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An Afghan Aid Disconnect

By Mark Ward
Friday, December 26, 2008

Nearly every observer of Afghanistan, from the most senior U.S. military officers to Washington think tank analysts and everyone in between, agrees that stability in that country demands a multipronged approach involving the military, diplomatic efforts and economic assistance. Having spent nearly the past five years as the senior career officer responsible for U.S. economic assistance to Afghanistan, I agree with those in the military who have said that 80 percent of the struggle for Afghanistan is about reconstruction and sustainable economic development and only 20 percent about military operations. In the face of a heightened Taliban insurgency, the U.S. military has changed its tactics. But if civilian U.S. agencies do not change the ways they deliver economic assistance, they jeopardize their chances for success and risk alienating the Afghan people.

The principal provider of U.S. economic assistance, the U.S. Agency for International Development, is severely constrained in Afghanistan by security rules that tolerate no risk for our Foreign Service officers. They are rarely allowed outside the fortress-like U.S. Embassy in Kabul. When they get out, to attend a meeting or visit the site of a project financed by USAID, they are often surrounded by heavily armed security personnel who make it virtually impossible to interact with the Afghan people they are helping.

For USAID to design effective projects, its officers must work closely with the Afghans who know what works best in their difficult environment. Those officers must have access to the project sites to ensure that the intended results are being produced. USAID prides itself on having experienced officers in the field, in the most difficult environments, to ensure strong design and oversight. It owes no less to American taxpayers and the Afghan people.

Yet the attitude toward risk that governs foreign aid programs in conflict-torn countries such as Afghanistan means that USAID's Foreign Service officers have little interaction with Afghan officials during project design and even fewer opportunities to monitor results and make mid-course corrections once projects get underway. Despite Foreign Service officers' best efforts, some USAID projects have been out of sync with Afghan government priorities or have been poorly implemented by contractors because of inadequate oversight. During my time with USAID in Afghanistan, I complained often that Post correspondents appeared to have more access to our projects than we did.

The "no risk" approach is harming America's image. After the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, the people in the affected region changed their attitude about America when they got to know the aid workers, who were there day after day. But when Afghans see civilian American aid workers coming, surrounded by security contractor "shooters," they stay away. The situation is no better with most of the provincial reconstruction teams, which depend on NATO forces for security. On a visit to Farah province in western Afghanistan earlier this year, the headmaster of an agriculture high school close to the U.S.-led provincial reconstruction team told an expert who had just arrived from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that he was not welcome if heavy military security had to accompany him.

No one wants greater access to the Afghan people and USAID projects more than the agency's dedicated Foreign Service officers do. The fact that they get out so rarely drives down morale inside the embassy and makes it harder to recruit aid workers. I am convinced that they would accept more (and reasonable) risk with better training and equipment. But regular requests to Washington to reassess the security rules that govern our economic assistance have fallen mostly on deaf ears. Meanwhile, USAID officers ask how they can connect with a country they mostly cannot see.

It's true, of course, that a more balanced approach to security, one that recognizes the importance of regularly interacting with Afghans, would also increase the risk that more U.S. Foreign Service officers would be injured or killed. And if we start losing Foreign Service officers, the argument goes, Congress will lose its resolve and reduce the economic assistance budget for Afghanistan or eliminate it. Or, as a military colleague expressed his worry to me, the few aid organizations working in the dangerous parts of the country could withdraw.

But the number of U.S. soldiers being killed or wounded has again surged, and both our new president-elect and many in Congress are seeking even more soldiers for Afghanistan. Although aid workers across the country face almost daily attacks, their resolve is strong.

The new team at the State Department and USAID should engage a team of outside experts to conduct an objective assessment of the security rules and their impact on our economic assistance program in Afghanistan. The review should give due weight to the importance of interacting with the Afghan people to hear their ideas, get to know them and gain their trust. It should rigorously test the theories about what would happen if an increasing number of Foreign Service officers were killed and injured as a result. And it should look at other donor countries' approach to security in Afghanistan. Some have the balance between security and access about right, particularly in parts of the country where security is more permissive.

The U.S. military is changing its tactics in Afghanistan, focusing more on counterinsurgency and arguing for more troops on the ground. Civilian U.S. agencies must reassess their tactics, too, and accept the reasonable risks that go along with more effective economic assistance.

The writer was acting assistant administrator for Asia at the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2006 to 2008 and earlier served as a USAID mission director in Pakistan.

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