Posts Tagged ‘security’

‘Humanitarian’ risk management

October 28, 2008

It’s starting to get cold in Kabul. One of my team came in this morning wearing a thick jumper that happened to have the US flag sewn onto one arm. His brother had been given it when he used to work as a translator for the Americans. I joked that the flag could get him in trouble. He didn’t find it so funny, and took it off.

International aid workers get all the limelight when they get killed, but national staff members face much greater risks. Of 28 aid workers killed in Afghanistan from January to September, 23 were Afghans. Similarly, Afghans comprise 90% of aid workers kidnapped. There’s an article from IRIN that’s well worth reading that puts the risks faced by expatriates into perspective.

And an article here asks the uncomfortable questions on the same theme:

To put it blunty, it often seems that the life of a western aid worker is worth more than his or her Afghan or Congolese or Somali or Sudanese colleague.

Granted, given that the vast majority of humanitarian workers are national staff, it’s not surprising that they tend to suffer the majority of attacks.

What is disturbing, however, is how humanitarian strategies for operating in places like Afghanistan effectively transfer risk from international to national staff.

Too dangerous for me to go somewhere? A shame, but no matter, I’ll send an Afghan colleague instead. He will certainly attract less attention than I. I’ll just tell him to not take any ID card or official documents from work, to delete the names of foreigners from his phone, to think of some story to say why he has to go there, should he be asked by the wrong person.

While I’m referring to other sources, here are a couple more: as ever, Ghosts of Alexander provides better analysis on Afghanistan then I ever find in any newspaper, and has written some valuable pieces on negotiating with the Taliban, in Mecca  and in historical perspective.

And itinerant and indignant, another aid worker in Afghanistan, has some interesting thoughts on the troubling times in Kabul and the perception of risk.

Roads to prosperity?

May 10, 2008

I’m jumping on the bandwagon with this one. Or about to get run over by it. Either way.

Ghosts of Alexander and some other clever folk like Registan have been discussing this article from The Small Wars Journal about roads in Afghanistan and their role in military matters.
Roads have been on my list of ‘interesting things to blog about,’ though more from a development perspective, ever since a NATO political big-wig parachuted into Chagcharan last year for a few hours.

Sitting in a crowded room of government and NGO types, he asked several random questions such as: ‘Do you have a problem with corruption here?’ The demur reply to which being along the lines of: ‘Oh no, of course not. The governor and police chief are both very good and not corrupt.’

Having asked a few more such penetrating and diplomatically phrased questions, and before flying off by helicopter, he firmly declared that what this province really needed to sort it out was a good road running through it, and someone really should do something about building one.

Quite right to. There is not a paved road anywhere in the province, and having one would make my life so much more comfortable.

The central route from Kabul to Herat

A good road in Ghor – the central route from Kabul to Herat

This is why I’m sceptical of oft-made claims about the need for better roads to bring about development. I can’t get over the feeling that when we development folk say how important roads are, what we really mean is how important roads are for us.

Us, as in those of us with nice big Land Cruisers at our disposal. It’s all well and good having a nice shiny vehicle, but not so great if the roads you’ve got to drive it along are little better than mountain-goat tracks. It’s impossible to speed, wrecks the shock-absorbers, and is still bloody uncomfortable.

And you can simply forget about trying to drink a chilled G&T as you go along.

Of course, some Afghans have cars or motorbikes too, though a minority, and there are some mini-vans that bravely ply the route to Herat or Kabul.

The vast majority of people living in Ghor, however, have no access to motor-vehicles. Nor do they live anywhere near a ‘main road.’ If you are walking or riding a donkey, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference if you’re travelling along a sheep-path or a six-lane highway. Apart from the fact that better roads would mean faster vehicles and more danger of being hit by one.

There are, I know, some very good reasons why better transport would help more people. If the road (singular: let’s not get over optimistic) were better, it would cost truck drivers less money to transport stuff here, in theory bringing down the price of food and basic items. If the road were better, it would cost people less money to travel to the rest of the country as migrant labourers. (Not that you could put that in your funding proposal for a road. Migrant labour from here means working in Iran or in the poppy fields to the south. Remittances are one of the key sources of cash income. But we don’t like to talk about that.) If a lot of roads were better, and there was transport available along them, it would help improve access to health and educational services in district centres.

These are good reasons. But I’m still not entirely convinced that the benefits a road would bring to the people of Ghor would significantly reduce poverty and inequality, or that there wouldn’t be better ways of spending the huge amount of money it would cost to build a half-way decent and useful road.

I’ve heard tales of other road-building projects that have cost millions of dollars for just a few thousand meters, and have then been washed away over the winter. And other roads, while of some small benefit to locally hired Afghan labourers, that have been sub-contracted out, and sub-contracted out, and sub-contracted out again – each contracting company creaming off ‘a bit’ for themselves.

I’m dredging up the memory of an essay I wrote way back in school now, and donning my wannabe academic hat.

In a paper attempting to develop an econometric model for evaluating the benefits of roads, Hanan Jacoby suggests “that providing extensive road access to markets would confer substantial benefits on average, much of these going to poor households. However, the benefits would not be large enough or targeted efficiently enough to greatly reduce income inequality in the population.” (2000: 735)

The economic evidence is, as far as I’m aware (not even a stone’s throw), inconclusive. But detailed, micro-level studies do seem to suggest that the benefits of roads are limited to a handful of traders and big businessmen.

In an influential account (that may or may not be influential, I just stumbled across it one day and have no idea, but felt the need for an adjective) of the geo-politics of routes in Central Asia, Mahnaz Z. Ispahani argues that land routes bring together two crucial aspects of state activity: security and development. In his book Roads and Rivals, there is one tale I remember of a Soviet-built road in northern Afghanistan that was intended to increase trade and develop the economy, and just happened to be constructed to technical standards suitable for driving a tank along. This shortly before the Soviets invaded.

Some anthropologists, like my academic hero James Ferguson, have argued that while the intended developmental benefits of roads are minor, what they really achieve is the extension of state and military control into otherwise marginal areas.

If your concern is state security, ‘force multipliers’ or ‘projecting military force’ this is just fine and dandy. The trouble begins when this road building project is dressed up as, and funded as, a development project that will benefit poor people.

This being the other reason I am cautious of claims for the humanitarian or economic benefits of roads.

And then, as some have recently pointed out with regards to Afghanistan, roads aren’t always that great at improving security either (though Registan does claim they are good for economic development and nation-building, though gives no evidence for this). What they do provide is good places to ambush convoys and plant IEDs.

I suspect why that NATO chap, and others, was so convinced of the need for a decent road through Ghor was first, because there isn’t one, and any civilized, developed place must surely have a road. And secondly, because it would help link Kabul and Herat and so provide a route that avoids the dangerous southern ring road via Kandahar. There would be many benefits to that, and hopefully one day it will happen, but I doubt many people living in Ghor would gain much prosperity from it.

What I really want is a horse. That’d be the way to travel, road or not.


Promoting vice

May 8, 2008

I’ve just finished reading Sarah Chayes’ The Punishment of Virtue. It’s left me angered, saddened and despairing. It’s good.

Chayes spent six years living in Kandahar from 2001, first as a journalist then running a local non-governmental aid organisation, with rare access to the political scene there.

The Taliban had a Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Punishment of Vice. Chayes argues that the US and President Karzai have often been doing the opposite: supporting the warlords along with Pakistan, promoting vice.

OK, so it’s a whole lot more subtle than that, but she passionately takes on the double-standards and disconnections of US foreign and military policy, and the perverse prevarications and intrigue of the Afghan government.

I have mixed feelings about her position in Kandahar – an aid worker, with close ties to the US forces and the Karzai family – and her overtly political stance, an individual with a fair degree of influence and accountability to no one, ‘meddling’ in the affairs of others. But I also respect her for that.

There are a whole load of issues it’s raised for me I want to think through, but two main ones will suffice.

A while back I wrote something about Provincial Reconstruction Teams, commenting on what seemed to me, in one limited example, to be a lack of formal briefing on events and processes in Afghanistan before being deployed. That post generated a couple of good comments that almost, though not quite, made me feel slightly abashed.

I’ve been mulling those comments over since then, and so was interested to read about Chayes’ experience of accidentally being asked to brief a new deployment of US troops to the province.

No concerted effort was being made to educate the army about the radically new duties that had been thrust upon it. […] It seemed to me that as long as the Defence Department is conducting U.S. foreign policy, officers should be taught about the foreign land upon which their actions will have such a lasting impact. (285)

In 2004, the latest U.S. forces had no simple chart of the local tribes. Chayes supplied one to them, for the second time.

I feel slightly vindicated by her remarks, especially coming from a U.S. citizen described by one G.I. as a ‘hawk,’ and who is equally and perceptively critical of aid organisations.

Registan is well worth looking at on PRTs as well while I’m about it.

The second issue I thought I’d randomly throw out there is about security, and different approaches taken between the military and aid organisations.

Once or twice I’ve had to explain to civilian and military personnel of PRTs why I am, I believe, safer not having an armed guard with me every step of the way as they do. It’s about that whole idea of ‘humanitarianism’ again: my safety depends on my neutrality, on staying as far away from any weapon as possible, both physically and conceptually.

So anyways, Sarah Chayes’ thoughts on the matter:

The expatriates, I believe, misunderstood the nature of violence in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a place where mutually assured destruction remains a viable doctrine. It is a culture of retribution. […] Walls and barbed wire, I had learned, are not all that significant in Afghanistan, when it comes down to it. Preventing your own murder – once someone has resolved to commit it – would be almost impossible. But if you are seen to belong to a recognized group, a family or tribe that might retaliate, your chances of survival increase. The way to stay safe in Kandahar was to suggest the certainty of violent revenge should you be killed or dishonoured, so as to deter attack before it is undertaken. (236)

Thus there is safety in aid organisations being associated with the military. It’s an interesting point and while not one I agree with I think it does add another angle to the debate.

There are lots of other pages I’ve folded the corner of and want to go back to, but I’ll leave it at that.

So stop reading this; read this. It’s much more interesting than I’ve made it sound and it’s better than The Kite Runner.

Dear Ambassador…

February 7, 2008

My embassy in Kabul is, put simply, crap. Ok, so I’m sure they are very good at selling arms and signing pointless construction contracts, annoying Karzai, looking dapper, mixing a cocktail – whatever it is they do, I’m sure they do it well (well, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt on that). What they don’t do well, in fact what they don’t do at all, is give two hoots about their citizens.

When I arrived I registered with them and was apparently assigned a ‘warden,’ someone to keep me informed should something nasty happen, to warn me should something nasty possibly about to happen, to hide under the covers quaking with when something really nasty happens, and so on. I think I heard from my warden once in the past eight months. Nasty things don’t happen much round our way it seems.

Still, I’ve faired better than others. Someone I know, a fellow countryman, spent his entire time here, eleven months or so, just trying to register with the embassy. He left Afghanistan last week. Just in time to be sent a message from the embassy warning of a security threat in Kabul. Which he was kind enough to forward to myself and another, both of us still being in the country, neither of us having heard a whisper from the embassy.

Thankfully, my organisation’s security guy had sent out the warning already. Even better, my flight back to Kabul was cancelled so I’m safely stuck in Badakshan. Still, I’ve a good mind to write and complain. Though that might get me moved from my embassy’s list to the American embassy’s ‘other’ list. Then again, they’re not that organised.

Crystal balls and hand grenades

January 21, 2008

A report by the Afghanistan NGO Security Office, ANSO, claims the best case scenario for 2008 is ‘more of the same’ according to a recent Reuters’ article.

ANSO are the kind folks who email those of us who work for NGOs in Afghanistan with news about the explosion heard down the road or further a field, providing security updates and trying to keep us on our toes.

2007 was the year, they claim, that the Taliban ‘seriously rejoined the fight’ and they predict further Taliban offences for 2008. ‘In simple terms, the consensus among informed individuals at the end of 2007 seems to be that Afghanistan is at the beginning of a war, not the end of one’. How’s that for something to look forward to in the new year?