by Ryan Greer
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has issued a decree banning private security firms from Afghanistan early next year, a move likely to drive out many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in reconstruction. Karzai – and even some American leaders – believe this is a necessary move to shore up Afghan sovereignty, but the priority in the volatile war zone needs to be stability, and funding may not be available to replace the fleeing development contractors (many U.S.-funded), and those groups that do fill in as replacements could exacerbate the danger to the region.
The U.S. currently provides funding to NGOs, the strategy of which is reconstruction and development, improving governance, strengthening the rule of law, and as a communication to the people of the region that the U.S. is there to help. Jacqueline Burns here at the Georgetown Public Policy Review wrote a great piece last month on aid in Pakistan as a strategic communication, so I’ll let that speak for itself. However, in terms of the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, one group planning to leave is Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), which saw some of its colleagues attacked and killed by the Taliban in July. DAI is one of many examples of U.S.-funded NGOs providing reconstruction assistance; one of its Afghan programs aimed to provide labor to create disincentives for the existence of the illicit economy – such as the narco-trade – and boasts, amongst other accomplishments, $2.3 million invested in local communities, employing 134,000 people and building 147.5km of roads (according to CNN, DAI’s total footprint in Afghanistan includes 330 development projects worth $21 million).
It’s unlikely that groups like DAI will be replaced with local ones, given the few resources available for such investment. There is not much else available besides U.S. assistance, and the NGOs we fund are those likely to leave (as American-subsidized groups are more likely to be targeted). Some argue that that may not be a bad thing: some say the contractor ban is a necessary move to strengthen Afghanistan’s sovereignty, others say that the U.S. motivation for assistance there is too blinded by our counterinsurgency strategy (COIN)* objectives and not focused enough on development anyway. The implication, then, is that whatever replaces U.S.-funded NGOs will be beneficial to the country in the long run, as it begins to stand on its own two feet.
But who there has the resources to provide for development needs besides NGOs funded by the U.S. government? Just groups whose differences from those we fund are culturally relative? If the Taliban steps in to assist, then the culturally relative differences between the West and groups like them, may have been times like when they banned music, lobster, or the zoo.** But let us not forget the social and security climate in the region: the Taliban sprays acid into little girls’ faces because they might have the gall to try to go to school, the government has pardoned those who gang-raped a woman with a bayonet, and the private sector’s largest bank just had to be taken over after a corruption scandal resulted in a run on the bank. It’s unlikely that the domestic commercial sector can fund adequate development projects, and even less likely that rule of law and women’s rights initiatives will be replaced at all – which represent a significant share of the U.S. development strategy in the region.
Afghanistan needs to be responsible for its own security, but it isn’t ready yet, and the threat to the Afghan people is too great for the U.S. government – or its approved NGOs – to abandon them. The implementation of the contractor ban has been delayed, and not all groups use security contractors; but Secretary Clinton’s phone call urging Karzai against the decision needs to be stepped up to real diplomatic action soon – we need to find a way for Karzai to look like a strong leader of a sovereign country without putting our NGOs at risk – or the country may be in trouble.
*For more on development and COIN, see Eli Berman, Joseph H. Felter, and Jacob N. Shapiro’s piece in Foreign Affairs: “Constructive Coin: How Development Can Fight Radicals”
**According to Lawrence Wright’s book Looming Tower, upon taking over Afghanistan, the Taliban killed every animal in the zoo, save two: a bear that killed his Talibani attacker after he cut the bear’s nose off, and the lion who killed a member of the Taliban who jumped into his cage yelling, “I am the lion now!”