Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Archive for March 2012

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 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.”