Seeking Security and Development in Afghanistan

Stephen DeAngelis

May 9, 2008

I have often written about how development and security go hand in hand. Although security generally precedes development, it is not by much. In almost all situations where there is or has been a crisis, you are likely to find humanitarian organizations in place. While many of these groups are concerned with the immediate health and welfare of the victims of crisis, you will also often find non-governmental organizations in the area whose focus is on development and the long-term health and welfare of the local population. In areas where there are absolutely no assurances of security, you are likely to find no help at all. There are, apparently, many such areas in Afghanistan. They are the focus of a recent column by David Ignatius [“Building Bridges in the Back of Beyond.” Washington Post, 1 May 2008]. Ignatius focuses on the work being done by Lt. Col. Chris Kolenda of the U.S. Army. Ignatius begins his narrative in Naray, Afghanistan.

“This remote, mountainous patch of Afghanistan is near where Rudyard Kipling set his famous story ‘The Man Who Would Be King.’ And as you listen to Lt. Col. Chris Kolenda rattle off the names of the region’s tribes and subtribes, you realize that he and other Americans here might be Kipling characters themselves. Kolenda’s base truly is ‘the back of beyond,’ as 19th-century British travelers sometimes described this part of the world. It’s located in a hauntingly beautiful region of northeastern Afghanistan, a few miles from the Pakistan border — a land of steep mountains, narrow river valleys and primitive terraced farms. There are no paved roads, and in most villages there is no electricity and no running water. You reach the base by Black Hawk helicopter, soaring above the rushing rivers and isolated canyons of the Hindu Kush.”

It is into these isolated, disconnected areas that insurgents and terrorists like to flee. The only way to dislodge them is with the help of the local populace. That is the objective Lt. Col. Kolenda is pursuing.

“Kolenda talks like an amateur ethnologist as he explains the tribal makeup of Kamdesh, an area just north of here where U.S. forces have been trying to woo the elders and mullahs away from the insurgents. He identifies a main tribe, four subtribes and 12 clans, each with its own history of feuds and friendships. If the U.S. military doesn’t understand the local culture, Kolenda explains, it will make mistakes in trying to forge alliances that can stabilize the area. The surprising fact is that Kolenda, a Nebraska native, and his soldiers in Task Force Saber are having some success. When he arrived here last June, this area was mostly a no-go zone for U.S. forces. That meant some hard fighting last summer to drive the insurgents away from population centers and deeper into the mountains.”

Once U.S. forces had achieved a bit of security, Lt. Col. Kolenda could help local leaders visualize a better future with the promise of development. Like all people, those in the “back of the beyond” want some hope in their lives.

“Once he had pushed back the insurgents, Kolenda’s strategy was to re-empower the traditional tribal structure, which had lost sway during 30 years of war to a new elite with guns and money. Working through tribal shuras, or local councils, he offered the elders a deal: If they would provide security, he would bring them economic development in the form of roads, bridges, schools and health clinics. He financed these projects mostly with quick cash from the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, or CERP, which has proved to be one of the most potent American weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kolenda gradually won the tribal leaders’ trust, traveling to one insurgent haven 16 times to meet with the elders. This year, attacks on U.S. forces in most parts of the region have largely ceased.”

Kolenda is performing the work of a group that my partner Tom Barnett calls the System Administration Force. The objectives of such a force are achieved using non-kinetic means (i.e., they don’t want to blow things up — they want want to build things up). Tom’s vision of this force is one that is less military and more civilian. There are, in fact, non-military government personnel involved in this work.

“Alison Blosser, a young State Department officer, is using a similar approach to help guide the Provincial Reconstruction Team for Kunar province, based south of here in Asadabad. An Ohio State graduate, she speaks fluent Pashto, which she learned before taking up her previous assignment at the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan. Dressed in a head scarf and body armor, she might be a modern version of Gertrude Bell, the celebrated British adventurer and colonial administrator of the 1920s. Blosser and her colleagues have employed what they call a ‘roads strategy’ to bring stability to Kunar. The biggest project so far was building a paved two-lane road from Jalalabad in the lush flatlands up the Kunar River valley to Asadabad. The road is a magnet for economic development in what had been an insurgent stronghold, and the PRT is planning new roads into what Blosser calls the ‘capillary valleys’ where the insurgents have fled.”

Building infrastructure is a necessary precursor to real development work; but, as Ignatius points out, put in a road and economic development follows. Ignatius goes on to report that the old adage “success breeds success” is just as true at the edges of globalization and beyond as it is in the developed world.

“The tribal elders see the prosperity the new roads have brought and want the same for their villages. ‘We say, “Fine, but you have to guarantee security,”‘ Blosser says. That’s the essence of the counterinsurgency strategy U.S. forces are using in Afghanistan. As the military clears new areas, the PRTs follow quickly behind with roads, bridges and schools.”

The secret to the success of such programs is that promises made must be promises kept. If they are not, unfulfilled expectations quickly turn into anger. Ignatius concludes:

“Back in Kabul, Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the overall commander of American forces in Afghanistan, reflects on how the counterinsurgency battles have changed the U.S. Army. Back when he was a battalion commander in the 1980s, he says, ‘I thought the world was move, shoot and communicate.’ The new generation, he says, understands that these traditional warrior skills won’t win today’s counterinsurgency wars. The modern term for what these American soldiers and diplomats are doing in Afghanistan is ‘nation building,’ but some of the strategies and skills are reminiscent of the old British Colonial Office. America has had little experience in this kind of faraway struggle but, as McNeill says, the Army is a ‘learning institution,’ and it’s gradually learning how to fight this kind of war. Yet it should be remembered that even the wily British colonial administrators and brave regiments of the Raj couldn’t subdue Afghanistan’s warlords.”

The military has come a long ways over the past decade and a half when it comes to understanding how important nation building is to creating stability. The Bush administration was dead set against nation building when it first came to office. It was not just the Bush administration that had it doubts. As I wrote in a previous post on the SysAdmin force, there was more than a little initial reluctance to nation-building when the term and potential mission first emerged. In fact, it was considered ‘”mission creep” and was anathema to many military leaders. Clinton Secretary of Defense William Perry remarked, &
quot;Generally the military is not the right tool to meet humanitarian concerns. We field an army, not a Salvation Army.” There is a much better understanding now about the relationship between humanitarian needs and security. As a result, we are seeing programs breeding success in remote areas where fighting has never achieved peace.