Cultivating Afghanistan: NGOs Critical of the Military

American-led coalition forces are waging a complicated counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, where critics say well-meaning military projects can be problematic.

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American-led coalition forces are waging a complicated counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, where critics say well-meaning military development projects can be problematic, and errant use of firepower a disaster. In the village of Ali Daya, a recent tragedy reveals some of the controversies confronting soldiers.

The Indiana National Guard Agribusiness Development Team is in the small village of Ali Daya, helping an Afghan farmer with his wheat crop. Excited young boys surround the soldiers. Standing in the field, the team’s Deputy Commander, Colonel Cindra Chastain, asks the farmer about his wheat seeds.

While a specialist collects soil, the soldiers toss Frisbees with the boys, and distribute  pens and candy to happy kids. All in all, a day of winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. But there is another, darker story here in Ali Daya.

On the night of April 8, an American-led special ops team mistakenly killed five innocent civilians during a raid in this village of 300 families. The dead included a mother who was a teacher in a secondary education program for girls, run by CARE, the international aid group. CARE’s Deputy Director for Afghanistan, Jamie Terzi, says the killing was inexcusable.

“Coalition forces go and make a mistake in a raid, kill one of our teachers, her daughter, who was a student, and three of her family members including a four day old baby, inside her house, which was one of our classes,” Terzi said. “I find it really hard to understand how a four-day-old baby is shot. I really just don’t get it. I mean did you not look when you were firing?”

Civilian casualties from coalition military actions are a major Afghan issue. The Ali Daya case unleashed a firestorm in Khost and the international media. President Hamid Karzai demanded an investigation. Terzi says the tragedy was also a setback for Afghan development.

“Her husband was an Afghan National Army fairly high-ranking officer. Is his family going to continue to support international forces?”

Terzi says non-governmental aid organizations, including CARE, have long been critical of military-connected development programs, including the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs, which have operated in Afghanistan since 2002.

“One of the issues that we have with PRTs is that development and military need to be kept separate, otherwise they compromise each other,” she said. “If we are too closely aligned, then it appears we are doing the bidding of the American government. Then we are at risk. And people will question our programs. They’ll question why we’re building schools; why we’re building clinics. And our development work will be compromised. And then there’ll be a disaster. I mean, it’s Afghanistan, there will be a disaster.”

Terzi says because the military is not properly trained in development work, soldiers’ efforts are ineffective.

“People have been promoting PRTs because it suits their political agenda, not because of the results or the efficacy of what’s going on,” she said. “Let the people who have the experience do it. If we can’t do it, what on earth gives you the idea that the military can do it? I’d like to see some proof.”

General Martin Umbarger, Adjutant General for the Indiana National Guard, says the military has the capacity to make big contributions to Afghan development.

“There’s a term that we’re using in the Defense Department now, called hard power and soft power. This is more the soft power, going in and helping win the hearts and minds of the people, being a part of them getting their governance going, getting their economy going,” Umbarger said.  “And really, the military, we’ve always in our past thought of ourselves being more of the hard power. Now we feel citizen-soldiers bring a unique set of skills — yes, we wear the uniform — but we also are citizens, so we can relate to the Afghans and not only from a military side, but from also helping them get their agriculture industry going.”

Nonetheless, Terzi bristles at the talk of military development winning Afghan hearts and minds.

“I don’t really care what you’re talking about when you start talking about hearts and minds. They aren’t won with a pen or a schoolbag,” she said. “They’re won by not killing civilians and they’re won by being here for the long haul and doing the job properly.”

In the next segment: a look at the women of the ADT, and their work in this conservative Islamic culture.

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