New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman visited Afghanistan for a few days last month. To his great credit, Friedman visited a very worthy aid project: that of the Central Asia Institute, led by Greg Mortenson, co-author of the highly acclaimed book Three Cups of Tea, which describes his work.
Still, hit-and-write columns always carry the risk that even respected journalists will provide inaccurate facts and draw erroneous conclusions about far-flung, complicated conflicts.
Friedman’s column about a visit to a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the Panjshir Valley, where “Central Asia Institute and the U.S. State Department joined with the village elders to get [a] secular public school built,” incorrectly credits a U.S. federal agency that had absolutely no involvement with this NGO or its project. Friedman was misinformed, so the presence of a few federal employees resulted in the government getting glory that belongs to CAI alone.
It is somewhat upsetting to see a small, brave NGO (one that does not take any U.S. government funds) having its work credited to this or that federal agency. But bad fact-checking happens.
What is really disturbing is the general premise of the column. Friedman confesses that he has doubts (don’t we all!)—”Why are we here?”—meaning, of course, about the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, not the presence of NGOs like Mortenson’s or my own. (I am employed by the International Rescue Committee.) Then, having seen a school being opened, he concludes (again speaking about the U.S. military presence), “[I]t’s hard to say: ‘Let’s just walk away.’ Not yet.”
Friedman is honest about his uneasiness regarding the war, but he draws conclusions about a military operation based on a civilian NGO project, and that is not right.
Lines separating the civilian and military aspects of the intervention are often blurred. Yet take the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, known as the COIN Manual; co-written by Gen. David H. Petraeus. The manual is very clear about how the military views NGOs (please pardon the jargon in the quotes): “Many NGOs arrive before military forces and remain afterwards. They can support lasting stability. To the greatest extent possible, commanders try to complement and not override their capabilities.” Also, “Some NGOs maintain strict independence from governments and belligerents and do not want to be seen directly associating with military forces. … [Commanders] should also be mindful of [military] prominence and recognize the wisdom of acting indirectly and in ways that allow credit for success to go to others—particularly local individuals and organizations.”
The field manual could not be more explicit: “In COIN it is always preferred for civilians to perform civilian tasks. Whenever possible, civilian agencies or individuals with the greatest applicable expertise should perform a task.”
On the ground, it is less clear. The Los Angeles Times provided a great description of U.S. agriculture specialists visiting two Afghan farmers to take measurements for a vineyard and a greenhouse that would be constructed on their behalf: “The farm team took along 18 heavily armed guardsmen in four bomb-resistant vehicles, as well as a medic and Afghan interpreter. In all, 51 soldiers protect the seven agricultural specialists, who also carry weapons.” These agricultural specialists are part of the “civilian surge,” I should add.
Fortunately, there are indications that, like the military, civilians are also rethinking their strategies. In a communiqué named “cable 1776,” sent to several federal agencies, NATO, the U.S. Army, etc., U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Gen. Karl Eikenberry presented this new approach. The main thrust is “Afghanization” of aid with a clear intention to make grants more manageable: “U.S. assistance will be shifting to smaller, flexible, and faster contract and grant mechanisms to increase decentralized decision-making in the field.”
This is very good news for NGOs, whose main problem was that until recently—because of personnel shortages at the U.S. Agency for International Development—only a few large grants were offered, instead of smaller, targeted projects. Such big, bundled funds can only be “digested” by big companies with enormous capacity, like private contractors, not by smaller, more agile NGOs. (USAID has also had some problematic stipulations, such as, “Applicant may be required … to implement program activities … in post-battlefield clean-up operations,” which one expert calls “alarming objectives for any independent aid organization.”)
So, when a small NGO like Central Asia Institute celebrates a success such as the opening of yet another school in rural Afghanistan, it needs to get all the kudos. (I should point out that the 131 schools built in Pakistan and Afghanistan by CAI serve about 54,000 students, including 38,000 females.) The ribbon-cutting must also be presented as what it is: a celebration of a great achievement by a civilian aid group that has strong community links, a solid track record, and that operates with labor and materials partly donated by the parents of the children who will benefit from the project. And what about the organization’s automotive fleet? Let me quote Greg Mortenson: “We own one beat-up old Toyota Corolla, two Belarus tractors with trailers in Afghanistan, and a 28-year-old Land Cruiser in Pakistan.”