Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Smart Power and the Militarization of Aid to Afghanistan

If you've ever wondered what a failed state looks like, look no further than the United States' largest foreign policy focus: Afghanistan. It's a nation seemingly trapped in a cycle of violence, poverty and political chaos as a consequence of various destabilizing forces. The reality on the ground has led the past two presidential administrations to expand military and humanitarian operations there in an attempt to create conditions stable enough for a military withdrawal in 2014. This concurrent expansion of aid is a facet of 'smart power,' the diplomatic paradigm calling for the coercion and convincing of insurgents and citizens, respectively, which serves to legitimate U.S. military presence abroad. Despite the appeal, smart power strategies raise a few concerns regarding Afghanistan's reconstruction, particularly with the deployment of military personnel to reconstruction teams. What we see as a product of these developments is nothing short of the militarization of aid to Afghanistan. 

Image is in the public domain.

Before examining U.S. assistance to Afghanistan, it's important to observe recent Afghan history since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and U.S. involvement there ever since. After the Taliban was removed from government, Afghanistan suffered a political vacuum, humanitarian crises and growing opium production that added to the turbulence. Since 2001, over $15 billion in aid has reached Afghan soil but has done little to quell the exacerbating humanitarian situation. What's worse, Afghanistan now produces 90% of the world's opium. The narcotics industry in Afghanistan heavily contributes to financing terrorist and criminal organizations both within and outside of the country and acts as a constantly destabilizing force in the region. Not only does the illicit drug trade undermine reconstructon efforts and distorts economic incentives for the poor, it creates a culture of violence and corruption at even the highest seats of government. Thus, humanitarian crises, terrorism, and the narcotics trade became the primary sources of instability, prompting the international community to lend a hand.

At the most direct point of interaction between U.S. forces and the Afghan people are Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which personify the growing ties between diplomatic and civilian personnel and the military. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), PRTs comprise of military, diplomatic, and civilian personnel from the Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice. They provide security for USAID agents to distribute humanitarian aid, carry out infrastructural projects, oversee development projects and monitor good governance and the training of the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF).

In 2006, USAID released a report evaluating the performance of PRTs stationed in Afghanistan. Among the hurdles, the report found that some PRTs didn't do joint military-civilian training, most lacked adequate staff and resources, and there's a noted lack of understanding of the importance of including non-military personnel into strategy- and decision-making. Succinctly, PRTs are overwhelmingly comprised of Department of Defense representatives while diplomatic and other civilian staff members are underfunded and marginalized. What you get is an over-militarized, disjointed 'interagency partnership' that spends more on defense and conducting security exercises/training than it gives in humanitarian aid (as of 2012) (appendix B). Another way to look at the findings is that it is costing a considerable amount of money delivering inadequate amounts of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.

Since the assessment of PRTs in 2006, a NATO-led initiative was introduced to complement the work of PRTs:  International Security Assistance Forces (ISAFs). They essentially provide extra military and security personnel, however their mission is broader. Their role is threefold: to protect the construction of infrastructural projects, to combat insurgents and to conduct counternarcotics operations. In addition to these responsibilities, they assist PRTs in maintaining state institutions and promoting good governance. But with the enormous obstacles for PRTs, where does diplomacy weave into the equation? Who is working to demonstrate to the Afghan people American and NATO military legitimacy? Who is ensuring that the Afghan people trust and put faith in the institutions erected under their reconstruction?

Answering these questions delves further into the military-civilian approach to delivering aid. Central to our policy in Afghanistan is winning trust from the Afghan locals. Through a $400 million Pentagon-State Department partnership--in what was dubbed the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund (AIF)--the U.S. pursues an assistance-based tactic intended to win over the hearts and minds of a country ripe with tribalism, arms and dug trafficking, and insurgency. As of late, however, the Fund has received criticism from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the overseer of reconstruction funds to Afghanistan, mainly because the infrastructure projects set out to be completed through the AIF are nowhere near completion and might prove to be unsustainable, depending on how well Afghan leaders manage the transition to authority and resist corruption. The SIGAR notes that lack of "planning, coordination and execution" are among the main reasons for the failed projects, pointing out interagency disarray and increased violence in recent years. Development projects carried out by ISAF-protected PRTs--using AIF dollars--are ultimately proving to be more difficult to complete than anyone could have imagined. This is a clear setback for the United States' efforts in Afghanistan since the projects won't be completed before our scheduled withdrawal in 2014. For the United States, these major demonstrations of public diplomacy are left unfinished, casting doubt on the effectiveness of our of tactics.

But is all of this part of a trend, the humanitarianism of the military as a facet of militarizing aid? Is increased military presence in PRTs necessary in providing aid?

There are both internal and external factors that have shaped this gradual transition in American foreign policy, particularly regarding our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A major reason for the increase in military involvement in development and reconstruction projects stems from the federal budget tragicomedy in 2011 that stripped $8 billion from the State Department and its assistance programs. With diplomatic personnel and humanitarian and technical experts cut from the budget, the PRTs have become less effective in terms of monitoring good governance, working with provincial leaders and partnering with local organizations to improve living conditions. Diplomats and their staff members are the experts in these fields, but faced with budget cuts, some or most of their work is instead being carried out by less-qualified, military personnel.

Externally, security concerns necessitate military involvement in the distribution of aid. For years NGOs and other multilateral organizations have fallen victim to deteriorating security situations on the ground. Part of this is due to their operation in insecure areas, providing assistance to those without access to resources in remote regions. It is also due to the growing trend of insurgents targeting aid agencies to be victims of their terrorist attacks. Strategically, it is hoped that this will exploit and further reinforce the culture of violence in the more ruthless provinces of Afghanistan.

Given the compounding factors, increased military presence in aid assistance programs has been necessary both for the United States and multilateral organizations. However, for the U.S., this increase of military personnel to ISAF-protected PRTs has been at the expense of diplomacy and of the experts designated to carry out tasks central to Afghanistan's reconstruction. We know that military escorts and combat operations are essential to the distribution of aid and to counterterrorism, but we also know of the virtues of diplomacy and how decreased civilian presence in PRTs has left those apparatuses inadequate. Putting ideological differences aside, Democrats and Republicans alike should keep aware of the waning effectiveness of the PRTs in their ability to distribute aid and work alongside local Afghans. We need a strong stance against the over-simplification of our organizational failures and to let diplomats to their jobs.

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