September 3, 2008

Development Cooperation in Helmand: Past Experiences and Future Challenges

The NATO operation should be considered a failure, if no actual progress is made in all areas of life.

The NATO operation should be considered a failure, if no actual progress is made in all areas of life.


Indrek Elling

Development Cooperation in Helmand: Past Experiences and Future Challenges

The NATO operation should be considered a failure, if no actual progress is made in all areas of life.

Military operations in Afghanistan only constitute a means of creating a more stable security environment after decades of war and conflict in order to assist the process of state building in all areas of life and at all levels of society. As it is, the government of Afghanistan cannot cope alone with all its problems. The aid provided in the framework of international humanitarian and development cooperation projects is therefore of critical importance. It is extremely hard to implement development cooperation projects in southern Afghanistan where Estonia, among others, contributes to the management of military and civil affairs. Both sides have embarked on a campaign to win hearts and minds as the Taliban does not intend to let the coalition capitalise on successful projects.
The Taliban might not have the military capability to defeat the coalition forces in open combat, but it is strong enough to prevent the implementation of planned reconstruction and development aid projects. Active opposition has hampered major initiatives, for example the US-funded reconstruction of the Kajaki dam in the northern part of Helmand province. The volatile security situation makes it simply impossible to transport the necessary machinery and equipment through the Sangin valley. The coalition has conducted several military operations to widen the controlled area around the Kajaki dam and to stop the Taliban from impeding the progress of the reconstruction works with mortar fire. So far, the coalition has only had temporary success.
Provincial Reconstruction Teams
Having overthrown the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the USA soon endorsed a new unique concept to optimise the use of existing resources – Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). In essence, a PRT is a small military base, which is usually located away from the main forces and includes various civil agency representatives from contributing countries. The military personnel of a PRT guarantee its physical security and the civilians coordinate different projects in cooperation with local authorities. The main task of a PRT is not to implement reconstruction projects, but rather to create the opportunities for such implementation by consolidating military and civil resources and know-how. The size of PRTs varies: usually, a PRT includes from a few dozen up to a few hundred men and women. After the expansion of the scope of the NATO-led ISAF mission across Afghanistan, command of some PRTs was transferred from the USA to NATO and some new PRTs have been established, for example the Lithuanian PRT in Chaghcharan in the Ghor province.
There are 25 PRTs in Afghanistan at the moment. Every PRT has its own unique organisation and speciality, which depend on the resources and needs of contributing countries and the conditions on the ground. Some of the PRTs serve their purposes better than others. The character of the leader of a PRT plays a major role here. Every leader must be intimately familiar with the local conditions, react flexibly to the constantly changing circumstances and, very importantly, be able to cooperate with the “other side”, i.e. members of the military or civilians, respectively. As the current security situation in Afghanistan is extremely difficult, leaders of most PRTs come from the military. There is only one exception to this rule: the UK PRT in Lashkar Gah led by a British diplomat. Ideally, PRTs should be small, flexible and interdisciplinary units that create synergy in order to generate and implement new ideas in very complex circumstances.
Estonia is one of the contributing countries of the Helmand PRT located in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. Initially, this small US PRT was used to implement some of the first aid projects after the regime change. Back then, Helmand province experienced only some sporadic fighting, while the special forces of the USA and its allies mostly held the initiative. The Taliban avoided direct confrontation with those forces and, in fact, had no-one else to fight. The province primarily constituted a transit area for the Taliban, used for trafficking fighters and weapons between its bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan. When the ISAF mission expanded into southern Afghanistan in the first half of 2006, Great Britain took over command from the United States in the Helmand province, including the Lashkar Gah PRT. As projected, the security situation in Helmand worsened when the British battle group arrived. Figuratively speaking, the Taliban got itself an enemy with whom it could fight. Hence, it became increasingly harder for the PRT to implement the development aid projects.
Southern Afghanistan, including Helmand province, has one of the most complex security environments in the whole world. There are countless ideological, political, social, socio-economical and cultural factors at play. The complicated security situation has a direct impact on the everyday work of the Lashkar Gah PRT. For example, the main base of the British battle group in Helmand – Camp Bastion – is situated in the middle of a barren stone desert and is not therefore readily accessible, while the Lashkar Gah PRT is located on the edge of a town and could be easily hit by small arms fire. Suicide fighters lurking outside pose a real threat to patrols and convoys entering or exiting the base. PRTs have been criticised, especially in the earlier years, for blurring the distinction between the contributions of the military and civilians. However, due to the situation on the ground it is obvious that at the moment there is no chance of implementing a single civil project in Helmand without the support of the military. In fact, the very concept of PRTs was invented in order to unite resources and solve security problems at the same time.
Little America
The various problems and hopes of today’s Helmand date back to the post-World War II era when major US development aid programmes transformed the whole province. After the war, the Americans decided to make an example of southern Afghanistan in order to demonstrate how to use huge infrastructure projects for the modernisation of an underdeveloped country. In 1955, the Soviet Union started to implement its own projects, mainly in northern Afghanistan. This is one of the most exciting aspects of the Cold War: two superpowers of opposing worldviews were competing in a “modernisation race”, using peaceful means in the same country at the same time. Two antagonistic world orders put on a show for Afghanistan and all the post-colonial states, so that they could choose between the two.
The Helmand River, the longest river in Afghanistan and the only one that never dries up, played a pivotal role in the plans of Washington. Rising in the Hindu Kush mountain range not far from Kabul, it is fed by the melting mountain snow and flows across half the length of Afghanistan before crossing the Afghan-Iranian border and emptying into the Sistan swamps in Iran. The area, which the local Pashtun and Baloch tribes call Dasht-e-Margo, the Desert of Death, would not be habitable without the Helmand River and its tributaries.
Afghans still treasure the memory of an extensive irrigation system that existed in Helmand a thousand years ago, but it was destroyed already centuries ago by foreign invaders, Genghis Khan among others. The government of Afghanistan hired German, Japanese and Italian engineers to implement infrastructure projects in the 1930s. The outcome of World War II rendered the continuation of this cooperation impossible. Therefore, the Afghan authorities turned to the Americans. Afghanistan’s reserves had grown by about 100 million dollars, earned from the sales of karakul during the war. In the post-war period, Afghanistan continued to sell karakul to the USA and a stable stream of dollars flowed in.
Using its savings and other income, the Afghan government hired the largest American heavy engineering firm, Morrison Knudsen, builder of the Hoover Dam and soon the NASA space centre at Cape Canaveral, to build a complex of dams on the Helmand River and its main tributary, the Arghandab River. A canal system filled by water reservoirs was to provide water to the cities of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah and the surrounding fields, while hydro plants were to supply them with electricity. Dams, water turbines and a network of canals were to create opportunities for the building of factories and the development of education, industry, agriculture, medicine and other sectors. In addition to its own limited resources, US development aid and cheap loans amounting to tens of millions of dollars poured into southern Afghanistan from 1946 to 1979.
Nick Cullather, Professor of History at Indiana University, has written that in the 1960s Lashkar Gah was occasionally called Little America or the New York of Afghanistan. Lashkar Gah was built by American engineers. It was a modern, planned city of wide boulevards; its 8,000 residents lived in suburban-style tract homes surrounded by broad lawns. It boasted an alabaster mosque (instead of a church), one of the country’s best hospitals – the Bost hospital – and Afghanistan’s only coeducational high school. A freshly paved road led from Lashkar Gah to Kandahar, the most important city in southern Afghanistan.
Despite the fact that several projects yielded only partial results or even failed (mainly due to unpredictable environmental impacts), their positive and negative outcomes are clearly visible in today’s Helmand. The new canal system made it possible to grow crops in previously uninhabited areas of the desert. While time and men have ravaged the canals in Helmand, their water still offers the people a chance to earn their living, even if present circumstances force them to cultivate the opium poppy.
Estonia’s role in Afghanistan
As already mentioned, the central national hospital of Afghanistan – the Bost hospital – is located in Lashkar Gah. The hospital has somehow managed to survive past hard times, but it has been in a miserable state for a long time now: most of the equipment that still works dates back to the middle of the 1960s when Americans built it and fitted it out. As it is the only hospital in Helmand, it serves the entire population of the province – about 1.5 million people. In addition, there are first-aid points in the larger cities of the province, but they often have to get by without a qualified doctor.
Although the Bost hospital is a national healthcare institution, it receives insufficient funds from the state budget. The hospital cannot afford even the most vital items. As Estonia wanted to increase its civilian contribution in addition to its military efforts, we chose to supply the children’s ward of this hospital with essential equipment. According to Dr. Enaytullah Ghafary, the hospital’s chief doctor, an estimated 6,000 children are treated in the children’s ward annually. There are, on average, 20 deliveries a week in this hospital, but one out of four babies dies before its first birthday because of birth traumas or ineffective treatment of postnatal illnesses. Estonia has already donated medical equipment to the ward – not high-tech equipment, the money for which even Estonian hospitals have to raise through Christmas campaigns – but appliances for primary care, for example oxygen separators, oxygen tents for newborn children and very simple incubators or warming cribs.
The support provided to the children’s ward of the Bost hospital is a good example of Estonian inter-institutional cooperation under exceptional circumstances and the successful engagement of the third sector. The necessary arrangements in Afghanistan were made by Estonia’s diplomatic representative, Toomas Kahur, and his successor, Andres Kolk. The requisite equipment was chosen and acquired by the Estonian Red Cross and the delivery was organised by the logistics staff of our defence forces in Helmand. The relations with our partner states, for example Denmark and, more importantly, the UK, which is the “governor” of the Lashkar Gah PRT, are also characterised by a spirit of cooperation. All the partners are trying to reach an agreement on the areas, which should fall under their control and which would best correspond to their opportunities and needs.
As already mentioned, the USA is busy with the establishment and renovation of large infrastructure facilities in southern Afghanistan, the main priority of the UK is developing the administrative capacity of Helmand province, while Denmark has decided to concentrate the efforts of its staff at the Lashkar Gah PRT on the promotion of the educational system. Rumours have been circulating that Estonia might increase its contribution by dispatching a medical expert to the PRT who would manage the development of medical care in the whole province. The only obstacle here is finances. The maintenance costs of one expert at the PRT would be very high due to the complicated security situation. If Estonia were to send a medical expert to the Lashkar Gah PRT, it would cost about 4 million kroons annually. This equals Estonia’s total contribution to development cooperation projects in Afghanistan in 2008.
Although the funds allocated from Estonia’s state budget for development cooperation increase year by year, these allocations fail to fulfil our needs on a global scale. Therefore it would be wiser, at least for the time being, to pursue projects in Afghanistan with lower administrative costs. It is important that the development cooperation projects Estonia and other countries undertake have a real impact on Afghan society and the provision of medical equipment to hospitals indeed has this. After all, the NATO operation should be considered a failure, if no actual progress is made in all areas of life. It is not enough to oust the Taliban from one region or another; we ought to create the necessary preconditions for long-term functioning of the state. It follows that international military forces cannot leave Afghanistan before the establishment of the preconditions for sustainable development.
It is often the military and civilian personnel working in Afghanistan who have more faith than those in faraway capitals, where issues connected with military operations and development aid are inevitably de-personalised and intertwined with politics and political rhetoric. The sums earmarked for development aid might be turned into mere numbers in project reports, but most of the soldiers, diplomats and civilian experts clearly want their work to have actual results on the ground; to give some meaning to the whole undertaking.

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