Humanitarian Negotiations in Afghanistan

Beyond Istalif

Even for aid agencies with a longstanding presence in Afghanistan, the challenges of securing access are growing. Problems caused by the insecure and fragmented operating environment are compounded by the uncertainties surrounding the transition to Afghan control of security and the drawdown of international combat troops in 2014. Aid agencies are increasingly being forced to rethink their strategies and approaches, and adopt new methods and mechanisms to ensure that they are able to reach those in need of assistance.

Access constrained

The World Food Programme (WFP), the largest operational humanitarian agency in Afghanistan, has worked continuously in the country since 1962. Throughout the Soviet war, the subsequent civil wars and the latest period of conflict following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, WFP has implemented emergency relief and recovery activities, providing food-based assistance to vulnerable communities. The organisation has faced growing operational challenges over the past decade. Since 2006 insecurity has dramatically increased, peaking around 2010–11, and remains a major obstacle, preventing humanitarian agencies including WFP from delivering services in parts of the country controlled by armed nonstate actors. While humanitarian agencies have some form of access to around 80% of the country, access to certain pockets remains a major challenge.

Based on February 2013 data, WFP can fully access (i.e. without escorts) 90 of Afghanistan’s 399 districts. Most of these districts are in the relatively secure provinces of Badakhshan, Balkh, Bamiyan, Kabul, Panjshir, Samangan and Takhar. Otherwise WFP must access districts either using armed escorts, or can only venture to the district centres, not into more remote territory. In more volatile areas, such as the southern, central, south-eastern and eastern provinces (Helmand, Ghor, Kandahar, Ghazni, Khost, Kunar, Logar, Paktya, Paktika, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Uruzgan, Wardak and Zabul), WFP can only access districts using national or international nongovernmental organisations or contracted commercial entities. In eight districts in the northern and northwestern provinces of Badghis, Farah and Faryab and the eastern province of Nuristan, WFP and its partners have no access at all.

Working through partners

In areas that are beyond the boundaries set by the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) – i.e. areas that UN staffers are strongly advised to avoid for security reasons – WFP uses commercial transporters to deliver assistance, and Programme Assistance Teams (PATs), comprising INGOs/NGOs or commercial companies, such as CTG Global, to ensure effective implementation at the community level. In July 2011 WFP was contracting 80 such teams, rising to 143 by mid-2012. PATs represent six different service providers, ranging from private human resources companies to consultancy firms and NGOs, costing WFP over $2.5 million a year.

Originally intended to enable access to Afghanistan’s ‘no-go’ areas, today PATs also work in low-risk areas, where they supplement the work of Food Aid Monitors. Challenges involved in working with PATs include high staff turnover, capacity limitations, the near-total absence of women in the teams, management problems at the field office level and disputes over differing salary levels. These issues have been addressed through new Field Level Agreements, investment in intensive training, revised roles and responsibilities and changed management and recruitment arrangements. This ensures that PATs can conduct feasibility studies to assess needs, understand the concepts behind WFP’s portfolio of activities and use the WFP monitoring toolkit and follow WFP’s reporting requirements. Commercial transporters are identified by WFP’s logistics arm. They follow their own safety and security precautions and are responsible for their own security. WFP has an agreement with these entities whereby, if any food assistance is lost, the agency is reimbursed by the company.

Faces

WFP is also increasingly working with national and international NGOs that are able to access communities under the control of armed non-state actors. These organisations have usually spent many years working in these communities, gaining their trust and building respect among key actors. WFP is also working through communities to negotiate access with armed non-state actors. WFP very rarely, if ever, negotiates directly with nonstate actors; the most effective method is to use community representatives to advocate on behalf of the organisation. WFP’s experience in Kandahar and neighbouring provinces, regions where the government has little control, is that representatives of communities will often come to WFP or other agencies to report their needs, be they focused on health, education or rural development. These representatives take responsibility for their communities’ food security and negotiate with the actors controlling their territory. Community representatives also frequently take responsibility for handling WFP project monitors’ access and security by securing and delivering letters signed by armed non-state actors. However, these assurances only supplement the risk assessments conducted by the commercial transporters and PAT monitors who physically access the territory, and no broad system of assurance is in place.

Relying on community acceptance and mediation can pose risks for those directly involved. In 2009, a community representative responsible for implementing a food assistance project in a district in Kandahar province was seized by an armed non-state actor and accused of distributing American food. After the community explained WFP’s food distribution mechanisms, the man was released and was able to continue the food distribution. In western Afghanistan, WFP succeeded in negotiating some access to Ghor province based on one national staffer’s unique standing and personal relations in the area. Thus, WFP did not need to rely on the community to mediate on its behalf. The national staffer’s networks and reputation meant that WFP was granted access to a region controlled by a criminal actor not directly affiliated with any insurgency, who had preserved some form of authority over several districts in the province for years. WFP successfully monitored food distributions by adopting low-profile approaches. These examples reflect how WFP is dealing with a range of non-state actors with varying motivations, interests and attitudes. As a result, the organisation has to be pragmatic and flexible to seize opportunities when they arise.

In some circumstances, WFP has persuaded local state authorities to speak with armed non-state actors as part of access negotiations. A district-level government representative spoke to Taliban factions in Quetta on behalf of WFP to gain permission to continue a food distribution in schools in a nearby district on the Afghan side of the border. The initial outcome of this meeting was mixed; one faction was in favour of the food distribution continuing, while another was not. WFP worked through an Afghan community representative in Kandahar province, who succeeded in obtaining a phone contact in Quetta. By telephone, he set up an appointment with the Quetta-based representative, outlining the exact purpose of his visit. At the meeting he explained to the Quetta contact that the food was intended for both boys and girls and was coming from a humanitarian agency. Eventually, the distribution (of oil and high-energy biscuits) was allowed to continue.

A new strategy

While WFP has worked through communities and other local authorities to ensure that activities support communities in need, there is no structured approach to negotiating directly with non-state actors. Under its new Country Strategy, WFP is emphasising its commitment to address all humanitarian needs, based on an even more pronounced adherence to humanitarian principles. A more structured approach to outreach is now being implemented, including greater use of local radio (in which WFP’s humanitarian purpose is communicated), engagement with local authorities to explain WFP’s working methods and a greater focus on outreach at other operational and strategic levels. It will take time and flexibility to communicate this operational shift and gain trust and acceptance. The organisation can achieve access for limited periods in specific pockets of the country through ad hoc negotiations, but more comprehensive access will only come with greater acceptance among communities and non-state actors.

The risks associated with distributing food that is branded with the logo of a NATO troop-contributing nation are clearly felt by these communities. Communities in one district in Helmand province have asked WFP to change the logos, or have sought to re-bag food because of the risks associated with receiving a commodity paid for by a government deemed to be an ‘aggressor’ in their eyes, and no doubt in the eyes of local insurgents. WFP tries to persuade donors to remove logos from food for humanitarian purposes. After a series of meetings, one of WFP’s major donors is now considering waiving the requirement to mark assistance in specific areas experiencing conflict.

With the withdrawal of international forces and the PRTs, it may become easier for humanitarian agencies to achieve acceptance. The PRTs were conceived and funded by NATO troop-contributing nations to implement visible, physical construction projects in areas where NATO troops were deployed. They often sought to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Afghans, using aid to further a military strategy. This conflation of civilian aid with military objectives, and the disbursement of assistance by entities that were party to the conflict, arguably undermined the perceived neutrality and impartiality of assistance. In parallel, an ‘aid effectiveness’ discourse has seen aid agencies assert their support for the Kabul government, in line with the Paris Declaration, in what has been a conflict context. As a result, aid lost a degree of legitimacy; some humanitarian aid agencies have been targeted by armed non-state actors, and others have lost acceptance in parts of the country that have been fought over.

As the withdrawal of international combat troops continues, the focus of aid is likely to swing back to ‘back to basics’ humanitarian principles grounded in the appropriate allocation of assistance according to needs, impartiality and neutrality. In line with this trend, WFP is keen to widely communicate its humanitarian principles, to achieve optimal impact in line with its humanitarian objectives.

Harry Johnstone was WFP’s Afghanistan Policy Adviser between 2011 and 2013.

Published in the ODI’s Humanitarian Exchange publication, July 2013.

 

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Interventions – A Life in War and Peace

Kofi Annan’s memoirs narrate his career as a flying peacemaker, working for the United Nations. Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, takes us from one diplomatic precipice to the next. We traverse devastating failures and lasting successes. In the book’s chaotic world, Annan’s unwavering determination and moral conviction is perhaps the one constant.

Interventions is written by Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh, an ex-colleague, and focuses mostly on his efforts to prevent or resolve global conflict. After an opening chapter on his youth, observing the successful independence movement of Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, and engaging in student politics, we then jump to his career, as head of the UN’s peacekeeping operation, followed by his ten years as Secretary General.

Chapters primarily cover the interventions in all forms of war since the early 1990s. Specific innovations such as the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, the International Criminal Court and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are upheld. UN reform is explained, and UN resolutions are never far away.

The book could be more balanced, addressing Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan more, and Israel-Palestine a little less. It could also capture the rich detail of high-level political summits with more verve; at times the content is dry and excessively policy-orientated. Occasionally the language strays into latinate prose: “The impact of the MDGs in providing this coherence has not just secured the de-confliction of certain development paradigms…”

Despite these flaws in style, Interventions engages assiduously with key topics. Annan does not shy away from criticizing the Bush administration for undermining multilateralism over the Iraq war. He is right to point out that in development debates “the spotlight should not be on aid but trade. It should really be on the failures of rich countries to remove international trade regulations that stunt the economic ambitions of developing countries.”

Interventions really comes alive when we read about Annan’s efforts to work alongside difficult personalities such as the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. These passages reflect Annan’s sensitivity and steeliness, as well as his sense for human psychology. The book’s substance lies somewhere between the personal and the policy-driven – more of the former would have made it more readable, but nevertheless it remains a fascinating account of contemporary statecraft in the post-Cold War era.

 

Times Literary Supplement

Pakistan on the Brink

In 2000, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid produced a bestselling account of the insurgent group that currently threatens the stability of Afghanistan. Taliban was balanced, instructive and based on plenty of fieldwork – everything good journalism should be. Pakistan on the Brink, however, feels rushed, gleaned from existing accounts written by other journalists working in the region, interspersed with a hotchpotch of statements made by senior figures working on “Af-Pak” (the term Washington policymakers use to describe Afghanistan and Pakistan).

Rashid appears to see the region’s history as determined by Great Men. The policy shifts, character flaws, indecision, infighting, meetings and announcements of presidents, envoys, admirals and generals are viewed as key markers in the narrative. Barack Obama is attacked for his “cold” approach, lack of commitment and failure to meet personally with either the Afghan president Hamid Karzai or the late US Special Adviser Richard Holbrooke. Karzai is portrayed as “deeply insecure” and “his own worst enemy”. Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari is characterized as weak and deferential to a Pakistani army “obsessed with India and the threat of Indian influence in Afghanistan”.

Beneath this network of power brokers we struggle to learn what actually drives change. There is little substantial historical context going back more than a few years, and Rashid fails to describe the deep roots of key Islamist movements undermining security in the region.

Beneath a preacher Ahura 2011

Rashid’s recent books – Jihad (2002), Descent into Chaos (2009) and now Pakistan on the Brink – echo those hawkish commentators of the Great Game and Cold War; radical Islam has replaced the perceived Russian and Soviet threats. But surely the past twelve years in Afghanistan have yielded valuable lessons about the importance of giving credence to history and culture, the historical consciousness of an invaded people; the delicacy and cost of intervention; the need for realistic strategies founded on adequate analysis? Pakistan on the Brink is symptomatic of the West’s recent failings in these endeavours.

Times Literary Supplement

Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival

Darulaman Palace, Kabul

The prospect of yet another general history of Afghanistan is unlikely to excite. But Amin Saikal’s updated Modern Afghanistan, reprinted this year after a first edition in 2004, is an exception. Saikal is that rarity among published authors on Afghanistan: an Afghan, and his work demonstrates a cultural understanding that is usually lacking among foreign historians and political scientists. He relies on first-hand interviews with informed Afghans, and uses Afghan sources written in Dari as well as others from Soviet archives. This allows Saikal to see his country’s historical development through social and political traditions that most Western historians ignore, or fail to see altogether.

Afghanistan’s state fragility, he argues, is inherent in systems of rule derived from families that were dynastic and polygamous. Such loose patrimonial systems provoked interdynastic rivalry in which challengers often sought external assistance to usurp incumbents. In this way, Afghans are players of their own Great Game: “Any government or official political movement in Afghanistan,” writes Saikal, “whatever its proclaimed goals and position on the left-right continuum, recruited, mobilised support and operated according to criteria of ethnic/tribal/clan solidarity. All prominent ‘Constitutionalists’ in the age of Habibullah and Amanullah were Durrani Pashtuns, linked by conjugal and patronage ties. Through the ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ periods in the post-Second World War era, the Mohammadzai clan never relinquished power”.

Consequently, Saikal sees President Hamid Karzai as little more than a “Pashtun Khan” singing to the United States’s tune of liberal democracy and centralized government, while in reality “operating along the lines of the past”. The emergence of a “Karzai cartel”, in which the President’s brothers and half-brothers “as well as secondary relatives and ethnic loyalists, came to play a dominant role in politics, business, trade and outreach activities”, is proof of the persistence of “family rule” in Afghan politics.

Saikal’s use of sources, his insight into the process of internal political change, and his somewhat sympathetic view that, in the end, Afghans have always been the main agents of their history, make Modern Afghanistan essential reading for anyone wanting original, informed perspectives on the country’s historical development since its “foundation” under Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747.

 

Times Literary Supplement

Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan

The retired military intelligence officer Frank Ledwidge has written a thoughtful book tackling the reasons for Britain’s recent military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Covering politics, strategy, history, operations, institutional culture and academia, Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars is ambitious in scope. Moreover, the book is predicated on a noble ambition: to remind readers of the injustice of Britain’s recent military adventures. Ledwidge hopes to make British senior officers and politicians see sense and promote belated reforms.

Ledwidge’s central argument is now common knowledge: Britain’s forces have struggled in both Iraq and Afghanistan because soldiers and officers alike simply failed to understand why they were actually in these countries. Ignorant of the political purpose, fearful of admitting this, and unwilling to challenge the Blair government’s mistaken policy, the military leadership was guilty of acquiescence. As Ledwidge writes, “What really happened was that generals…failed in their role as speakers of truth to power.”

Yet the Clausewitzian ‘logic’ for war was lost not only on these officers, but also for most of a Labour government who followed the United States into two wars whose rationale was never clear or fixed, but shifted according to expediency. Perhaps unsurprisingly the generals did not question their politicians given their perception that the military exists to serve the polity, not debate politics.

But Ledwidge is uncompromising. He asserts that beneath the military’s overarching failure to contest the political purpose of both wars lies a catalogue of institutional inadequacy: “A failure to adapt, antediluvian structures and intelligence systems, deployment schedules that ensured a lack of continuity, a cavalier attitude to post-entry planning, a mentality geared to an excessive readiness to use extreme violence…Inadequate equipment and a dearth of [combat] personnel coexisted alongside a vastly swollen command structure…”.

Unfortunately the writing is sloppy at times. Ledwidge calls Mazar-e Sharif a province (it is the capital city of Balkh province). He introduces the International Crisis Group twice, in almost the exact same way within forty pages. His prose can slip into silly exaggerations: “The police are widely regarded to be at best a disparate group of drug-addled rogues”. He repeats the same arguments throughout the 270 pages, many of which are drawn from the same dozen British journalists or generals. Very few Iraqi or Afghan sources are used, which is ironic given his arguments for greater cultural engagement as a means to improve the understanding of the armed forces.

But Losing Small Wars is nevertheless a brave and important book; essential reading for anyone wanting insights into the dysfunction within the British military today, and the deplorable consequences this has when thrust upon the lives of innocent civilians caught up in war. 

Times Literary Supplement

The Real Transition That Afghanistan Needs

The Afghan guessing game is intensifying. Nobody can accurately predict what will happen in 2014 – the “transition” year – when international ground forces finally exit and a new Afghan president is elected. Pessimists foresee the outbreak of civil war and a rise in the number of safe havens used by international terrorists. This current rise in attacks, assassinations and abductions around the country will increase their anxiety.

May’s Nato conference in Chicago saw world leaders promise more cash to bolster Afghanistan’s fledgling security services, but can we not learn from history and recognise that no matter how much money and lives are expended on military intervention and training, more soldiering and policing will not deliver long-term security.

Military force seeks to prevent insecurity but ignores its root causes. Afghanistan’s insurgencies find acceptance among the poorest, most marginalised communities. These are villages in remote districts that are neglected by government and aid agencies. As US General Eikenberry was fond of saying, “where the road ends, the Taliban begins”.  Roads are important, but providing quality services that vulnerable populations can reach is vital.

Afghanistan’s under-development remains shocking. One in two children under five is chronically malnourished. Nearly half of school age children are out of school. Around half the population is underemployed. Over a third of the country lives below the poverty line. In such precarious environments, religious extremism, narco-trafficking, criminality and corruption thrive, for survival is paramount.

Undeniably there have been achievements over the past ten years. Access to primary health care has increased from 8 percent of the population to more than 60 percent. Access to electricity has increased by 250 percent. The Afghan government has increased its ability to collect revenue. And, yes, thousands of kilometres of roads have been constructed. Donors, development partners and NGOs have played a critical role in supporting Kabul in these and other areas.

But the fact remains that, despite over ten years of enormous foreign investment in Afghanistan, the lives of ordinary Afghans have changed little. About 40,000 Afghans die each year due to poverty and hunger. This figure is fifteen times more than casualties from war. Yet NATO has spent more than twice as much on its intervention in one month than all the combined international aid spent on social protection in eight years.

2012-03-24 14.08.22

Investments in the basic building blocks – quality education, nutrition and rural livelihoods – have for too long been dismally low when compared with the vast sums disbursed on governance and more “visible” macro-economic projects deemed to be the “silver bullet” for Afghanistan’s future GDP.

The poorest Afghans have understandably grown disillusioned with the corruption among Kabul’s political elites when tax-payers’ money should be going towards improving people’s social services. These Afghans naturally start to view the international aid community as equally self-serving and hypocritical. No wonder then that they accept the alternatives that are pressed upon them by Islamist clerics and their foot soldiers.

Next week, Afghanistan’s stakeholders from the international community will meet in Tokyo to discuss development. This is a major conference and needs to be treated as such, not simply as another stop-off in the Afghan diplomatic carousel.  It presents a genuine opportunity for policymakers to shift the balance of power away from war-weary Generals to the Ministers, Ambassadors and senior UN officials who will be responsible for the country’s future development.

If the “transition” is a discursive tool, let us frame it this way: the following two years should see the international community transition from a security-dominated agenda to a development agenda. Critically, this agenda must prioritise the most vulnerable Afghans’ needs and focus on sustainability. The UN must become the major partner in supporting the government’s development strategy.

One thing is clear: the elephant in the room at Tokyo will be the abject lack of human development in Afghanistan; that is, the international community’s failure to help the country’s poorest. Everyone there will be aware of it, but few will have the courage to speak up and propose solutions.

When aid targets the right people directly, it can work. The National Solidarity Programme, funded by the US, UK, Canada and Denmark among others, has empowered communities across rural Afghanistan to spend US$1.2 billion on their own development priorities. This kind of development practice is helping hundreds of thousands of Afghans move out of poverty. What’s more, such measures improve security, cheaply.

As western constituencies vote for accelerated troop withdrawals, and the military aid teams pack up their bases, and the media spotlight moves away from this country after over ten long years, we must finally transition to a more realistic approach. Spending a greater share of limited budgets towards ‘smarter’ development will improve the lives of millions of Afghans, both immediately and in the longer term.

Reducing poverty and hunger, preventing illiteracy and disease – these are not only inherently good things, but they also make communities less amenable to an insurgent’s methods of persuasion. This clearly benefits Afghan people and will go some way to relieving the concerns of a worried, if tired, international community.

Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground

Old fort nr Bamiyan

Jonathan Steele has written a book that is brazenly illuminating. Ghosts of Afghanistan charts a sinuous and sobering history of the country over the past thirty five years. The results are grim reading but also perversely satisfying, as the categorical exposé of hubris always is.

Steele assiduously points out the many oversights of the Soviet and US campaigns in Afghanistan to teach us to learn from these mistakes. “The biggest lesson of recent Afghan history,” he writes, “is that it is wrong for foreigners to arm factions engaged in civil war. For foreigners then to intervene with their own troops is even greater folly.”

Rather than using chronological narrative form, Steele opts for myth debunking to shed light on the crisis. Thirteen myths are dispelled throughout the book. Some are more pertinent to the current Afghan context than others. Myth eleven, for example, writes Steele, is that the Taliban invited Osama bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a safe haven. The ramifications of this misguided intelligence were enormous. It became the principle rationale for the U.S. invasion.

Ghosts benefits from Steele’s thirty years plus of reporting on both the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The prose is clear and lively. The personal anecdote is never far away. His history is well-researched. Steele examines WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cables from actors such as former U.S. Ambassador Eikenberry to demonstrate the increasingly cagey U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as well as the support the Pakistani intelligence service provided to the Taliban.

Steele also offers interesting analysis into reasons for U.S. reluctance to entertain a political solution between the Afghan government and the Taliban, based on America’s historical experience; namely, the success of fought victories in the Civil War and the two World Wars, versus their unsatisfactory negotiated settlements in Vietnam and Korea.

Where Steele perhaps comes up short is in his exploration of ghosts, if only because he could have taken it so much further. The Soviets called the mujahedin dukhi – ghosts – since they were so shadowy, much like the Taliban for the U.S. military today. But if today’s various insurgent factions remain spectres in the eyes of the West, then so too does the country as a whole.

This metaphorical ghostliness, or more precisely, misperception, strikes not only at the heart military failings in Afghanistan, but actually at the whole notion of foreign intervention in a weak state that has been – and remains – so weakly understood by outsiders working in the country. This military myopia stems from an overwhelmingly ‘blind’ international civilian engagement. And this breeds the myth-making that has partly caused such tragedy in Afghanistan.

Times Literary Supplement