Tag Archives: Events

Event: Koran Burning and Civilian Casualties: Has the Endgame Changed in Afghanistan?

Join us next Tuesday in WLH (100 Wall St) for a fascinating discussion on current situation in Afghanistan and lessons to be learned!


Andrew Wilder: Winning Hearts and Minds?

Andrew Wilder, Research Director at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University in Boston, spoke March 30 at Yale. Wilder has been a leading critic of development aid deployed as a tool of counterinsurgency.

Andrew Wilder was born in Pakistan and has spent more than 35 years living, studying and working in Pakistan and Afghanistan.From January 2002 through April 2005, Wilder established and served as the first Director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, Afghanistan’s leading independent policy research institution. Between 1986 and 2001 he worked for several different international NGOs managing humanitarian and development programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including as the Pakistan/Afghanistan Director of Save the Children (US) from 1996 to 2001. His recent publications include an analysis of police reform efforts in Afghanistan and a study on perceptions of the Pakistan earthquake response. He has an interesting Boston Globe op-ed here: “A Weapons System Based on Wishful Thinking” For the past year he has been leading a two-year study on the assumed relationship between foreign aid and stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa.


Wilder began by explaining the assumption that increased development aid leads to stabilization. This has become a centerpiece of American counter-insurgency strategy. “Where the road ends, the Taliban begins,” said General Eikenberry in 2005, and Vice President Biden declared in 2008: “How do you spell hope in Pashto and Dari? A-S-P-H-A-L-T.” Development actors have also embraced the idea that poverty breeds radicalism. Since 9/11 the money for development has grown dramatically, and much of those funds has been directed to peace building activities. At the same time, the role of the military and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) has become dominant in aid work.The logic for these developments is that poverty causes conflict, therefore reconstruction assistance will lead to economic development, and then stability. Also assumed is “aid wins hearts and minds” and that more government presence means more stability.

However, this reasoning ignores much that has been learned about the potential for negative outcomes of aid. Projects frequently generate grievances, losers as well as winners. Modernization in Afghanistan has often had destabilizing effects, in the 20s under King Amanullah, and during the American/Soviet competition over infrastructure projects in the 70s. The Army Counter-Insurgency Manual calls aid a weapons system. Doesn’t it make sense, Wilder argued, for a weapons system to be tested before we assume it works?

Wilder stressed that development is certainly worthwhile for its own sake, and has had some success for health, education, infrastructure etc. The point he wished to make was that development does not correlate with security, and is not a useful tool in counter-insurgency.

What Afghans Think

Wilder presented research to back up this claim. In interviews with Afghans in five provinces (Helmand, Paktia, Orozgan, Farah, and Balkh) he asked three questions: What are the drivers of instability, what do you think about development actors, and does development help with insecurity?

The government’s role in insecurity was by far the biggest concern.

The most common causes were:
1. bad government, corruption, predatory police
2. disrespect for culture/religion among the foreign forces
3. neighboring counties
4. unemployment
5. ethnic/tribal disputes

Perceptions of aid actors were mostly negative, with little distinction between NGOs, the military, and government ministries. The common complaints were unmet expectations and broken promises, unfair distributions, corruption, inappropriate or shoddy projects, and lack of consultation. For example, building a road angered those who it bypassed, while the haste and lack of oversight in the construction might mean that it is already crumbling, while the PRT that built it has already transfered out of the country.

The only development project with a positive reputation was the National Solidarity Program (NSP), which gave 70% of villages a choice of the small project that they wanted. People liked the equality and local involvement. This shows that the process of development is at least as important as the outcome.

Aid not only doesn’t lead to stability, it actually can be destabilizing. It can create conflicts between perceived winners and losers. Above all, the corruption involved in aid projects destroys much of their benefit. There has been a mafiazation of the construction business. In order to do a project in a violent area, the contractor must pay the Taliban or a local militia to provide security. Wilder cited a recent article in The Nation which estimated that Western money is the number 2 source of funding for the Taliban, and as much as 10% of development money ends up in Taliban coffers.

Wilder also pointed out that part of the reason development is seen as so important is that it is good for our hearts and minds. It is good for troop morale, and is the major justification for European involvement in Afghanistan. This pressure to be doing something leads to measuring projects by dollars spent, rather than by the effects of that money. The securitization of development has other long term risks, including a possible backlash against development work when it is realized that it didn’t bring peace. We should have a ten or fifteen year commitment to gradual development, not the current frantic push.

What to Do

Wilder’s recommendation was to spend as much money on development objectives as can be accounted for, and no more; to value quality over quantity. We have to look at our capacity in an area, as well as its need, or else get further into a vicious cycle of funding insecurity by throwing money at the places with the least ability to spend it well. This requires a return to the “First, do no harm” principles of development.

We have to recognize that political legitimacy in Afghanistan hasn’t historically been based on providing services, but on protection and justice. One way to help improve the government is to focus on the appointments mechanisms. Good individuals can change the face of a ministry. In fact, in the cases when a development project was viewed favorably, the credit was usually given to the individual in charge.

It is also important to realize that the Afghan government has become as much the problem as the solution, and that their interests do not always match ours. There are segments of the government who benefit from the status quo. The current efforts to bring a “government in a box” to districts like Marja are setting ourselves up to fail. It is unrealistic to think that good government will be easy in the provinces when it has failed in Kabul, and people fear the coming of the police more than the coming of the Taliban. The biggest problem we face in Afghanistan, in the end, isn’t military or development strategy, but our lack of a political strategy for Kabul.

The Yale Afghan Forum thanks Professor Wilder, the Gattis Smith Lecture Series, The Council on South Asian Studies, and everyone who attended the talk.

The Taliban as a Social Movement

On December 8, the Yale Afghanistan Forum sponsored a panel entitled, “The Taliban as a Social Movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. Speakers were Mariam Abou-Zahab, of Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERI) at Sciences Po, and Alexander Evans, UK Foreign Office and 2009 Yale World Fellow. Professor Alessandro Monsutti moderated the panel.

The Taliban arose in the Pashtun areas along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although some people believe that the traditional Pashtun tribal structure is intact in this area, and that the Taliban are a temporary aberration, Abou-Zahab and Evans argued that the Taliban represent a transformative social movement.This has implications for those who wish to see the Taliban defeated. The conflict cannot be viewed simply as an insurgency. It is more like a civil war, in which battles are often the continuation of local struggles. Taliban fighters are not mercenaries. They view themselves as a movement for justice, delivering the security and order that the government does not. The Taliban seek to change the existing society, and therefore cannot be appealed to through hierarchical political structures.

Abou-Zahab said that Pashtuns are not homogenous or classless. Rather, they can be divided into four groups:

1. The traditional leaders, who have been discredited by corruption, are seen as bought off by the government.
2. The new rich: merchants and smugglers with transnational ties, who finance the Taliban.
3. The educated class: non-tribal and integrated into the wider society
4. The common people: peasants, the landless and young people who feel alienated from the existing society.

In Swat, poor people often migrate to Karachi or the Gulf states, and come back with money, which increases long-standing land disputes. The war in Afghanistan provides another opportunity for advancement, and honor within a religious context. Often the mullahs are the only element of the traditional leadership that maintains any credibility and, with democracy, poor people often voted them into power. Now they have access to patronage networks, and are here to stay. As conflict continues, there are more and more displaced people. A whole generation has faced extreme violence and is being urbanized by force (for example, Kabul’s population has quadrupled since 1978). These people are easy recruits for the Taliban.

Alexander Evans discussed the Pakistani government’s response. In the tribal areas in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the government is weak, and when it is present, it is usually in negative ways. Since the days when British “political agents” distributed money to the tribes, tribal leaders have been seen as agents of the government, rather than representatives of the people. The recent violence in Swat has had a greater impact on the Pakistani public and government than earlier border troubles. In Evan’s metaphor, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are like the Appalachian mountains, while Swat, where people have their summer homes, is like Long Island, The government is now realizing the border problem cannot simply be ignored or contained.

Evans described how the lack of a justice system helps the Taliban and other militants. To settle a land dispute, the civil court may take five years, is likely to be corrupt, and its decision will be unenforceable. The tribal jirga is seen as equally corrupt and ineffective. The decision of the local militia leader, however, while it may not go in your favor, will at least be prompt and enforceable. The popular culture also plays a role in the attraction of the Taliban. Fighters can become heroes: it is a path to celebrity in a society with low social mobility. Even the army now propagates stories of martyrdom. In the tribal areas, radio is the primary contact with the outside world, and one pirate radio operator, Mailana Fazlula, has a following among women. He speaks about throwing Americans out of Afghanistan, but also about Islam teaching husbands to treat their wives better, and his female listeners give him their jewelry to finance jihad.

Evans described how what are called the Taliban are really four separate movements.

1. The cross-border insurgency, with action in Afghanistan and leaders in
Pakistan, and support on both sides.
2. Local (non-Taliban) militants in Pakistan, who range from terrorists to
crime bosses.
3. Local (non-Taliban) Afghan militants, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani.
4. The international terrorists, who pose the greatest threat to the outside world, but are often married to local families, and hard to separate from those kinship ties.

Evans mentioned that when he has interviewed people from the tribal areas, they overwhelmingly told him that what they want is development, education and economic opportunities. Both Evans and Abou-Zahab agreed that, while the present generation may be lost, any hope for the future lies with the children.

Many thanks to Mariam Abou-Zahab, Alexander Evans, Alessandro Monsutti, the Gattis Smith Lecture Series, the South Asian Studies Council, the Muslim Students Association, and everyone who attended the event.

Human Rights and Afghanistan

On Tuesday, 10/27, Habib Rahiab joined us as the first outside guest in YAF’s fall speaker series. Mr. Rahiab is a human rights activist who was forced to flee Afghanistan because of his work documenting human rights abuses and advocating that Afghan warlords implicated in past war crimes be brought to justice. He led Human Rights Watch projects to interview victims and prepare reports drawing attention to these issues (his report “Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing For Us To Do” is here), and he now works with the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven.

Mr, Rahiab spoke about his personal struggles growing up in Afghanistan, witnessing the atrocities committed by the Communist regime, the mujahideen and the Taliban, and how these experiences influenced him to become a human rights activist.

After the fall of the Taliban, some of his early work involved gathering testimony from Afghan and Pakistani ex-detainees from Guantanamo, Bagram and black-site prisons. He described the terrible psychological state of these men, and his disbelief upon first hearing stories of sexual abuse.

Peace Before Justice?

Mr. Rahiab described how the international coalition’s choice to have a “light footprint” in Afghanistan influenced the developments of the last eight years. The overall presence was small, compared to post-conflict situations such as Bosnia and East Timor, and responsibilities were divided among many nations. The decision was made to focus on peace rather than justice, overlooking past atrocities in the interests of security and a quick withdrawal.

Along with the failure to build state institutions came the failure to create economic development. Mr Rahiab recounted how, when expectations were high, Iranians joked that they would have to migrate to Afghanistan for jobs, instead of the other way around. However, people now find it easier to make a living by joining the Taliban. The insurgency can promise money in this life, and heaven in the next, while the government can promise neither.

On Security Forces:

Asked whether he was concerned about abuses in the Afghan security forces, he said that, while corruption and incapacity are widespread, there is respect for the official forces, and that they do not pose the human rights issues that private militias do.

The use of private security by international groups is also a serious problem. It undermines structures of accountability and creates inequality in protection. It is fundamentally unjust when private contractors turn a blind eye to robberies taking place around them because only foreigners can pay to guard their property.

On the Current Decisions to Be Made:

Mr. Rabiab supports holding the run-off election. The election is important not for Karzai’s legitimacy, but the legitimacy of the democratic project. Something must be done to restore faith in elections as a system after the fraudulent first round of voting.

His suggestion for today is to focus the most money on the provinces that are stable enough for it to do some good. If Kabul were a model of order and prosperity, it would demonstrate an incentive to stop fighting the government. As it is, people in the north and center of the country feel like they should set off bombs in order to get attention and development.

On the Shia Family Law

The question period ended with a discussion of the Shia family law, which came under fire last year for legalizing marital rape. According to Mr. Rabiab, the law must be seen in the context of the political maneuvering surrounding the election. It was drafted by the most conservative clerics, and is not representative of the actual lived rights of Shia women. However, it enjoys broad support because for the first time the law establishes Shia as an official religion. Hazara generally defend the government because they have the most to gain from the new system.

Our deep thanks to Mr. Rahiab, and to everyone who attended.

Andrew Bacevich at Labyrinth

Andrew Bacevich, the author of The Limits of American Power, will be speaking at Labyrinth Books on Tuesday at 5:30. Bacevich, a professor of International Relations at Boston University, is a Vietnam Veteran who rose to the rank of colonel in the army. Bacevich’s son was killed in Iraq in 2007.

Bacevich is kind of a traditionalist-realist conservative; he famously made the conservative case for Obama in an article in The American Conservative in early 2008.

Bacevich testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week. The Globe says:

Bacevich said there are better ways to protect the United States against terrorist attacks than to invade and occupy countries, such as treating them as a global criminal network. But he did not propose an immediate, complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, but said providing incentives for tribes to keep Al Qaeda out of their area might prove a more successful outcome than nation-building.

In this Newsweek column from last year, Bacevich hits some of the same notes: he talks about a “political solution” for Afghanistan, one that would involve providing “incentives” for warlords to help us keep their domains terrorist-free.

Interestingly, while Bacevich apparently buys into the growing consensus that Afghanistan’s primary significance is in its relationship to the Pakistan problem, he reads the dynamic differently than most. While many argue that we need to maintain a presence in Afghanistan with an eye toward Pakistan, Bacevich worries that we’re essentially chasing insurgents across the border where they’ll do much graver harm.