Support for continued Afghan mission 'misguided'

  • February 1, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Aid workers, church groups and peace activists are deeply disappointed in the Manley panel’s report on Canada’s future role in Afghanistan — which calls for Canada to continue its mission while seeking more troops from NATO — with aid workers worried the panel’s approach to development could result in murders and kidnapping of project staff and Taliban targeting of communities where they work.

“We do feel there is a risk of blurring the distinction between humanitarian work and military work,” U.S. Catholic Relief Services country manager Paul Hicks told The Catholic Register in a telephone interview from Kandahar.

It’s not just the aid workers who are at risk because of the visible link between military objectives and development work, but Afghan villages as well, said Hicks.

“Communities have to be very careful about being seen to be co-operating with international forces because of the retaliation that may come about,” Hicks said.

“Communities and aid workers are in danger. Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an aid worker,” said Gerry Barr, executive director of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

On Jan. 14 insurgent gunmen and a suicide bomber attacked the Serena Hotel in Kabul, killing six. The Serena is mainly used by Western aid agencies for staff travelling in and out of the country. And on Jan. 16 U.S. aid worker Cyd Mizell and her driver were kidnapped off the streets of Kandahar.

“War fighting and development and humanitarian work are being conflated and mixed together, and in our view in a very toxic way,” said Barr, whose organization represents most non-governmental aid agencies in Canada.

Church groups also doubt the Independent Panel’s request for 1,000 extra NATO soldiers and more helicopters will pacify southern Afghanistan or bring the war closer to a conclusion.

“The Soviets had 100,000 military in Afghanistan. They had a direct line of communication and transport overland into Afghanistan. They had the government. And they lost,” said Project Ploughshares executive director John Siebert. “What are we talking about here? If you equip 70,000 Afghan National Army they would still at some point need to negotiate with someone to create a sustainable peace.”

Church-funded Project Ploughshares was one of several contributors to the Afghan Reference Group, a coalition of non-governmental players in the Afghanistan debate, which made submissions to the Manley Panel in October. Reading the report, Siebert concludes the NGO and church view of the conflict was never really on the agenda.

“There’s nothing of what we told them,” he said. “It’s a great disappointment. It’s a bit of a surprise since we sensed a listening and sympathetic audience.”

The Canadian Council of Churches said the Manley Report, to the federal government released Jan. 22, “sadly, has missed the opportunity to guide Canada towards a truly constructive role in securing a long-term, sustainable peace in Afghanistan.”

The CCC, representing 21 of the largest churches in Canada, has urged the government to push for direct negotiation between Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul and willing elements of the Taliban, though the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops did not sign the ecumenical organization’s last letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the subject, saying the letter didn’t go far enough to outline a peace process. The permanent council of the CCCB was scheduled to meet after The Catholic Register’s press time with Afghanistan on the agenda.

Representatives of the Independent Panel did not return phone calls from The Catholic Register seeking comment.

In Ottawa Harper endorsed the idea that more troops would lead to military success in Afghanistan.

“We really do have two choices,” Harper told a press conference Jan. 28. “You know, we do everything better and we do everything right, or we don’t do it. But we can’t do a half-a-mission that might not succeed.”

Opposition Leader Stephane Dion called the government’s Afghan policy “still very vague.”

“It looks like a design for a never-ending mission,” he said. “And this we’re completely against.”

On the aid front, the Manley panel failed to understand both the purpose of aid and what makes aid work, said the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

“It is the wrong approach,” said Gilio Brunelli, Development and Peace spokesman on Afghanistan. “When we are talking about the development of a country like Afghanistan, given the present situation of poverty, violence, lack of basic infrastructure and lack of basic services, I don’t think the Manley report actually addresses the question.”

The panel’s third recommendation for high impact “signature” projects which could be completed quickly and would garner support in Kandahar for the Canadian mission is misguided, Brunelli said.

“The Afghan people do not need to be supported because we want them to collaborate with the Canadians, be it the Canadian military, the Canadian diplomats or the Canadian aid workers,” he said. “It’s because the Afghan people are human beings. As such, they are entitled to a dignified life.”

Speaking from Afghanistan, the CRS’s Hicks emphasized that effective aid work in Afghanistan would neither be quick nor easy.

“A lot of development work that’s gone into Afghanistan in the last five years has been a lot of short-term projects — a lot of short-term funding for quick impact projects,” he said. “The time for that has probably passed. A lot of the issues of underdevelopment and poverty in Afghanistan require a multi-year commitment.”

While you can build a school in six months, it can take years to train teachers, develop curriculum and develop a system so that graduates of the schools have some place to go when they’re finished, said Hicks.

“To be successful there has to be a commitment to long-term development. It needs to be based on participatory and community development practices. It needs to respond to the priorities of local people,” he said. “And it’s important that there be efforts to build the effectiveness and credibility of the national government and the local government to provide services that people expect.”

Development and Peace does exactly that kind of work, providing bicycles to local community organizations so their staff can get from village to village, training people to run their own microcredit institutions and funding literacy training among other things. Despite spending just over $2.1 million on aid projects in Afghanistan since 2000 focussed on women and community projects, Development and Peace has never had a dime from CIDA. Most of the more than $1 billion CIDA has spent in Afghanistan in this decade has gone to United Nations agencies and support for the Afghan government’s civil service. About 15 per cent goes to traditional development work by CIDA partners.

“We do have a problem with such a skewed distribution of money,” said Brunelli.

Like the Manley panel, Development and Peace wants to see a change in CIDA’s plans for Afghanistan, but not in the direction of “signature” projects.

“If CIDA doesn’t change its strategy, and if development work doesn’t receive a better recognition and place in the overall strategy, in the whole plan for Afghanistan, the people who suffer will be the people of Afghanistan,” he said.

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