Is Afghanistan Winnable?


That's what some analysts are calling Afghanistan, a label of great concern to the aid community as this war has become largely a hearts-and-minds affair.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton are reviewing the security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to put together a new strategy before the next NATO summit in April.

The picture is not pretty.

Four Americans were killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan on Feb. 24, bringing the coalition death toll to 29 this year – more than double the total killed in the first two months of 2008 and the most since the war began in late 2001. Civilian casualties jumped in the past year, while kidnappings, assassinations and other attacks on the teetering Afghan government increased sharply. The Taliban are now established in 72 percent of the country, up from 54 percent a year ago.

In response, President Obama recently approved the deployment of an additional 17,000 troops, which will bring the U.S. total to more than 50,000. But the increased military presence is a risky step. More foreign troops are likely to bring more violence, which will lead to an increase in what David Kilcullen calls "accidental guerrillas" or locals who haphazardly take up arms against an invader, as many southern Afghans do when a battle erupts between coalition troops and the Taliban.

Thus in building schools and hospitals, solidifying government institutions and rebuilding infrastructure, successful aid and development efforts are integral to securing and stabilizing Afghanistan. Fortunately, both the European Union and NATO have in the past week intimated their willingness to boost aid.

But making Afghan aid effective has proven to be a near impossibility. Kickbacks, profiteering and all variety of corruption and incompetence are rampant, not only within the Afghan government but also among aid agencies and subcontractors.

Up to $5 billion has already been wasted, even as hundreds of thousands of Afghans are suffering from a severe drought in the north. Further, a lack of oversight and accountability leads to skimming at every level, resulting in failed and faulty projects. Finally, aid workers are increasingly under threat from attacks and kidnappings by al-Qaida, the Taliban and rogue criminals.

A recent study by a collection of U.K. aid agencies and European non-governmental organizations unveiled another problem:

"The deteriorating violence in Afghanistan does not primarily result from poverty, nor will economic incentives buy support for an opposed military presence or government. Following a long history of aid and military intervention, including during the Soviet occupation, Afghans are familiar with and suspicious of 'hearts and minds' strategies. Furthermore, aid represents a small component of most Afghans' coping strategies in times of conflict and transition. Predominant strategies include communal cooperation on rehabilitation and remittances. Interviewees in Paktia and Uruzgan repeatedly argued that security would be more fundamentally linked to improved governance and the removal of unsavory characters from positions of power."

Such perspectives are all the more convincing coming from Afghans themselves, particularly in light of seven years of fitful progress at best. With the emphasis on aid, an effective Afghanistan strategy must:

1. Incorporate clarified and shared goals. As detailed in a recent policy paper from the Center for Strategic & International Studies, the people of Afghanistan – and Pakistan, for that matter – must believe their security and prosperity are the key concern of all aid and military efforts. To that end, the U.S., EU and NATO allies, along with the development community, must iterate a unified plan with achievable targets, and stick to it.

2. Involve less contracting and subcontracting, and greater oversight. Aid agencies and project implementers must take greater control and responsibility for their work – and be held accountable for it. Such adjustments will not be easy, but they are necessary if aid agencies and NGOs are to ultimately succeed in building a more stable society.

3. Focus on governance and local democracy promotion in a few key provinces. Nothing is holding back progress in Afghanistan as much as a lack of national, regional and civic leadership. Civil society organizations, democracy promotion and community involvement need to be cornerstones of regional development strategies in Helmand, Uruzgan and along the border with Pakistan, from provincial to village levels. An underlying cause of Taliban resurgence, for example, is the drug trade, which remains successful mainly because governors and other officials are given near impunity to oversee poppy farming and opium smuggling. Efforts are being made to cut back production and improve security, but aid projects need to work the other end – removing corrupt warlords and putting legitimate, democratically-elected leaders in place.

A majority of Americans still support a renewed effort to salvage Afghanistan, but U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke predicted "a long, difficult struggle" that will be "much tougher than Iraq." It could be considerably longer and more difficult if the international community fails to implement the security and economic development projects that can provide a foundation for stable democratic institutions.

Posted to Devex.com on February 27, 2009

China, Poverty and the UN’s Curious Stance on Human Rights

The United Nations' Human Rights Council kicked off a special session to discuss the impact of the financial crisis on the poor Friday. That same day, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in China, which recently received a rather friendly review from the world's leading rights body.

Why is the HRC addressing the concerns of the poor when it apparently fails to handle its own purview?

The council replaced the beleaguered Commission on Human Rights nearly three years ago. After its most recent 16-country review, the HRC has now reviewed one-third of the U.N.'s 192 member states. Among those reviews, that of China stands out.

Amnesty International has called China the "world's leading executioner," and the authoritarian government is known for jailing its citizens without trial, censoring its people and harshly quelling rebellious sentiment in Tibet and among the Muslim Uighurs.

Yet during the review, many developing countries commended China as an example of progress and criticized Western countries for "politicizing" the issues. Egypt lauded the Hu Jintao regime and Iran championed Beijing's "strong commitment to human rights." Cuba urged China to remain firm against "self-styled human rights defenders." Gabon, Sudan and Zimbabwe praised China for giving them financial aid, and failed to mention human rights.

"What we saw during the China review was a wide range of views expressed on several human rights issues - economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights," Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi, Nigerian ambassador to the U.N. and current president of the HRC, told Devex. "This is significant!"

Like the HRC, Hilary Clinton pushed human rights to the sidelines during her visit to Beijing over the weekend, saying human rights issues "should not be allowed to interfere" with common interests. She could have capitalized on the buzz surrounding "Charter 08," an online petition denouncing the Chinese government for its human rights abuses that has been signed by more than 8,000 Chinese citizens. But Clinton instead focused on climate change and financial crisis cooperation.

Perhaps it's understandable for the U.S. secretary of state to go soft on China - she has a relationship to manage. The HRC, on the other hand, has a job to do. Despite human rights abuses all around, the council issued a draft resolution Monday calling on nations to protect those put most at risk during the ongoing financial downturn.

"The hope of this session is to send out a strong message that human rights should not be overlooked or drowned out by the current financial crisis," said Uhomoibhi. "The international community must take into account the human rights dimension of the economic crises when implementing measures to address its effects."

Coming two days after the Hu Jintao government gagged dozens of human rights advocates to keep them quiet during Clinton's visit, the real message is that human rights-abusing governments can act with impunity.


Posted to Devex.com on 23 February 2009

Downturn Likely to Smack the Developing World

While the developed world hustles to minimize the damage from the deepening economic crisis, developing countries have been mostly ignored. Yet it is precisely those poorer countries – and their hundreds of millions of people living on the knife edge of desperation – that will be most at risk in the coming weeks and months.

As the downturn leans into its second year, the international community is finally taking note. Earlier this week, the United Nations Human Rights Council urged developed nations to protect those most at risk during this crisis. Its draft solution may not solve the problem, but it's certain to draw attention to a very real concern.

The next day, Columbia University economics professor Joseph Stiglitz spoke about the impact of the financial crisis on global development as part of the United Nations University's speaker series.

"The problems are far deeper, surely, than we've seen so far," said Stiglitz, former chief economist at the World Bank. "The financial crisis is symptomatic of a deeper macro-economic crisis."

The Nobel laureate highlighted the need to fix the underlying problems or face more debilitating hurdles internationally.

"While the financial crisis began in the US, it's now reverberating around the world, including developing countries," said Stiglitz. These countries don't have the funds to enact stimulus policies like those of the West.

"If we don't give them the resources, they won't be able to stimulate their economy and global imbalances will be exacerbated," Stiglitz explained. On the other hand, "Europe and Japan have offered substantial increased funds to the IMF, but if those loans to developing countries are marred by the policies of the past, it will be counter-productive."

Stiglitz went one step further.

"I think we're going to come to a realization that the institutions that we created 60 years ago are not up to the task," he said, before proposing a new, more open-minded international credit facility as part of a "new global architecture."

In a recent interview with Devex, author of best-seller "The White Man's Burden" and New York University economics professor William Easterly acknowledged that the financial crisis would slow developing country growth yet thought it might provide an opportunity.

"How do we make aid even more effective to cope with this additional suffering?" wondered Easterly. "All those people who were spending all their energies campaigning for more aid money, well, maybe they should join those of us who've been campaigning for more results out of the same amount of money."

Posted to Devex.com on 26 February 2009