How can we bring development to Afghanistan if we don’t have security? It is still the question put to us by backers of our longest war, and we buy it. How indeed, can aid convoys get through if they are being fired upon? First battle the enemy, then build.
But the argument is flawed. Since 2006 Afghanistan has had 27 PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) and each of these are military led. They have a commander and 80-150 army personnel and only three or four civilian advisers. This is the development we are sending in. Soldiers. What does the Afghan see coming? Soldiers. What does the Afghan hate most? Soldiers.
As I walk around Afghanistan this past two weeks, unarmed, dressed like a local, the same comment keeps coming up. “If you want to help us, we will die for you. If you come with guns and shoot us, we will fight to the last man.” While this Afghan war is undoubtedly complex, with various powerful players bearing their own agendas, for an ordinary Afghan it is also very simple. If you want to help, don’t destroy. If you want peace, then talk to the enemy. Instead we are making the Afghan people swallow the pill of progress at gunpoint, which they will not do.
Staying in Herat, the safest place in Afghanistan, with only one security incident or so a month, I have come to ask myself what “aid” has followed “security” here.
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This question arose in my mind today after an incident on the Islam-Qala Road near the minarets of Herat. Ahead of my taxi, a three-wheeler, driving at speed, lost control trying to negotiate a pothole. (Now let me just interrupt my story here to reflect on the Afghan potholes. Almost every road is severely afflicted by them, perhaps the worst being the roads of central Kabul, headquarters of every NGO and foreign army running PRTs. Broken roads are the first thing you notice after arriving in Afghanistan, made no better by all those expensive Toyota Land Cruisers driven by everyone from the UN to private contractors. I guess it’s hard to notice potholes and mud-pits the Afghans have to negotiate on foot or in their beat-up cars when you’re in your Land Cruiser). Anyway, back to the pothole in question.
On the open back of the three-wheeler, two young boys were sitting in grubby clothes, probably halfway through a day of heavy work in order to feed themselves and their families. (On that note, wasn’t it our objective to create conditions here allowing children to attend school? I’d wondered this only an hour before while, on a school day, another young boy spent 20 minutes scrubbing my sandals. He did this for 50 Afghanis as I sat in the park of roses by the Blue Mosque).
When the three-wheeler swerved around the pothole, it flipped over before my eyes and ejected the two boys. One skidded through the dust, his body kicking up a cloud. The other boy was airborne for a moment before landing head first on the road. Calmly I asked my driver to pull over. Through the front window I saw the first boy get up. I left the taxi and walked over to the second boy who was curled up in a ball, face down and unconscious, with a noisy airway. Blood covered his face and hair. I carefully rolled him over and opened is airway with a jaw lift. His pupils were wandering left and right and blood was escaping from both ears.
Other people ran over. A crowd formed in less than a minute. No one spoke English, and I couldn’t understand their yelling. “Ambulance!” I demanded, “Ambulance!” All around me people were shaking their heads. Through a man’s legs I saw my taxi driver putting his cab into reverse and backing away. “Bring taxi! Taxi! Taxi! My taxi!” But no one was listening.
The boy’s brother, covered in abrasions, was sobbing beside me. I lifted the unconscious child in my arms and carried him to my taxi. The driver looked frightened. “Open the door!” I barked at him. “We’re going to hospital.” The driver did as I asked and the unconscious boy was lying in the back seat, me sitting beside him and the other boy crying and begging Allah to save his brother. All I could do was take a pulse, check his pupils and keep his airway open while making sure his head didn’t loll about.
At Herat’s city hospital I lay the boy on an emergency bed. The room was crowded with injured from a normal day. There were beds pushed up close, no sanitation and minimal equipment. I handed over to a friendly, English-speaking doctor. “Do you have CT?” I asked him. He laughed a little. “No, sir, nothing like that in Herat.” Then I asked him about a public ambulance service, you know, if they had one for next time. He said, “Sorry, friend, not have.” And that was that.
I washed my hands at a sink and went back to the taxi. As we drove through the traffic of Afghanistan’s third-largest city, I reflected on what just happened. Here is an Afghan city I can stroll around in, alone, without keeping my head down. It is a city now completely controlled by local police and ANA. It is a city secure!
And yet … Herat — a city of dangerous roads and child poverty, a city with no ambulance service and a barely coping hospital.
The motto “security first, then aid” is hollow. Afghans know it, and we don’t even need the example of Herat in 2012. The first three years after America’s invasion were the most peaceful, with almost no fighting anywhere. Why? Because Afghans — even the Taliban — were eager to see the aid we promised. They waited, and they waited, and they waited. But all that came in the end were more soldiers kicking down doors.
So I’m as convinced now as ever that if we are genuine, I mean really genuine, about helping Afghanistan, we can do it without violence. Foreign forces in Afghanistan need to stop their Taliban-hunting and work towards a political settlement, which is the only way to end this. In a democracy even the most conservative elements deserve a voice. And it makes no sense to shoot those you want to negotiate with.
Then we need to make our remaining aid expenditure work for the Afghan people, not for making foreign contractors rich. Only when we improve public services like roads and ambulances and hospitals, will Afghans truly become our partners in peace.
*This post first appeared on Benjamin Gilmour.