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Afghanistan

Afghanistan: the importance of being there

Nicholas van Praag's picture

I spent a lot of time this week hanging out with my friend Edward Girardet. He’s in Washington, D.C. ahead of the launch of his book that traces the history of international engagement in Afghanistan over the past 30 years or so. 

Killing the Cranes is a deeply personal tale that includes Massoud and Girardetan account of Girardet’s brush with Osama Bin Laden before he (Osama) became a household name. He also describes trekking through the Hindu Kush to interview the leader of the United Front, Ahmed Shah Massoud, during the war against the Soviet Union. This photograph captures that encounter.

Girardet has reported on the region ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and has known three generations of aid workers.  I asked him if they had changed.

Dangerouser and dangerouser? Aid workers on the front lines

Nicholas van Praag's picture
   Threatened symbol of neutrality

When I was working as a field officer with UNHCR in eastern Sudan in the mid 1980s, the living conditions were tough but we did not fear for our lives.

A couple of years later, a faction of the PLO attacked the Acropole Hotel in Khartoum, the city’s main hang-out for aid workers and journalists.  Four people were killed and more injured.

The aid fraternity was in shock at what they saw as a dagger lunged into the heart of their community.

Today, such an incident would still get headlines but stories of attacks and kidnappings of aid workers are depressingly familiar.

As the amount of overseas development assistance going to countries in conflict or affected by conflict rises, the growing numbers of humanitarian and development staff frequently find themselves in harm’s way.

This trend is due in part to the recurrence of violence.  Research for the WDR shows that many conflict-hit countries experience repeated violent episodes.

The linear progression from war and destruction to peace and development is now the exception rather than the rule.

This means that aid workers are increasingly caught up in the ebb and flow of conflict rather than coming in when the guns fall definitively silent.

Clare Lockhart and Ory Okolloh on "Making States Work Better"

Daniel Maree's picture

"New Media and Conflict" is our ongoing series which explores the affect of new communication technologies on issues of conflict and development.

Last Tuesday (Sept. 7), the Grand Hyatt Washington was abuzz with the Gov 2.0 Summit, which brought together innovators from government and the private sector to highlight technology and ideas that can be applied to “the nation’s great challenges.”

 

One session we found particularly interesting was "Making States Work Better" featuring Ory Okolloh, founder of the groundbreaking “activist mapping” platform Ushahidi, and Clare Lockhart, founder of the Institute for State Effectiveness, co-author of Fixing Failed States, and author of two input papers for the 2011 World Development Report.

 

Reflecting on their post-conflict experiences in Afghanistan and Kenya, respectively, Lockhart and Okolloh stressed the importance of building institutions that provide effective and accountable security, justice and economic prospects.

 

WATCH:

 

Promises of Change: Reconciling Reality and Expectations in Fragile States

Nicholas van Praag's picture
  

Go ahead, make your case
Photo © Nick van Praag

I was listening to a report on the radio last week about winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan.  You know, all the stuff about moving from the number of insurgents killed and hectares of poppy fields destroyed to how many miles of roads can be travelled in safety and the number of people benefiting from agricultural extension projects. 

The journalist ended the dispatch by saying that these new ways of looking at progress are all very well, but what matters most are people’s perceptions of what the future holds. 

Afghanistan has many problems and skepticism over the war continues to grow. But there are also some objective reasons for hope. There has been an explosion in cell phone use and measures of maternal health and child mortality show progress.  More girls are in school and more women in parliament. But to the average man and woman, these incremental changes have not been enough to overcome a pervasive sense that prospects for improvement are dim.

As governments in Afghanistan and other fragile states pursue the tortuous business of reform, they cannot rely on promises of better security, improved livelihoods and more social justice to impose their own logic on people’s minds. The rationale of reform will not spontaneously emerge for war torn citizens without the connections made through consistent, disciplined communication.

After years of insecurity and hopelessness, you have to actively persuade people to suspend their disbelief and invest themselves in the future.  Evidence shows that purveying raw information and data is not enough.  Rather, it is about changing perceptions through carefully crafted and targeted messages that address people’s concerns directly.

Finding ways to communicate persuasively is not a silver bullet.  It takes more than smart communications to challenge vested interests or deter insurgents bent on resisting changes in the status quo. But communication can play a powerful role in consolidating support from allies, winning over the doubters, and reassuring the fearfulas well as undermining the credibility of opponents. 

Overcoming cultural barriers with sound economics

Zainab Salbi's picture

This post is the first in a series on "Gender and Conflict" which explores gender issues in the context of crisis and violence. Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO of Women for Women International, discusses the cultural complexities involved in working to improve the lives of women in fragile and conflict-affected states.

   Photo © Women for Women International

Working to improve the lives of women in fragile and conflict-affected states raises complex cultural issues, but sound economic arguments paired with practical solutions can help overcome resistance. 
 
Culture and tradition are too often used to justify the stifling of debate about change, especially when it relates to women’s lives. As an Iraqi-American woman who grew up with Muslim traditions and ended up traveling the world through my work with Women for Women International, an organization that supports women in conflict-affected areas, I have had plenty of exposure to these attitudes.

The use of culture as a defensive weapon blights the lives of women from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Sudan and Afghanistan.  It is used as an excuse to silence opponents. Although the intention may be to respect cultural traditions, it often leads to policies that undermine the social and economic advance of women. 
 
A classic example of this occurred in the first year of the Iraq invasion, when the US governing authority switched food distribution from public stores to mosques. This policy was intended to respect Iraqi culture but, in fact the policy changed the role of the mosque from a private to a public role. For the mosque has played a public role associated with government actions in Iraq’s modern history.

International norms and local realities

Nicholas van Praag's picture
  Outcomes matter

All too often, donors and development organizations push pre-fabricated institutional models on developing countries despite the checkered history of these arrangements.  This is something we are grappling with in the context of the WDR as we look at the functionality of the institutional forms that the international community often encourages fragile states to embrace. 

Elections are a case in point as countries vulnerable to violence are urged to put in place this particular pillar of democracy without much attention to the other elements of democratic architecture.  We have seen in many places how this can backfire, triggering tensions and undermining progress towards more resilient societies. 

It is not just elections.  In addressing corruption and human rights there are plenty of examples of institutional implants placing major strains on fragile societies.  While there is no question that international norms and standards are central on many crucial issues, there is too much emphasis on institutional models and too little on outcomes.

Speaking Out About Conflict—Part 2

Natalia Cieslik's picture

During a recent WDR 2011 consultations event we interviewed leaders from conflict-affected countries about overcoming conflict, building institutions, confidence building, and the role of the international community.

Watch and listen to what Habiba Sarabi, Governor of Bamyan Province in Afghanistan, Emilia Pires, Finance Minister in Timor Leste, Oscar Santamaria, Former Peace Negotiator and Minister of Justice and Foreign Affairs in El Salvador, and Juan Carlos Pinzon, Former Vice-Minister of Defense in Colombia, have to say.

Snakes

Nigel Roberts's picture

Forward Operating Base Delhi, Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan—December 7

Flying into Snake’s Head
     Flying into Snake’s Head the name given by the US and British soldiers to a patchwork of canals in Helmand province, Southern Afghanistan.  Photos © Ed Girardet.

Kinetic summer

We’re in the Snake’s Head, the name given by the U.S. and British soldiers to a bulbous patchwork of canals in the Helmand desert in Southern Afghanistan, part of a ribbon of fertile land running south from the Malmand Mountains and commanded by the irrigation network built with U.S. assistance in the 1960s. The Helmand River valley is at the frontline of the current episode in Afghanistan’s Thirty-Year War.

Field Marshall Gerald Templer said of the 1952-4 conflict in Malaya, “The answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people.” This philosophy animates the counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan set out in General Stanley McChrystal’s recent Initial Assessment. McChrystal is quoted as saying that "the shot you don't fire is more important than the one you do."

British forces have fought in this area since 2006. In July this year, in the biggest airlift operation since the Vietnam War, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force joined them and drove the Taliban further down the snake’s tail.

Impermanence

Nigel Roberts's picture

Bamiyan, Afghanistan—December 12

    Nothing lasts forever, not even a good government. After more than three decades of conflict, violence, and extreme poverty, many Afghans hesitate to trust outsiders. Photos ©Ed Girardet.

The statues

The empty frames in the rock face greet you as you land in Bamiyan—home for 1500 years to two great carved Buddhas, until the Taliban pulverized them in 2001. Unlike the inhabitants of Bamiyan, the statues survived several major episodes of invasion and mayhem, most notably Genghis Khan’s 1221 rampage in which every person and every animal is said to have been slaughtered. A number of other invaders tried to obliterate them—in particular the Indian emperor Aurangzeb’s troops, who hacked their faces off in the 18th Century. The will was there, but the requisite technology wasn’t available until more recently.

Tragic as the dynamiting of the statues was, there is another way of looking at this episode of zealotry. In the words of the journalist Matthew Power, “High up in the empty alcove, I was struck by the absurdity of trying to kill the Buddha with tanks and rocket-propelled grenades. I recalled the Buddhist practice of contemplating emptiness, and realized how utterly the Taliban had been defeated.”

Humanitarian action and state-building in Conflict?

Bruce Jones's picture
   Photo © Arne Noel / World Bank

The past few years have seen the revival of an old debate about the relationship between humanitarian action, military/peacekeeping intervention, and state-building. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the military, humanitarian and development actors are working together in new ways, have raised concerns in each community.

Humanitarian actors worry about the loss of perceived impartiality and access to vulnerable populations. People in the military worry about their effectiveness if not backed up by humanitarian and economic assistance. Development actors worry that military actors are undertaking state-building functions without adequate understanding of the implications of their actions.

Given that the renewed debate derives from Afghanistan and Iraq, the argument is probably overplayed, since it is highly unlikely that the specific mode of engagement in those two cases—grounded in large-scale U.S. military deployments—is likely to characterize the predominant form of response to humanitarian crises or fragile states in conflict. Nevertheless, changing forms and patterns of violence will pose new challenges to these communities.