The ongoing saga about banning security contractors in Afghanistan continues while the need for them grows to the point that CNN has gotten a clue. Many big reconstruction projects are grinding to a halt and let me tell you something – the local people are sick and tired of this. We have been at the reconstruction business going on ten years now yet our impact on the lives of the average Afghan has been minimal. In Kabul there is a rising epidemic of Cutaneous leishmanisis which has stuck some 65,000 people, mostly woman and children. Do you know how simple it is to stop the an epidemic of leishmanisis? Start a cash for work program to build concrete floors in every dwelling in the city including all the squatter huts in the hills – it is that simple. We could stop this problem cold for what is essentially chump change in reconstruction dollars.
Yet simple solutions to complex problems elude us; we focus instead on “good governance” or the “Afghanistan water table project” or a dozen other programs which suck up hundreds of millions of dollars while doing not one damn thing for the Afghan people. The Afghan government continues to fail at providing basic services while excelling at hounding outside the wire contractors. Visa’s for internationals working in-country remain impossible to obtain so more and more of us who work outside the FOB’s are heading home. Yet ISAF continues to support the elimination of private security contractors as noted below. I extracted the quote from some article I forgot to bookmark and am too irritated to look for at the moment.
Karzai has said repeatedly in recent months that the companies undermine government security forces, creating a parallel security structure. His desire to ban the private security groups seems to reflect the thinking of the former top American commander in Afghanistan.
Before he was replaced earlier this year for making disparaging comments about the Obama administration, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said “the coalition in Afghanistan has become too dependent on private contractors.”
There is no doubt that the military is too dependent on private contractors – the FOB’s are full of them 98% of whom are not in the security industry. Those of us who are outside the wire doing the heavy lifting in the reconstruction piece need to be able to protect ourselves. The Afghan security forces are not remotely capable of doing the job and the sad fact is that the only international military force we can count on to come to our aid when attacked are the Americans.
For those of you who think I am exaggerating read this article closely. If you are a German citizen you may want to skip it because it’s about the response to the Taliban attack on the USAID Implementation partner DAI in Kunduz earlier this year by the German military. As a retired military officer I have studied the innovation and professionalism of the German military during the First and Second World Wars all my adult life. It gives me no pleasure to highlight this story of indifference from a military which was once the best the world had ever seen.
Given the train wreck that is Afghanistan at the moment, Nic Lee, who heads the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) has recommended that NGO’s deal with the Taliban to facilitate their projects. That is not as ridiculous as it probably sounds to FRI readers because he is talking about NGO’s not implementation firms.
Nic sees the NGOs (unarmed, non-profits) as neutral and believes that if the Taliban also see them as non-participants in the war they’ll leave them alone. This has been generally true in the east for years. In the South not so much and in the North and West the problem for NGO’s and other internationals has been criminal groups not Taliban. It’s to the Taliban’s advantage to allow medical clinics and farm projects to run without interference so they can show the locals that good stuff happens when they’re in charge. There’s no upside to harming NGOs and the Taliban senior leaders know it. Criminals and junior Taliban who didn’t get the memo and are another matter.
The problem for NGOs ( Lee does not consider DAI, Chemonics and the other USAID implementing partners including us as to be true NGO’s) is in areas where control is contested and their locals are at risk from kidnappings and IEDs strikes because they are working for infidel invaders. Infidel neutral non-participants bearing gifts are still infidels and there are many areas in this country where they (and their Afghan employees who bear the risk) should not (and mostly do not) go. NGO’s operating deep in contested districts are probably dealing with the Taliban anyway. For many tribes the Taliban flag is a flag of convenience and NGO’s embedded inside Afghan districts know that better than we do. I’m not sure why Nic published advice that is already understood by the target audience but sure to raise eyebrows with the international press. I don’t know him that well but don’t think he’s a publicity seeker so I’m not sure what this is all about.
The bigger problem for NGO’s and the rest of us is Nic’s advice is flat out wrong. The security situation for foreigners living outside the wire changed radically for the worst on August 6th, 2010 with the murder of a eight person medical team who had just conducted eye clinics in the remote Nuristan Province. Dan Terry and Tom Little spent over 30 years living in Afghanistan while bringing modern medical treatment to thousands of Afghans. Despite their decades of experience and close relationships with the tribes of the area they were gunned down in what has been describes as the “the worst crime targeting the humanitarian community that has ever taken place in Afghanistan.”
The security situation has degraded too far too fast for NGO’s to operate safely in most of Afghanistan. Ghost Team is now the only viable option for outside the wire reconstruction but that won’t happen because we’re not popular with the USAID preferred contractors or USAID. We carry guns and send in pictures from projects in places nobody else has or would ever go. We never miss a deadline…..want to be popular with bureaucrats? Do not succeed where all others have failed.
Contractors have gotten a bad rap in the press and with the FOB bound portion of our military establishment. Troops at the pointed end of the spear where we do our projects love us and go out of their way to protect and take care of us. But on the big box FOB’s we are not allowed weapons, cameras, laptops, or cell phones. On every FOB there is an Afghan bazaar plus several military exchanges that sell knives, swords, antique guns, cell phones, computers, cameras, etc… proving again that stupidity never takes a holiday. By contract with the United States Government we are required to have cell phones, cameras and laptops in order to submit detailed reports to USAID program managers living on military bases. But look at what we are not allowed on those bases.
The few contractors who remain outside the wire need protection from the Taliban, from criminals, from the Afghan government and the rear echelon military establishment. It’s getting damn lonely for us these days and there is no excuse for harassing the few good men who are out in harms way getting projects done on time and on budget.