September 23, 2009

The Real Problem in Afghanistan

It’s not that the Taliban are winning, it’s that the government is losing, says an international aid expert

By Taylor McNeil

The war in Afghanistan is in the news almost every day, and it’s hard to escape the images of villagers caught in the middle of the conflict. With a growing Taliban insurgency centered in the south and southeast, the violence continues to escalate.

Click on the play button to see a slide show of photos from Afghanistan by Andrew Wilder and Dawn Stallard.

It’s a situation Andrew Wilder, F89, F96, knows all too well. A research director for the Feinstein International Center since early 2007, he managed humanitarian aid and development programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan for 10 years while working for Mercy Corps, the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children. From 2002 to 2005, he established and served as the first director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), Afghanistan’s leading independent policy research organization.

Now he’s heading a study examining how humanitarian aid is affecting efforts to stabilize the war-torn country. Funded by AREU and the governments of Australia, Norway and Sweden, the study has taken him back to Afghanistan four times in the past year to interview Afghans and internationals of all stripes: government leaders, military personnel, tribal elders and villagers.

His initial findings might not fit easily with preconceived notions about the role of aid in countries in conflict. Wilder believes that too much aid, especially in the insecure regions of Afghanistan, is leading to more instability. Money is siphoned off by corrupt government officials, which fuels anti-government sentiment in the people who are supposed to benefit from that aid. On the other hand, regions that are relatively stable receive much less aid than unstable areas—and that’s a mistake, too, according to Wilder, because people feel like they are being penalized for maintaining security. Aid programs, he concludes, need to focus on humanitarian and developmental needs instead of security goals.

Wilder has brought his policy recommendations to the highest levels in Washington. His efforts have included a meeting with Richard Holbrooke, H97, the State Department’s special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan. “I want very much for the research findings to be heard in policy circles,” Wilder says.

Born and raised in Pakistan, Wilder came to the United States to attend college. He later received an M.A. in law and diplomacy and a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School; his doctoral thesis was on Pakistani politics. His roots in the region stretch back even further than his upbringing: his grandparents were missionary doctors in India for 40 years.

Tufts Journal: Can humanitarian aid be used as a tool for stabilization and security in Afghanistan?

Security is the number-one desire of Afghans and the international community. If aid programs indeed have a significant security benefit, then I think there would be some justification for programming some of our development aid to try to achieve those benefits. But as far as I can see, there’s very little evidence that poverty, or the lack of infrastructure and health care in Afghanistan, are major causes of the conflict. All those things are important, but that’s not what’s driving the conflict.

We operate under the assumption that spending more aid money in the insecure areas improves security. But we don’t have evidence that it’s actually achieving these security objectives. That’s why I’m urging some caution, since our research is showing not only is aid not stabilizing, it can also be destabilizing.

How would aid be destabilizing?

The more money we try to spend in this environment, which has very limited human resources and institutional capacity, inevitably money overflows into the pockets of corrupt officials. Our aid programs are actually fueling the corruption, which is de-legitimizing the government, which is fueling instability.

But can humanitarian aid play a useful role in Afghanistan?

Humanitarian aid plays a very important role in Afghanistan, but I think it’s important that humanitarian aid be provided on an impartial basis, based on needs—and the needs in Afghanistan are tremendous. I think we do have lots of evidence that aid can be effective in addressing humanitarian and development needs. But there isn’t evidence that it is effective in addressing security needs.

What do Afghans view as the cause of the conflict?

I just got back from Afghanistan in July, and spent some time in one of the southern provinces, Urozgan, which is quite badly affected by the insurgency. I was interviewing Afghans on their perceptions of insecurity and of aid. It was interesting the number of people who thought that what was fueling insecurity was not the Taliban, but their own corrupt and ineffective government.

I think this is one of the real problems in Afghanistan. It’s not necessarily that the Taliban are winning, it’s that the government is losing. It’s the government that we help support and that we are closely affiliated with that is viewed as corrupt and predatory by many Afghans. In some areas, that is leading some Afghans to start reminiscing and say, “When the Taliban were in charge there were problems. But we didn’t have these warlords, and we had some form of justice. And the police then weren’t ripping us off.”

How did we get into this mess?

Certainly early on serious mistakes were made. A few weeks after 9/11, we invaded Afghanistan with U.N. Security Council support and defeated the Taliban. But our objectives then were pretty narrowly focused on defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida and on the war on terror. There wasn’t much of a strategy beyond that.

As a quick-fix solution, we basically re-armed all the warlords who were willing to fight the Taliban. But they were the very ones who gave birth to the Taliban in the first place, since people were so fed up with the warlords. Most Afghans held them accountable for most of the instability of the previous 20 years. So very quickly we brought back to power some of the most unpopular and discredited individuals from the past, and they became the backbone of this new government that many Afghans see as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

What is the solution?

If we’re ever going to have any success in Afghanistan, it’s going to be due to some kind of political reconciliation. And that’s where our dilemma lies. We have a government now that should be doing the political piece, but I’m not convinced that they feel it’s in their interest to do that, because they are doing pretty well. Maintaining the status quo is, I think, in the interest of a lot of the key people we’re relying on to push the political process forward.

In other words, if you’re a politician in Kabul and all this money is coming in—and some falls into your pocket—what’s the incentive to change?

This is one reason why I’m in the less-is-more camp in Afghanistan. Some of our aid—it also includes a lot of security contracting and aid contracting—is needed, but we should be sure that what we do can be monitored and is effective and accountable and is not fueling corruption.

How does aid money work against our interests?

For example, we’re now spending hundreds of millions of dollars on road building. Roads are important. But there is mounting evidence that to build a road in an insecure area, you have to give money to the Taliban not to shoot your workers. So our aid money is actually ending up in Taliban coffers.

These deals are being made, and that’s where I would argue that we need to limit the amount of aid that goes to Afghanistan and focus more on the critical aspects: better governance and fighting corruption. We’re not going to get 100 percent here. But I think we need to give the Afghan public some perception that the government is moving in the right direction rather than continuing to move in the wrong direction.

When we hear about the Taliban, they seem to be a monolithic force. Are they really?

There are Taliban, and there are Taliban. There are some Talibs who are ideologically very committed; they need to fight this jihad. There are some who find it convenient to call themselves Taliban to intimidate other people. There are criminal Taliban, who use it as a guise to be highway bandits. There are tribal disputes where one group gets patronized by the government or the international community, so rival tribes—to maintain their power—have to align themselves with the Taliban. So you have people who are falling under the label of Taliban for many different reasons.

This is where we need much more nuanced political analysis, and I think that’s where the local knowledge and working and deal making at the local level are critically important. Because today’s Talib is tomorrow’s ally, and the next day’s Talib again. It’s a very fluid political situation.

Does the widespread poverty in Afghanistan fuel the conflict?

If anything, it’s the attempts to develop and modernize that fuel insecurity. I’m not saying we shouldn’t develop and modernize, but we shouldn’t assume that it’s stabilizing.

You could argue that in Afghanistan being extremely poor is a stable state, and being developed is a stable state. But the process in between, as new social groups emerge and there are perceived winners and losers in the economic development process, that’s not stable.

I’m very curious why there is this very strong perception in counterinsurgency circles that it’s the poor people who are fueling radicalization. If you look at the 1970s in Afghanistan, it was the rapid social change with the emergence of Kabul University that led to the emergence of extreme Islamic groups and the communist parties, which basically fueled a lot of the last three decades of conflict. And that was due to modernization, not poverty.

It seems that the U.S. and the international community would like to go in and clean up the Afghan government—from politicians to police—since the Afghans in power are not doing that.

That’s a real danger. And it’s one of the reasons why I’m opposed to what’s being called “the civilian surge,” which is to send more U.S. civilians in to work on reconstruction teams. One concern is that the more we end up doing, the more difficult it’s going to be to come up with an exit strategy. But more importantly, we can support reform efforts but we can’t lead them—they have to be Afghan led and Afghan owned if they’re going to work. That’s why I think until there is a government that is interested in reducing corruption and trying to govern more effectively, much of our aid money will simply continue to fuel corruption.

Isn’t it true, too, that these civilians could be easily manipulated by the locals?

That is absolutely the case, and it’s why I’m quite skeptical about sending Westerners to mentor the Afghans on how to do policing or good governance. When I see some retired cop from Bavaria or Nevada come out, and they are going to mentor some wily Afghan chief of police at a provincial headquarters—I think, who is mentoring whom? These guys are not where they are for nothing. They know how to run the drug networks; they know who’s who. I sometimes think we’re quite naïve.

There is a really strong sense of hospitality in Afghanistan, but that hospitality can also be used very strategically. I’ve often seen, and myself been victim to, falling in that web of hospitality and being played very skillfully as a result.

How can we measure success—or failure—in Afghanistan?

Having spent almost all my professional life working on Afghanistan, I don’t think it’s a country we should walk away from. But I’m skeptical that our current definitions of success are going to be achievable. I think we need to be more realistic in terms of what is achievable in the Afghan context. Our goals should probably be a lot less ambitious. What we end up achieving will probably not be viewed as “a success” by many people – Afghan or international. But I’m still hopeful that if we try to focus on doing a few things well, and recognize that there are no quick-fix solutions, we can avoid a repeat of the disastrous consequences of our prematurely walking away from Afghanistan nearly two decades ago.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at

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