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Wicked problems for Afghanistan’s development surge September 22, 2009

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Guest Blog

This is the fifth posting in a series of guest blogs that BFAD is featuring each Tuesday.  This week features Nathan Hodge, writer for Danger Room, Wired’s national security blog, and is co-author of A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry. He is at work on a new book about the rise of the armed humanitarians.

Wicked problems for Afghanistan’s development surge

By Nathan Hodge

Doherty Mead croppedBAMIYAN PROVICE, Afghanistan – The road to Sayghan is an off-road rider’s dream – and a logistician’s nightmare. To reach this district center in remote northern Bamiyan Province, members of the New Zealand-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) must navigate a vertiginous mountain pass, a narrow, rocky trail that zigzags up from the valley floor. It’s a punishing ride, even in the agile Toyota Hilux trucks the PRT uses to reach some of the more out-of-the-way districts of the province.

“You can see why we don’t use Hummers now,” chuckles New Zealand Warrant Officer Class One Ian Lawrence. “It’s by no means the worst road we’ve got.”

Eventually the track leads to level ground, and the convoy drives on through the site of a recent roadside bomb attack. The soldiers keep a watchful eye: Insurgents are creatures of habit, and they may revisit the same ambush sites and infiltration routes.

Despite a recent uptick in violence in northern Bamiyan Province, Sayghan is considered the most secure in this particular area of operations. And for members of the PRT who operate out of a remote patrol base here, Sayghan has become a focal point for development funding.

In theory, this is where the war in Afghanistan will be won or lost: At the district and the local level. The PRTs in Afghanistan – originally called Joint Regional Teams — were first created to help extend the reach of the central government into Afghanistan’s provinces. They were also a vehicle for expanding the geographic presence of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which began as a small UN-mandated peacekeeping contingent in Kabul. ISAF expanded its mandate by assuming command of PRTs, starting first in the north and expanding around Afghanistan in a counter-clockwise fashion.

For the most part, the PRTs – as the name implies – have their primary counterparts at the provincial level. With the increase in U.S. military forces and the appointment of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the commander of ISAF and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, things have moved to a new phase. A new push is underway to bring civilian experts down to the local level, in part through something called “district support teams,” as well as embed more civilians within PRTs. This development surge – officially referred to as “civilian uplift” – will require a major contribution from other government agencies in Afghanistan. It will mean sending diplomats, aid workers and agricultural experts out to places like Sayghan, where they would potentially have the most impact.

So far, so good: The plan fits with the now-orthodox assumption that a successful counterinsurgency requires a parallel civilian effort. But where will these civilian experts come from, and who will provide their security? What, exactly, they are supposed to accomplish? The PRTs, for the most part, seem focused on projects that make for good photo opportunities, and that’s not necessarily what’s best for local communities. And underlying the whole enterprise is an assumption – questionable at best – that a firehose of aid money will automatically bring down violence and promote stability in Afghanistan.

The Afghan central government’s authority starts to fray at the district level. Take a place like Sayghan: The district subgovernor, Haji Sayani, is appointed from Kabul. But he has almost no government funding to allocate. Apart from distribution of some UN humanitarian aid, he has control over few resources. That’s where the PRT is trying to step in, funding projects that have a direct impact on villages in the district: road repair, flood walls, wells, micro hydro projects. And that’s where a district-level advisor would presumably be of the most use, helping the district administration with project management and basic governance skills.

The PRT is also building swank new housing for the district government. I accompanied the team as they did a walk-through inspection of the district subgovernor’s brand-new office, a $350,000 office complex and guesthouse on the heights above the town. It was, in many ways, a model project: The contractor had done excellent work; construction was proceeding on schedule; and the work site was clean. After the walk-through concluded with tea, and the engineers wrote an approving memorandum to note the progress being made.

But what happens after the ribbon-cutting ceremony? A successful construction job does not automatically translate to peace, reconciliation or stability. As researcher Andrew Wilder recently noted in a recent briefing at the U.S. Institute of Peace, aid is often seen as a zero-sum game in Afghanistan. The attention and funding lavished on Sayghan means another community may feel slighted. On a visit to a neighboring district, Lawrence noted a chillier response.

“There’s no doubt that Afghanistan needs development,” he said. “Some Afghans think it’s at the snap of a finger. This process is going to take a generation. But we hear: ‘Where is my dam? Where is my hospital?’ Unless they get it, they get quite annoyed.”

And then there’s the concern that the aid money primarily flows through well-connected elites. The contract for the Sayghan district subgovernor’s office, for instance, was won by a Kabul-based construction firm.  Bids have to be submitted electronically, and contractors must have bank accounts. While there is a provision that some of the unskilled labor has to be sourced locally, it means that most tenders are won by relatively sophisticated players, and the trickle-down effect in the provinces can be negligible.

More ominously, violence and extortion shadows the aid and reconstruction process. During his conversation with the PRT, the construction manager said that security has affected delivery of materials, especially for drivers who have to truck materials through Wardak Province. While it didn’t slow the completion of the office in Sayghan, it has affected other projects: Some drivers don’t want to deliver construction materials on dangerous roads. If contractors have to pay off insurgents to keep their projects from being attacked – and there is strong anecdotal evidence that extortion is widespread – the infusion of aid dollars, in effect, means an increase in funding for the Taliban.

Development, as the military is learning, is a wicked problem. And it tests the patience of the engineers who are overseeing the projects. They must convince Afghans that they know what they are doing, while persuading their infantry counterparts that the endless cups of tea are worth the time. (Even though New Zealand’s military has a reputation for peacekeeping, soldiers and aid workers are not always an easy fit. I asked one of the infantry corporals pulling security if New Zealand’s aid agency was contributing any manpower. “We had one hippie bitch,” he scowled. “She hated the army.”)

The following day, I accompanied the PRT’s engineers on a visit to a basic health clinic under construction in the village of Bayani. The workers looked listless and stoned, and Capt. Paul Mead, a New Zealand combat engineer, noticed a lot of slipshod work: They were putting tiles on the wall first before putting down the cement floor; lots of the tiles were cracked; and they were mixing cement by hand. Some of the doors were already mounted on their frames, but they didn’t leave enough space to pour the concrete floor, so the workers would eventually have to take the doors off and plane the bottoms so they fit.

Mead, a patient man, slowly grew angry. He sent for a tape measure. ”The bottom of the door is only about three centimeters off the floor,” he scolded. “Where does five centimeters of concrete come on the door?”

Shaking his head, he said: “I’ve never seen it done this way. These clinics have been plagued with problems.”

Outside, Mike Doherty of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers easily chipped the floor away with a Leatherman tool. It was covered with a dry pack, a mix of aggregate, some cement and water: a poor foundation. Mead turned to Sharifullah, the on-site engineer. “Mike and myself have some concerns about the floor,” he said. “Normally you put reinforced concrete under tile.”

The final straw, however, was the brick outbuilding for the latrines. The foundation wasn’t level, and the floor sloped at a crazy angle. Doherty ordered the foreman: “Tell then to call their boss and tell them there are a lot of problems. You have to stop work.”

This problematic clinic was only one quarter-million-dollar project in a province that is receiving around $40 million in aid from the coalition. But Bamiyan Province, because of its relatively good security, is supposed to be the model for what the rest of Afghanistan might look like if all goes to plan. And that’s a big if: Civilian agencies may struggle to find the manpower; security concerns may trump development work; and the public’s patience with the mission may wear thin.

Late last year, when the Army rolled out the Stability Operations manual, Clinton Ancker, a retired army colonel and director of the Combined Arms Center Doctrine Directorate at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, said: “In theory, in the best of all possible worlds, the military would never have to do stability operations because they are fundamentally functions of a government. … If there is somebody else who is competent and capable of doing these things we would just as soon transition those tasks to them, because every soldier devoted to this is one who is not training for other missions or available for other missions. [But if] no one else can do it, we have to acknowledge that it’s a task and we have to have thought about it ahead of time.”

It was a tacit acknowledgment that, that business of the military has, increasingly, become armed nation-building. But there’s still a lot of wishful thinking about the “whole of government” showing up.

PHOTO CAPTION: Mike Doherty of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (left) and New Zealand Army Capt. Paul Mead inspect the site of a planned flood wall project in Bamiyan Province.

men at work

PHOTO CAPTION TWO: Afghan men at work on a U.S.-funded construction project in Bamiyan Province.



1. Wicked Problems for Afghanistan’s Civilian ‘Surge’ | Diesel Specialists Inc. .Net News - September 23, 2009

[…] which I say: Amen. Over at the Stimson Center’s Budget Insight blog, I have a guest post today that gets into the nuts and bolts of how aid is actually spent on the ground in Afghanistan, […]

2. It’s The Corruption, Stupid! « Get Afghanistan Right - September 24, 2009

[…] Even if you cut Kabul out of the aid and development picture, nothing gets much easier. Corruption is still the big problem. […]

3. Can the Afghan Government Get Clean? | Martial Sciences - December 8, 2009

[…] military is spending millions of dollars through local contractors, and quite often those contracts go to sophisticated, well connected firms. It may be perfectly legal, and expedient, but it fuels Afghan suspicions that the contracting game […]

4. Muhammad Zahir Hussaini - March 8, 2010


dear: sir/madam

this is Mohammad Zahir Hussaini from Bamiyan province.
now I am living in kabul the capital of Afghanistan.
and this is about ten years which i did not go there and right now
I want to know how is the development projects are going on.
is it going on successfully or not?????????????

thank for all:

Mohammad Zahir Hussaini

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