NATO draws flak for fighting insecurity with aid

Abdul Hadi, a tailor, is ambivalent: “Yes the bazaar is better now than it was before because the Marines are here to provide security. Before it was the Taliban who controlled security - things were secure then but the Taliban used to threaten to chop off people’s hands if they were found stealing. But people here are happy whoever brings security - either the Taliban or Marines. As long as business can be done."

Hadi’s store is in a part of Helmand province that until recently was the scene of fierce fighting between Taliban and US troops. "When the Americans first came there was a lot of fighting around here between them and the Taliban and we had to close our shop for one week because of it. But after the fighting we re-opened again."

As part of a strategy to win local support for their military operations in the area and ensure greater protection for their foot patrols, US marines have spent US$130,000 rehabilitating the bazaar, putting in shop doors and windows, new drainage schemes, as well as a planned new road to run through it.

For Hadi, all of this is a bonus and although it might not matter to him who provides security or financial support, the idea that the military are increasingly involved in aid distribution across Helmand province is of major concern for many NGOs and aid agencies.

As the security situation in Helmand deteriorates, the region is rapidly becoming too dangerous for aid organizations and UN agencies. Increasingly, development work is being carried out by international troops - with mixed results.

For aid agencies blurring the lines between war and assistance is worrying. Several agencies, including Oxfam, Care and Afghanaid published a report in January pointing out that this year, $1 billion would be spent on aid by the military, more than the government's budget for health, education and agriculture combined. They say many projects are quick fixes with no lasting effect and found many examples where the aid given was culturally inappropriate or ineffective.

Root of instability

The Helmand town of Mian Poshteh is desperately poor and has no local school. Poppy production is still the major source of income for most families, many of whom support the Taliban.

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Marine Captain Scott Cuomo is commanding officer for both Mian Poshteh and Lakari Bazaar, an area not much bigger than 15 sqkm. He insists the hearts and minds strategy - outlined in the US Army's Commander's Guide to Money as a Weapons System -benefits both the local population and his military mission.

"The first Shura [tribal council] that was held back in October 2009 saw only three elders coming. Now at every Shura there are at least 15 to 20 elders who attend. We are currently negotiating with the elders to build a school and health clinic in Mian Poshteh.”

He says there have also been positive strategic knock-on effects. “The bazaar was a renowned centre for both opium and weapons: Lakari was seen as a major block to establishing long-term security in the whole district because it is a key hub and because the Taliban were using it as a weapon and opium transit point. Since the arrival of the Marines and improved Afghan army presence, everything that is now being sold in Lakari Bazaar is legitimate.”

Aside from supporting the bazaar, Marines have established a medical clinic at their base, which has so far treated nearly 2,000 patients from the surrounding area. This is the only medical facility in the district.

Allowing locals to access such key services and building trust with the local aid projects is a key part of US counter-insurgency (COIN) tactics. USAID-funded civilian advisers have also been brought in to work alongside troops in encouraging locals to grow alternatives to poppies. For the Marines, tackling poverty, seen as an underlying cause of the insurgency, makes perfect sense. Locals, happy with financial aid, are more likely to support their operations and less likely to attack them, so the theory goes.

But according to research by the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, it is corruption and the ineffectiveness of the government rather than poverty that is at the root of Afghanistan's current insecurity. "A COIN strategy premised on using aid to win the population over to such a negatively perceived government faces an uphill struggle, especially in a competitive environment where the Taliban are perceived by many to be more effective in addressing the people’s highest priority needs of security and access to justice."

In the report of a conference discussing the COIN strategy in March 2010, researchers argued that ill-conceived, poorly implemented aid projects with weak oversight has done more harm than good for the international coalition in Afghanistan.

"There is a need for much greater awareness regarding the destabilizing effects of aid in terms of creating perceived winners and losers, promoting a destructive war/aid economy, and fuelling corruption," the report noted. "Donors should avoid setting development aid up to fail by expecting it to deliver on unrealistically ambitious stabilisation objectives for which it is not well-suited."