|Win hearts and minds in Afghanistan to win the war
Three years ago I travelled across Afghanistan to make a film about what conditions for ordinary Afghans were like. We wanted to make it in the winter of 2006-07 because there was talk of a spring offensive from the Taleban — which indeed came, and came, and has kept coming ever since.
The difference between then and now is striking. Five years after the allied invasion in 2001, we could travel in relative security to every corner of the country except Helmand and the south. Kabul felt safe — we went shopping in the old hippy hang-outs along Chicken Street; in Herat, near the border with Iran, we went looking for carpets (having a former Taleban fixer with me helped to persuade the shop to give me a good price).
However, it was clear that ordinary Afghans felt both their Government and the West had failed in the task of reconstructing a country of which the economy had been shot to pieces.
It is not widely known that the Russians systematically smashed many of the ancient irrigation systems during the brutal war against the Mujahidin in the 1980s. Opium poppies are one of the few crops that can be grown without those canals and dams: a huge but vital project if alternative crops are to be developed.
It’s an easier calculation to send more troops than to build a factory. The UK’s annual military budget for Afghanistan is in the billions; that of aid in the millions. At breakfast in our hotel, not one item had been grown or made in the country. Even chicken has to be flown in from Poland — although it has been shown in Pakistan that poultry and dairy farming can transform rural communities with some seed money.
Infant mortality rates in hospitals — a key index of healthcare — were still worse than almost anywhere in Africa. Money was simply not getting through to the places that needed it. A headmistress in the northern town of Taloqan, far from the Taleban powerbase, told us that, despite numerous appeals, they had not received funding to reopen her girls school properly.
I’ve just received a letter from the admirable voluntary worker with whom we stayed in Taloqan. His work was in remote small villages building schools and wells. Now he is almost unable to leave Taloqan and can see the villagers only when they come to town. It’s a tale repeated by many aid workers. Kabul is attacked by suicide bombers who have penetrated government ministries and the main “foreigners’ compound” hotel. Aid workers and journalists have been kidnapped in just about every corner of the land.
What has gone wrong? It is not just military indecision. During the first five years, the Allies failed to provide the financial infrastructure necessary for the reconstruction of the country. This may be partly because the British Government pursued a policy described by David Page, of the charity Afghanaid, as the “militarisation of aid”. Rather than give money to more stable parts of the country where there was a real chance of getting the economy restarted, funds were directed to areas of military engagement, such as Helmand, in the hope that “hearts and minds” would be won over.
This sounds fine in theory, but in practice money spent rebuilding a war zone — with the likely prospect that your work will be bombed to smithereens — might have been better targeted at places where full economic regeneration had some chance. No wonder previously peaceful areas are so susceptible to the Taleban advance when they see no gain from that peace. Samangan in the north was desperate for a dam to irrigate wheatfields and orchards. Instead a far more expensive project took shape in Helmand, with frantic military engagements to try to hold it.
Nor is Britain’s insistence on directing funds through the Afghan Government, rather than directly to aid organisations or local government, the most efficient way of getting money where it matters. Put bluntly, a great deal gets sliced off. Why do politicians so consistently sideline the need for economic reconstruction? Perhaps it is easier to deal in troop numbers or regional politics than the complex long-term question of civilian aid. In all recent discussion of Afghanistan this has been skated over.
When Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, recently listed in these pages his four requirements for success in Afghanistan — to make the Karzai Government more accountable, to negotiate with neighbouring countries, to shift military strategy and to talk to the Taleban — he signally failed to address the one central objective without which all others are pointless, — as do other politicians.
Without an immediate increase in the civil aid it won’t make any difference how many troops are sent — and we risk repeating the same mistake made after the invasion, when, buoyed up by military success, the Allies completely failed at the far more important task of economic reconstruction. The amount we send for reconstruction should be as important as the number of troops; yet the money spent on aid is a tiny fraction of the military budget — less than a tenth, according to the OECD. Let’s see a commitment to raise and target it properly — then talk about how many more lives we propose to risk.