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John Wendle

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Extreme Tourism: Couch Surfing Arrives in Afghanistan

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By John Wendle / Kabul

The patio of the one-floor ranch house was packed. Smoke drifted from the grill and everyone seemed to have a red Solo cup in his or her hand. Were it not for the babel of languages and high walls topped with barbwire, it could have been a weekend BBQ anywhere in the world. But this was Kabul, and the voices were those of aid workers, security contractors and journalists. They only died down when one of the guests began talking about hitchhiking to Khost.

A heated debate erupted between the Dutch tourist who uttered the remark and an aid worker who basically called the traveler crazy. With a mix of anger and shock in his voice, the aid worker tried to explain that Khost — in the heartland of the dreaded Haqqani network, the group that carried out the recent wave of coordinated attacks in Kabul — is a war zone and not somewhere to wander around with no plan. “They’ll shoot you,” he said. To which the Dutch traveler replied, “Why would [the Taliban] waste a bullet on me?”

The Dutchman had gone to Afghanistan through couchsurfing.org, social media’s answer to corporate travel sites. If you do not see yourself as a tourist, want to live like a local for a while or simply do not have the cash for a hotel, then couch surfing is the way to go. The website puts a face on a place by allowing travelers and hosts to set up profiles and swap messages about travel arrangements. Visiting Moscow and looking to meet up with a local for a cappuccino and a chat? Hitting up Rio for Mardi Gras and need a free place to crash? These are the normal exchanges — and they usually result in staying at a person’s house. But when it comes to couch surfing in Afghanistan, “usual” is out the window.

The question is: Who would want to live like a local when local is Afghanistan? Of the more than 4 million “couch surfers” on the site representing 251 countries and territories and 366 languages, the answer is, at the moment, around 381. That is the number of people who are members of the Afghanistan group on the Couch Surfing site. As the website continues to grow, it has expanded into stranger and stranger travel destinations: Afghanistan has become one of these, representing what could be described as extreme couch surfing, with tourists with no experience of combat zones staying with hosts whose profiles are as likely to feature “armed guards” or “razor wire” (apart from the more usual caveats of “no dogs” or “foldout couch”).

Of those 381, few will actually make it — for good reason. “I’m on the Afghanistan couch-surfing forum because I was thinking of going to Afghanistan this summer, but due to recent events, it doesn’t seem like a good idea for a solo white woman to go now,” says Elisabet Sole, a Spanish member. But some still go — drawn by the beauty of the Hindu Kush mountains, the destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan, natural wonders like the Band-e Amir lakes and the remote Wakhan Corridor. Others are drawn by quasi-philosophical cravings, want to find the truth behind the news, are attracted to the danger or simply want to prove their own courage.

Still, couch surfing in Afghanistan cannot be considered a 2.0 version of the hippie trail of the 1960s and ’70s. Today, fighting has dragged much of the country’s population to the depths of poverty and despair. A U.N. report released in February said that 3,021 civilians were killed in 2011, representing an 8% increase from ’10. This is the fifth consecutive year that the number of deaths has increased. The country is routinely ranked as one of the most dangerous in the world for violent death. The past months have not been kind: a bombing in December left scores dead at a religious ceremony in central Kabul, and the burning of Korans and the massacre of civilians in Kandahar has strained relations between Westerners and locals to the breaking point.

(MORE: Three Days in Afghanistan: The Making of a War Reporter)

Years ago, the first time this correspondent looked at the Afghanistan Lonely Planet guide’s “When to Go” section, the advice was blunt: “Never.” Today, that’s changed little. The latest edition’s section on “Getting In” to Afghanistan from Pakistan advises: “Before leaving Peshawar you must go to the Khyber Political Agent [Stadium Road] to collect your gunman. Without him you’ll be turned back at the first checkpoint. There’s plenty to see as you drive through the Khyber.” Though a tourist brochure that featured words like firefight, land mine, bad roads, poverty, kidnapping and insurgency would deter your average traveler, the couch surfers who do make it are not your average travelers. They are the ones that have Libya, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Syria, North Korea and Colombia listed as places they want to go to next on their Couch Surfing profile pages.

“My first day in Kabul was September 13 [of 2011]. I was walking past Massoud Circle, around the corner and east of the U.S. embassy, when an Afghan man came up to me and said something that sounded urgent, but that I didn’t understand,” says a couch surfer from Alaska, who did not want to give his name because he did not want his family to know he had gone to Afghanistan. “Moments later I heard a small blast, followed by a huge explosion and then automatic gunfire as militants began an attack on the embassy and other targets in Wazir [Akbar Khan, a heavily fortified neighborhood of Western embassies and NATO bases]. I had to run for cover. If I had walked a few minutes more in the direction I was going, I would have been in a world of trouble,” he tells TIME. “I was petrified, mostly about the idea of abduction. After getting caught up in the attack in Kabul, in what was supposed to be one of the most secure areas of the country, I worried more about getting injured or killed.” But, he adds, “Kabul was Kabul — how could a tourist not be fascinated by the real thing? It’s like the anti-Paris of tourism.”

(MORE: Inside the Kabul Firefight: Can Afghanistan Take On the Taliban Alone?)

Most, however, have more prosaic experiences. “I wanted to talk to people and hang out with them, get a sense of what it’s like to be an Afghan,” Tashi Bucinel, a European couch surfer, tells TIME. “I was scared the first couple of days. I wasn’t sure what to expect and I didn’t know how trustworthy the people are, so I was very apprehensive.” On her first morning in Kabul, she decided to walk to meet the Dutch couch surfer. “When I was walking down the street, I was looking at the people around me and my heart was beating fast. I thought of the warnings I’d heard before like, ‘Don’t walk, take a taxi’ or ‘You never know who is a potential suicide bomber,’ and regretted not taking a taxi. I saw every bearded man in a shalwar kameez [men's traditional clothing] as a suicide attacker and was just waiting to hear a bomb blast somewhere. I was so scared!”

After a few days, she wrote in an e-mail to TIME, she began to relax. “I was still apprehensive, but less scared than the first day. I realized how friendly the locals are and that they are actually very honest and trustworthy people. After a few days I lost my initial fear and felt like I was in any normal city in Central Asia.” In the end, she says there was not much to do in Kabul — partially a result of more than three decades of war — and she ended up visiting a few tourist sites nearby and hanging out with some foreign workers. “Kabul is generally pretty boring. There’s not much to do. I was lucky to have met wonderful people, whom I had a lot of fun with. We spent many fun afternoons and evenings together, but if it wasn’t for them, I’d be pretty bored I guess.”

Still, Bucinel’s experience “outside the wire” — as NATO soldiers call leaving a secured compound — is more interaction with Afghanistan and its people than most foreign government employees, soldiers and many aid workers will ever have. Most will remain hidden and safe behind their blast walls and barbwire during their time in Afghanistan, impeding their ability to understand life in the country and to effectively aid its development. At the same time, it is hard to say what the benefit of Bucinel’s experience is: since she is not in Afghanistan to work, is she simply a goodwill ambassador?

Indeed, when an Indian couch surfer wrote on the Afghanistan Couch Surfing forum that “I want to come to Afghanistan and I want to see the war-affected areas. Which areas should I visit and what is the perfect time to come?” a storm of incredulous replies shouted him down, including one surfer who wrote, “I can’t believe what I am reading … traveling to war affected areas??? Do you think it’s funny? Do you want to prove how brave you are? I think it’s very disrespectful toward people who suffer under such conditions! Shame on you!”

Couch surfers will have to begin questioning the wisdom of visiting Afghanistan as security worsens in parallel to the drawdown of U.S. and NATO troops that will be completed in 2014. But, for now, many will continue coming to pursue their own particular brand of tourism. “I guess the principle of couch surfing is the same wherever you go. It has to do with trust, and trust always, and everywhere, contains risk,” says an Austrian hostess who spoke on condition of anonymity because her organization did not give her permission to speak. “And, if we finally give up on trust, then conflict, war and distrust have already won.”

This story originally appeared in TIME at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2113634,00.html?xid=fblike

Written by johnwendle

May 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm

A New U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership: Should the Taliban Be Afraid?

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After many months of wrangling and negotiations between Washington and Kabul, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta initialed the draft of a strategic partnership agreement that promises American support for Afghanistan for 10 years following the planned 2014 withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. However, like many recent agreements between the two countries, observers agree that although the document is being widely heralded, it will have little real impact and will remain a tool in a political shadow play.

“Our goal is an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates,” U.S. Embassy spokesman Gavin Sundwall told TIME. “We believe this agreement supports that goal.” He added that, “Both President Barack Obama and [Afghan] President Hamid Karzai have expressed their desire to have an agreement ready to sign before the NATO summit in Chicago [which begins May 15].” Sundwall tells TIME that the document will undergo an interagency review, a consultation with Congress as appropriate and a final review by the president. “Once these internal processes are complete, we expect to be in a position to sign the agreement,” Sundwall says, though he could not comment on details of the agreement.

Because of the lack of details or teeth, observers say the draft has little substance. “It’s an ineffectual PR move. They’re trying to have it both ways — to have their cake and eat it too,” a foreign observer says. “There seems to be some great optimism that this will convince other countries to pony up the money and take on more of the financial burden from the U.S. [to support the Afghan government and military]. But other countries will not be keen to whip out their checkbooks when the U.S. doesn’t talk about exact financial commitments.”

A U.S. official tells TIME that the signing “locks in” the text for now, but “the final text is pending the internal review processes of both countries.” The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the deal “will provide the general framework governing our bilateral relationship with the government and people of Afghanistan going forward.” He added that, “once agreed, specifics that go beyond the scope of the framework will need to be discussed and addressed in future memorandum of understanding, agreements or other arrangements as appropriate.”

Even with no specifics, Afghan National Security Adviser Spanta announced that, “The document finalized [on Sunday] provides a strong foundation for the security of Afghanistan, the region and the world and is a document for the development of the region.” Western diplomats have speculated that a more detailed security agreement would possibly come sometime next year, once European nations make it clear how much they can give to fund Afghan national security forces.

Still, the very presence of a draft agreement is important to the goals of both the U.S. and Afghan governments. The U.S. needs to show the American people it is working on an exit strategy while Kabul needs to reassure international donors there is a future in Afghanistan and the Afghan people that they will not be left to fend for themselves against the Taliban’s expected attempt to take over after the 2014 pull out. The agreement could also be seen as a possible application of pressure against the Taliban, since many have speculated that they will wait for a U.S. withdrawal before staging a power-grab.

Also, it is remarkable that any sort of agreement has been reached at all after a year when relations between the two countries have been strained by U.S. troops mugging with the body parts of suicide bombers, urinating on the corpses of dead insurgents, burning Korans and massacring civilians coupled with Afghan troops killing their foreign mentors. Even in light of these hurdles, the draft comes on the heels of further movement in moving toward a post-U.S. Afghanistan, including memoranda of understanding for the handover of control of night raids to Afghan forces and a detention facility.

Read more about the handover of night raids at Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: What the End of U.S. Night Raids Means for Afghanistan about the Koran burning riots at The Koran-Burning Riots: Can U.S. and Afghan Troops Work Together? and the massacre in Panjwai, Kandahar at Timing and Location of an Afghan Massacre Threatens U.S. Strategy

Yet, even this momentum is limited. Because the U.S. Congress must vote on yearly budgets, there is no way for lump sums of cash to be allotted in advance to the Afghan government to run its military and ministries — even within the framework of this strategic partnership agreement. Though Karzai called for just that last week — asking the U.S. to make a written commitment to pay a minimum of $2 billion to support the Afghan military. A $2.7 billion a year price tag has also been discussed. It is round figures like these that Western leaders will try to hash out at the Chicago NATO summit. It is estimated that it will cost about $4 billion a year to support the 352,000 strong national army and national police — of which the Afghan government will contribute around $500 million a year.

And while these figures are orders of magnitude smaller than the $110 billion to $120 billion the Congressional Research Service says the U.S. has spent in Afghanistan every year since the troop surge began in 2010, no specific amounts have been set by Sunday’s draft signing — which makes many observers wonder at the purpose of such an announcement. “My sense is that it will soon become clear where the U.S. stands and that this is quite a noncommittal agreement,” says long-time Afghanistan observer and expert Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “This agreement won’t convince the Taliban or anyone else that there’s going to be solid and sustained U.S. support, or clarify what that support will be. It is quite clear that the U.S. and other countries are quite conflicted and this agreement does nothing to clarify what their stance is.”

The foreign observer amplified this analysis, saying, “The agreement coming through doesn’t surprise me. The Bagram [detention facility] and night raids memoranda of understanding were where Karzai got almost everything he wanted and the U.S. gave and gave. This is the agreement where the U.S. gave nothing, in spite of Karzai’s statements a few weeks ago about how much he wanted specific figures — which it sounds like he got none of.” The source added that, “In terms of what this agreement says about the U.S.’s commitment to continuing financial support, it doesn’t give us any information. It leaves the U.S. free to provide a lot of support, or very little, as it sees fit, year-by-year. Basically, it’s an agreement to be friends. And without any other details, does it send a clear message to Pakistan and Iran? Does it send a clear message to the Taliban? Does it send a clear message to the U.S.’s partner nations? I don’t think so. And without these details there’s no difference in the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan today than there was yesterday.”

Read more about past negotiations at A U.S. Peace with the Taliban? Don’t Hold Your Breath

This story originally appeared in TIME at A New U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership: Should the Taliban Be Afraid?

Timing and Location of an Afghan Massacre Threatens U.S. Strategy

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By John Wendle / Kabul

Wednesday, Mar. 14, 2012

The Panjwai massacre may not affect the U.S. schedule for withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it has dealt a major blow to the Obama Administration’s plan to slowly shift the military burden there from conventional units to Special Forces who rely on cooperation from the civilian population. And the setback occurred in an area that had become a key focus of the counterinsurgency effort.

“The relations between the U.S. forces and the Afghan people have been greatly affected by the massacre,” the head of the quasi-governmental Panjwai District Development Assembly, Hajji Niak Mohammad, tells TIME. “It has caused a big gap to form between the U.S. military and the Afghans. [The Americans] had come to fight against the insurgency and to bring peace and stability. People did not expect such a wild action.”

(MORE: Afghans Assess U.S. Presence After Massacre, Koran Burning)

No matter how many times President Obama apologizes for the mass killing of civilians by an American soldier early Sunday morning, the damage has already been done. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, visiting Camp Leatherneck in the desert in southern Helmand province while on a previously scheduled visit to Afghanistan, told Marines Wednesday that “Each of these incidents is deeply troubling” and that “We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve.” But, to the villagers in Panjwai district, in war-wracked Kandahar province, apologies are beside the point — “individual incidents” are defining how Afghans see the U.S. presence, and fueling demands for it to end.

“At the beginning, when [the Americans] first came to Afghanistan, people were really optimistic,” says Hajji Mohammad. “People believed in them. People thought they had come to rebuild Afghanistan, to bring peace and stability, to contribute people and economic support. But, slowly, slowly this belief has faded and been destroyed. The people don’t trust the U.S. military anymore.”

That erosion of trust underscores the flaw at the very heart of U.S. policy in in Afghanistan, regardless of Panetta telling the Marines at Camp Leatherneck that “our strategy is working”. Effective counterinsurgency depends on winning the support of the civilian population, but that becomes impossible when the locals lose trust and respect — not only because of egregious crimes like the murder of 16 civilians, but also through the small offenses and disappointments meted out daily by a poorly-informed military force from an alien culture that only spends six months to a year in an area before rotating home.

(MORE: Afghan Counterinsurgency: When Everything Is Personal)

The Panjwai murders happened in villages adjacent to a U.S. Special Forces compound, where the accused perpetrator was part of a static security detail for the forces expected to take on more of the responsibility for waging the war. Special Forces are deemed better able to build strong relationships with villagers through their Village Stabilization Operations (VSOs) and their setting up and training of Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces.

Says Seth Jones, a Rand Corporation political analyst and sometime-adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command, “U.S. and Afghan Special Operations Forces have played a growing role in pushing into rural parts of Kandahar (and other provinces) to help local communities improve their security, governance (mostly informal governance through jirgas) and development. Unlike efforts to train Afghan National Security Forces and improve the formal justice system, Village Stability Operations are inherently bottom-up programs.”

Jones explains that Panjwai, along with several other districts outside of Kandahar City such as Shah Wali Kot, Maiwand, and Khakrez, have become a focus of U.S. and Afghan counterinsurgency efforts because of their strategic importance. “Over the past several years, Panjwai has not been pacified by either the Taliban or Afghan and NATO forces, but has repeatedly changed hands following intense and extremely violent fighting.”

In order to tip the balance, Special Forces groups called Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) units began setting up VSOs and ALP units and carrying out night raids to round up Taliban suspects. The massacre poses a challenge to their work. The impact of the Panjwai killings “could be devastating or could be minimal and quickly resolved through skillful diplomacy on the part of the team — it really depends on if these were villages which were cooperating with the ODA or if they were not,” says a foreign observer with extensive counterinsurgency experience in Afghanistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If this is a worst-case scenario and the villages in question were active VSO villages with a good level of cooperation, [and if] those killed were truly indiscriminately targeted and they were respected people in the villages, then I think the ODAs will have a hard time recovering from this.”

Adds Adrian Melendez, a development worker who spent nine months working on agricultural stabilization projects in Marjah district in Helmand, the local culture is not conducive to easily resolving the issue. “For the Pashtuns, forgiveness is not a value — on the contrary, revenge is valued, and for hard Pashtuns it is an obligation,” he says. “So I’m guessing that the people affected will try to get revenge as an act of justice.”

(MORE: Afghan Massacre: Army Docs Say Brain Injury Could Have Sparked Attack)

Indeed, justice has been the rallying cry for many Afghans — both in Panjwai and across the country and the internet where images of the murdered children have proliferated and sparked angry and impassioned statements by young, urban Afghans who are more typically apolitical or supportive of the Western military mission — even as General John Allen, commander of all NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has said the gunman will be punished according to the law. “They should bring the murderer, or murderers, to justice,” says Hajji Mohammad. “People should see with their own eyes that the perpetrators are punished — in Afghanistan, according to Afghan law. This is the only way to deal with the anger of the Afghans, to bring calmness to their anger.” But U.S. soldiers are exempt from Afghan law and it is most likely the killer will be tried back on home soil, under U.S. law — despite calls from the Afghan parliament for the accused to be tried in public in Afghanistan.

Justice being seen to be done is the key to restoring trust in Panjwai, warns Jones: “A lot will depend on how swiftly and transparently the Americans move on punishing the soldier responsible, as well as local sentiments toward the Taliban in the area.”

Regardless of how deftly — or otherwise — U.S. forces deal with the challenges raised by the massacre, they will face an escalation of hostilities in the coming weeks and months, as spring heralds a new fighting season. “I anticipate that there will be a big, big fight not only in Panjwai, but in most parts of Afghanistan in the spring and summer when the weather becomes warmer,” warns Hajji Mohammad. “These killings could increase anti-Americanism and more people will join the Taliban and other radical groups. On the other hand, the Taliban have already sworn they will double their attacks against the U.S. military and they will get revenge for this massacre. People are also sad and angry, so I anticipate that there will be more attacks against the US military and their allies in Panjwai.” One sign of what to expect will come within days, when many urban Afghans gather at mosques for Friday prayers for the first time since the massacre — many local and foreign observers are bracing for trouble.

This story originally appeared at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2109044,00.html

Written by johnwendle

April 2, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Can the U.S. and NATO Win in Afghanistan Without Advisers in the Ministries?

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By John Wendle / Kabul

(A shorter version of this story can be found at TIME.com at Advisers in Afghanistan Chafe at Security Restrictions on Their Work. This longer version contains all of the statistics and quotes.)

Amid the normal confusion on the grounds of the Ministry of Interior in Kabul two changes are immediately apparent: conspicuously absent are the usual contingent of foreign soldiers and police advisers rolling to meetings in armored SUVs, freshly pressed shirts, body armor, crew cuts and wraparound shades; today they seem to have been replaced with Afghan police armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles dotting the compound, standing a silent watch among the chaotic hustle of the ministry.

Yet, the continued absence of foreign advisers is more telling than the presence of new security a week and a half after two high-ranking U.S. officers were shot and killed at a secured office at the Ministry of Interior and riots swept the country over the burning of Korans and other religious materials at the American-run Bagram Airbase. Just hours after the killings of the officers, NATO pulled all of its military and civilian advisers out of the Afghan government’s ministries – and today they are still gone. The withdrawal sparked a firestorm on U.S. opinion pages, in congress and on the presidential campaign trail, with many asking how the U.S. will be able to withdraw from Afghanistan if advisers cannot work to improve the level of Afghan government and delivery of services. [Read more about the civilian surge here Whatever Happened to the Civilian Surge in Afghanistan? and here The Limits of the Surge: Petraeus' Legacy in Afghanistan.] 

Many of the advisers working here in Kabul do not agree with the unilateral decision by General John Allen, the commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to withdraw them from their offices, even temporarily – as NATO has characterized the move. “Pulling all advisers from the ministries, as a blanket reaction to an incident at the Interior Ministry was an extreme reaction, giving the message that we don’t trust anyone,” says Santwana Dasgupta, an American support manager at the Ministry of Higher Education. “During these times, I believe it is even more important for the international community to reach out to the Afghans they know, express their dismay at the Koran burnings and express [their regrets], and not to hide in fear,” Dasgupta tells TIME. “I think it is a shame that internationals are asked to run and hide.” [Read more here: As Afghan Riots Subside, Anger over Koran Burning Simmers and here The Koran-Burning Riots: Can U.S. and Afghan Troops Work Together?]

“My beef is not that we were under lockdown (this has happened before for a variety of reasons), but more about the public way it was mandated that no Americans should visit any ministries – it smacked of tit-for-tat – and given the cordial relationships we at the Higher Education Project enjoy with the ministry and universities, this message was disappointing,” Dasgupta tells TIME, though she concedes that she would rather stay home than risk her Afghan colleagues getting injured if she were targeted.

But not all advisers were withdrawn – some of those not working in U.S. State Department or NATO programs have remained on. “We were never sent home. And, actually, I feel safer at my office than I do in my house because the security is quite good at the ministry. I haven’t received any updated security restrictions from my embassy,” says one European adviser who asked to remain anonymous, because he, like all of the foreign advisers interviewed for this story, did not have permission to speak to TIME. This adviser, who has only been here for a little over a month says that right now, “there’s no friction between the Afghan and foreign staff after the Koran burnings. They are all educated and know us and our customs, so they understood that it was a mistake. Also, I don’t advise the military, I work in development, so there is not as much of a threat.”

But, for right now, it looks as though many foreign advisers – particularly military advisers – will continue to work remotely from their bedrooms, guesthouses, dormitories and barracks as hundreds of them remain on lockdown fearing attack. “Due to force protection concerns, as we work through the current situation, we have not been identifying what ministries that have or have not had people return physically to their job sites. Because of that we do not have any advisers that are available right now [to talk],” said NATO spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings, Jr., when asked if TIME could speak with any of the military advisers. “Once the investigation is complete and security procedures have been reviewed and General Allen has made the decision for all to return, then I think they might be available.”

As NATO has struggled militarily and violence has risen in recent years, it has placed increasing emphasis on the training mission here and the raising of a capable Afghan army and police. If viable government and security institutions can be formed, the reasoning goes, then the U.S. and NATO can withdraw and leave the Afghans to their own problems, while still being able declare a kind of victory – or at least say that they did their best. The implication is that if advisers are not advising, then why is the U.S. still in Afghanistan? [Read more here Afghanistan After Petraeus: From Defeat to 'Transition' and here Are Afghan Security Forces Ready to Take Over? and here Fighting the Taliban: Afghan Army's Attrition Crisis.]

But a June 2011 report for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee entitled “Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan,” clearly shows the importance the Obama administration has placed on building the capacity of the Afghan government – though it paints the logic in a more positive light. “The administration’s fiscal year 2012 request for Afghanistan includes roughly $3.2 billion in foreign aid. This funding level reflects the pivotal role the State Department and USAID are expected to play to help consolidate our military gains and ensure a successful transition. It gives our Embassy and USAID Mission in Kabul the necessary resources to build basic Afghan capacity,” the report reads, adding that this request is a 22 percent decrease from fiscal year 2010-enacted levels.

But, after noting this massive spending cut and claiming that State and USAID will play a “pivotal role,” the report makes the stark point that, eventually, foreign advisers will leave permanently, and with so much handholding going on right now, the Afghan ministries may not be ready to stand on their own – though this may just be a veiled excuse to cut funding. “The U.S. strategy is focused on building the capacity of Afghan institutions to deliver basic services. The State Department and USAID are currently spending approximately $1.25 billion on such efforts. But our overreliance on international technical advisors to build Afghan capacity may undermine these efforts. Our aid projects need to focus more on sustainability so that Afghans can absorb our programs when donor funds recede.”

When the Soviets withdrew in defeat from Afghanistan, the U.S. withdrew covert and overt funding – and this helped lead to a civil war whose chaos led to the rise of the Taliban. The Foreign Relations Committee report issues a stark and sobering warning on the planned withdrawal of advisers, saying, “As we draw down our troops in Afghanistan, our civilians will have to absorb missions currently performed by the military. The State Department and USAID will need adequate resources to ensure a smooth transition and avoid repeating the mistakes we made in Iraq. Transition planning should find the right balance between avoiding a sudden dropoff in aid, which could trigger a major economic recession, and a long-term phaseout from current levels of donor spending.” [The report can be downloaded here Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan.]

But, the real risk remains that if the advisers are kept out of the ministries – either now, because of security, or in the future, because of funding – then more than ten years of work at building the abilities of the Afghan bureaucracy stand in jeopardy. “I understand why the military advisers were pulled as they are a definite target, but where this all went wrong was pulling out the civilian advisers,” says Alison Rhind, the senior adviser to the minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock – a key ministry in a mostly rural country. “I don’t think it was right to pull the civilian advisors out of the ministries for two reasons: first, it encourages similar attacks when Taliban etc. see they can easily disrupt the government by attacking the international staff; and second, the disruption caused to our work by not being on site was huge. We cannot be active advisors and capacity builders of the Afghan government from a distance,” Rhind tells TIME, echoing a sentiment shared by many other long-term advisers in country. “We must be able to interact with our national colleagues and should not appear to be more precious than them.”

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