An international Afghanistan Conference will take place in Paris on June 12. Representatives from 80 states, the United Nations and the Afghan government are due to discuss the future path of reconstruction in the war-torn country. Civilian aid workers want the army to take on less of a pronounced role in reconstruction work which they say is harming long-term perspectives.
German troops are mainly involved in reconstruction work in Afghanistan but civilians are sceptical about their contribution
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan often claim proudly that they are not only responsible for the country’s stabilisation and security but also for its reconstruction.
Hundreds of millions of dollars and euros have been pumped into civil-military projects. With these, the US-led anti-terror coalition has been hoping to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
But civilian aid workers and experts have their doubts. "For many Afghans, it’s very hard to distinguish between a force that comes in and builds a school, or drills a well during the day but then may be seen to have been involved in military activity at other times,” said Paul Fishstein, the director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU).
“In many ways, in particularly difficult areas the military may be thrust into being involved in activities for which they really don’t have a comparative advantage.”
Civilians should do reconstruction work
Aid workers recommend that reconstruction and development be handed over to civilian professionals.
They want the military to keep out of this domain except in the extremely unstable areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Many NGOs have already withdrawn from these areas.
But even there, the UN Special Representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, thinks a military solution should only be temporary: “I do hope that we will be able to come to a situation when the civilians will take over development and reconstruction work across the country.”
In praise of PRTs
In the meantime, for the US-led coalition, so-called PRTs are the order of the day. In NATO’s own words, these Provincial Reconstruction Teams are a form of “civil-military partnership to facilitate the development of a secure environment and reconstruction.”
"The PRTs do not stop the civilians working,” insisted Mark Laity, NATO Civilian Spokesman in Afghanistan. “They do the work that circumstances won’t allow civilians to do. As soon as those circumstances change there is a strong record of them stepping back and letting the NGOs and civilian agencies come in and do more and more.”
Some observers say, however, that the military reconstruction teams are superfluous in the comparatively stable regions. But the US-led coalition defends its work in all regions of Afghanistan, claiming great progress thanks to the PRTs.
Military presence and reconstruction
Chief of Staff ISAF General Major Hans-Lothar Domröse said: “We’re helping the Afghan government to exercise its power in this huge and beautiful country. There are areas where we can be more robust because we get attacked and other areas where we can, to a certain extent, carry out our reconstruction work without carrying arms or having to wear helmets. Presence and reconstruction are a good combination, I think.”
Fishstein from AREU disagreed, explaining that “if someone’s on the ground they’re there for six months, ten months or twelve months. There is a great pressure to get something done and he or she may not see what has been done before, what government infrastructure exists. In this pressure for short-termism you can actually cut the long-term development processes.”
Critics are stepping up their calls for the US-led coalition to reconsider its role in Afghanistan.