Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

DEVELOPMENT-AFGHANISTAN: ‘We Need a Fundamental Change Here’

KABUL, May 13 2009 (IPS) - The U.S. administration has pledged to increase aid and reconstruction as a central part of President Barack Obama’s new strategy. But critics charge that the new policy contains very little specifics on how to bring development and jobs to the country.

Afghanistan’s official unemployment rate (measured in 2005) is 40 percent, but observers say that in reality it is likely to be much higher.

“The international community should be establishing professional and technical schools to tackle this problem,” says Ahmad Ghaus Bashiri, the deputy chairman of the Ministry of Labour.

Others say that the U.S. should focus on agricultural development, since this is mostly an agrarian society. According to the Afghan Investment Support Agency’s Sayed Mubin Shah, of the 647 million dollars invested here since 2001, only 3 percent has gone to the agriculture sector.

U.S. officials have pledged to contribute to agriculture by replacing poppies with alternative, sustainable crops and by development work in rural areas. However, development work in such areas has been plagued with corruption and inefficiency in the past.

According to the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, the U.S. has pledged 10.4 billion dollars in development aid since 2002, but has only delivered half of that. In fact, according to the institute, this constitutes only 2 percent of the total amount the U.S. is spending here (the rest goes towards the military effort). In addition, the U.S. employs a system where most reconstruction tasks undertaken by its development agency, USAID, are contracted only to American companies.

“These companies subcontract the job out to other companies, and by the time the work is actually done the Afghan company gets a tiny fraction of the original amount,” says one official with the U.N., who requested anonymity. “In many cases, there is no oversight and the job is done poorly or not at all.”

Representatives at USAID here in Kabul say that the work must be done this way because of American regulations. And U.S. officials say that they will work to ensure more transparency and accountability in the development process, but declined to provide specifics.

Without development and jobs, resentment towards the government and the foreigners will grow, experts say. Analyst Ruhullah Amin says that “if the international community tackles the current crisis and creates job opportunities, many of those young Afghans who have joined the insurgency will stop fighting and get regular jobs.”

“We want what every other human being in the world wants: a job and security,” says Taliban fighter Fazlullah, from Kapisa province. “If we have these things we will stop fighting.”

It has become conventional thinking in Washington policy circles that Afghanistan’s problems cannot be solved without addressing the crises in Pakistan. Senior Obama administration officials have openly declared that the Taliban and other insurgents are trained and equipped on Pakistani soil. Some analysts see this as a promising sign.

Abdul Ghafor Liwal of the Afghanistan Research Center says that “the previous U.S. administration had no clue where the origin of the problems lay, but the new administration clearly recognises that the problems lie across the border.”

But others say that despite such proclamations, the U.S. is still supporting the Pakistani government. Washington has earmarked 1.5 billion dollars per year in aid to the Pakistani state in the hopes that Islamabad will confront the growing militancy there. But there are no guarantees that some of this money won’t go to supporting the Afghan insurgency, critics charge.

Habibullah Rafeh, a policy analyst with the Afghan Academy of Sciences, says that the Pakistani government uses this aid as a source of income, and therefore benefits from the instability in the tribal areas and in Afghanistan.

Although critics allege that Obama’s new strategy is little but an intensification of Bush’s policy, U.S. officials point to a new programme that they say highlights their efforts to empower Afghans to protect themselves: the Afghan Public Protection Force.

In an interview with Killid, U.S. and NATO forces commander General David McKiernan says that the U.S. government is supporting the creation of local militias, starting in Wardak province. These forces are tasked with guarding local installations, such as schools, highways, etc.

But locals and militia members say that the force is not shaping up in the ways they expected. In Jalrez district, the majority of the militiamen are from the Hazara ethnic group, even though the locals are mostly Pashtun.

“This creates the danger of ethnic conflict between groups, something we want to avoid for the sake of national unity,” says Waliullah Rahmani of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.

In other places, the militiamen have been guarding U.S. patrol convoys, even though this was not part of their original job description. Recently a few militiamen were killed during such a patrol.

Moreover, critics allege that even this programme isn’t entirely new. A similar scheme was attempted in the south during 2006. That plan, called the Afghan Auxiliary Police, consisted of arming and outfitting locals. But NATO abandoned the programme last year after many of the militiamen simply absconded with the weapons and others became involved in drug smuggling. In the rugged valleys near Maydan Shahr, in central Wardak province, the locals are saying that they are growing weary of the American presence.

“If the Americans are going to be here, they should offer us something new,” says Wardak resident Fazel Wali. The danger in perpetuating the same strategy, critics say, is that the insurgency will only grow stronger.

However, some Afghans have their own proposals for a new strategy for Afghanistan. “We don’t want 30,000 more troops,” says parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai. “Send us 30,000 more teachers, or 30,000 engineers.”

She pauses, and then adds, “we need a fundamental change here.”

(*Killid is an independent Afghan media group which has been an IPS partner since 2004. This is the second of a two-part investigative report published by Killid Weekly.)

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