted a participatory rural development process. The effectiveness of initiatives such as the National Solidarity Program earned rural Afghans’ support for the Kabul government and helped build its legitimacy. Afghans held Canada in the highest esteem for supporting Afghan-led development. Canada was also one of the foremost supporters of the successful de-mining program, and the resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees and internally displaced people, which both helped enhance human security.

A landmark achievement was the violence-free election of 2004, which was held with the financial and moral support of the international community, including Canada. It was thrilling to watch women lining up for hours to cast their votes on a chilly autumn day. Teenage girls watched their parents exercise their voting rights, counting the days until they too could vote. The polling stations neither allowed nor required the presence of uniformed and armed police or military.

The success stories and the façade of optimism hid the deficiencies of the Bonn Conference of 2001, led by the allied countries, which launched a flawed peace-building process. It did not invite the Taliban to the table; nor was a coordinated process planned for training of the Afghan Security Forces. (Both are now priorities for the international community.)

By 2004, signs of serious problems appeared in the security sector reform process—including the police reform and disarmament programs that Canada’s aid budget supported. Kabul’s diplomatic community ignored the early warnings. None of these costly programs eventually made contributions to enhancing security.

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Canada’s decline as an effective donor started in 2007, when it accepted the recommendations of the Independent Evaluation Commission led by John Manley. The Commission’s report argued that Canada’s profile in Afghanistan must be strengthened: projects designed by Canada, with Canadian signature marks and implemented by Canadian-contracted agencies, would earn a sharper profile. Thus much of Canada’s aid flow to Afghan-led development programs was withdrawn. It moved instead to financing signature projects for implementation in Kandahar, the home of the Canadian PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team). The hope was that Canadian aid investments in the province would win popular support and protect Canadian troops.

Canada’s withdrawal of funds from successful Afghan-led programs snatched away the ownership and leadership of development from Afghan hands and let these programs languish.

Canada’s signature projects have not fared any better. Some announced projects were started but never completed, and simply disappeared from the public account books. The Canadian firm SNC Lavalin spent $10 million on security out of a $50 million dollar project (the Dahla Dam, which remains incomplete.) The polio vaccination drive has not been successful in erasing Kandahar’s title as the world’s polio capital.

Fifty schools were built at an average cost of $1.4 million per school—but visit reports to more than half of these present a dismal picture. Many new schools were poorly built and are already out of repair; many are non-operational; and some are tucked inside rich gated communities. Canada helped train teachers—but unless the number of those teachers now actually teaching in schools is tracked, the return on this investment is unknown. Reported school enrollment numbers are debatable, since security conditions make data collection nearly impossible. Nor are these numbers meaningful, given the abysmal drop-out rates (especially for girls) within weeks of enrollment. The current Afghan literacy rate is 28%, with merely 13% of women literate.

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It is claimed that health services have been expanded to 85% of the population, and that the  infant mortality rate has dropped; but there are vivid indicators of severe malnutrition in children under the age of five.

The shine is off democracy. The diplomatic community remained silent on reports of large-scale fraud and vote-buying in the 2009 election; and within an hour of the poll stations’ closing, they announced the election as a success for entrenching democracy on the Afghan soil.

Visiting now, I see a war zone marked with check points, bomb-sniffing dogs, concrete barriers, steel walls, sandbags, armed guards and armored vehicles—all signs of declining security. I see children’s faces robbed of childhood. Old men in tattered clothes, burkha-clad women with babies in arms and school-aged children are begging in the streets.

None of the gains that women won in the Taliban’s absence can be sustained if moderates do not control the conservative element in the Afghan parliament in order to protect human rights and women’s rights, which are written into Afghanistan’s Constitution. Yet the moderates are unlikely to survive in the absence of the foreign troops, and with the Taliban’s return to power.

I know, however, that the concept of democratic elections—even if not perfectly free and fair—has the majority of Afghans’ support. With the election of a reform-minded leader and the international community’s support for Afghan-led initiatives, the country could see a brighter future for its security and development.

Canadians must know what our aid is accomplishing. Critical and regular reporting is presented on public websites by both the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Where is Canada’s aid watchdog?

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