The militarization of aid in Afghanistan

Published in the Friday Times, July 9th, 2010

Saadia Gardezi

The concern for the future of Afghanistan will first and foremost be security, without which reconstruction and development will be difficult

After failed operations of the US forces in Marja this February, it is clear that the Taliban are still a formidable foe. The war has lasted nearly a decade without US military success making it clear that a political solution will have to be constructed, with an attempt at reconciliation between militant insurgents and the Kabul government. The concern for the future of Afghanistan will first and foremost be security, without which reconstruction and development will be difficult.

It is reasonable to consider, that with the much critiqued announcement of the deadline, militants will lay low for until July 2011, and insurgency against the Kabul government will begin anew as the troops withdraw. It is also safe to assume that UN agencies and international NGOs will also start packing up as they anticipate the removal of the US security umbrella.

Humanitarian actors including UN agencies should not be expected to sustain long term solutions, but are important as band-aids for the Afghan wound. Will the pullout of the US from Afghanistan also mean that this band-aid will be pulled off?

At the end of June, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said that UN workers continued to be a potential target for militant attacks across the country and the UN would be cutting the size of its international staff. This is after staffing in Afghanistan has been facing chronic shortages over the last few years.

In November 2009, the UN evacuated hundreds of its staff after Taliban gunmen wearing suicide vests stormed a UN guesthouse in Kabul killing five UN workers. The UN mission had trouble recruiting staff even before last year’s attacks. The reluctance of aid workers to move to Afghanistan because of security fears is hindering aid delivery on the ground. As of May 2010, the international staff vacancy rate is at 39%, and the vacancy rate for Afghan employees stood at 30%.

If the US implements the plan to withdraw next July, it will still need to sustain a security presence in the region. The Afghan National Army and police are not ready to take control of security concerns and the situation for good governance and peaceful reconstruction looks grim a year on.

Over the last nine years the military has had an important role in dispensing aid, making it hard to tell the difference between an aid worker and a soldier. Agencies have lamented the “securitization” of US development and reconstruction assistance and it adds to the risk that aid workers face in Afghanistan. This has caused aid to be channelled to the areas of major conflict in the south of Afghanistan, rather than to more stable but remote areas that have a capacity for development in the north.

The problem of internally displaced people, for example, is one that cannot be ignored and will need heavy support from the UNHCR and humanitarian agencies like the ICRC. The 1.7 million Afghanis refuges and the one million displaced Pakistanis, is a problem on both sides of the border. According to a new report from Amnesty International northwest Pakistan has been termed a “human rights-free zone”. In 2009 more than 1,300 civilians were killed by violence in FATA. With millions fleeing their homes basic services, notably education and health-care, were often unavailable and the Taliban trampled individual rights, particularly those of women.

The problem of aid and security of course has much to do with money. Pakistan is losing around $9 billion to anti-militancy efforts in the difficult mountainous northwestern regions and retaliatory bombings impacting business activity in its cities. Along with this, Islamabad needs hundreds of millions of dollars to look after displaced people. Measures like the United Nations joint appeal Pakistan Humanitarian Response Plan (PHRP) in 2010 are in operation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, providing shelter, security and food. The PHRP is already suffering from insufficient funding. This June, Senator Kerry urged donor countries to add to the $63 million pledge to the PHRP and to assist the Government of Pakistan, as it responds to the needs of the displaced and vulnerable populations.

With the decrease in staffing, funding for aid and reconstruction may also decrease. As a general rule, international NGOs flock to high profile areas which usually have a better security presence, as this attracts more finds from international donors. Thus peripheral areas are the last to receive aid. With Afghanistan’s rough terrain, people in isolated areas will be the ones to suffer most. Funds will most likely go towards security and reconstruction in urban areas while issues of education, child rights and women’s education taking a backseat until there is reasonable stability.

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