A stark reality for the people of Afghanistan is their daily struggle against extreme poverty. Unemployment is almost 40 percent, according to a U.S. government estimate from 2008 (later statistics are hard to come by). Because of this, many Afghans lack access to basic health care, education, food, and other needs.
I was unprepared for this reality when I visited the country in December, because much of the debate on Afghanistan, in the media and elsewhere, is narrowly focused on questions of U.S. national security interest: the “war on terror,” extremist ideology, and U.S. troop levels. In fact, U.S. engagement in the country over the last eight years has heavily focused on the military, while largely neglecting the basic human needs of Afghan citizens. Even small U.S. efforts for economic development have been usurped by the military strategy.
In order to gain support for military efforts against the insurgents, large portions of U.S. development dollars are pumped into Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), military units with embedded civilian personnel responsible for development and reconstruction efforts. The use of PRTs in Afghanistan has become widely accepted as the new model for development. This presents serious problems.
First, tying development to military strategy undermines long-term sustainable development. Armed forces lack the experience and expertise to carry out development and reconstruction projects. Furthermore, a securitized development effort tends to focus on areas of military interest, rather than where aid is needed the most. And the military, with its ever-shifting security priorities and deployment cycles, is ill-equipped to make the long-term commitment needed for real development.
Second, the use of the military to carry out development projects is a waste of U.S. dollars. In the coming year, funding for the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), a program that provides funding directly to a commander to be spent on development efforts, will be $1.2 billion. CERP is a primary funding source for the PRTs. This amount is higher than the global education budget of the civilian U.S. Agency for International Development, and it exceeds the total amount the Afghan government spends on health and education.
Third, the militarization of aid infringes on humanitarian space: Development is not a weapon of war. Sustainable development must be independent of and neutral to military and political allegiances. Many NGOs have worked in Afghanistan for decades by building trust and crossing the lines of conflict to provide aid to those who need it. Humanitarian principles, not military strategy, must guide development.
In my visit to Afghanistan, I met with a wide range of Afghan civil society organizations that are working for sustainable peace and development. They all agreed that the PRT program is a failure. They cited several examples of failed PRT projects, such as a school that was built by a PRT for 1,000 students, when in fact the population of the village is only about 100 families. The military had assumed that building a school would foster good will, but had never assessed the needs of the villagers. In the end, the school was never used.
People I met encouraged us to support models of development that are led by Afghans, rather than run by a model imposed from the top down. For example, the National Solidarity Programme is an Afghan government program for rural development.
By supporting Afghan-led initiatives, U.S. policy in Afghanistan can move beyond self-interest and arrogance. Peace is possible in Afghanistan, but only through efforts that genuinely address human needs.
Theo Sitther is the legislative associate for international affairs at the Mennonite Central Committee office in Washington, D.C.