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Weighing Afghan Experience, Civil-Military Relations Debate Continues

A Public Affairs Officer for PRT Farah, and his USAID colleague, talk with Lal Mohammed Bahari, Farah Provincial Director of Information and Culture, Farah City, Afghanistan, April 2013 (U.S. Navy photo by HMC Josh Ives/released)

A Public Affairs Officer for PRT Farah (left) and his USAID colleague talk with Lal Mohammed Bahari, Farah Provincial Director of Information and Culture, Farah City, Afghanistan, April 2013 (U.S. Navy photo by HMC Josh Ives/released)

Can military and civilians successfully collaborate in conflict zones?

This has been an open question for decades, but especially recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, where new approaches and the length of the conflicts provide a wealth of experience to examine. Current and potential insurgencies from Central Asia to Africa in which outside forces may intervene make this question important.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a U.K.-based think tank, in April published “The Search for Common Ground: Civil–Military Relations in Afghanistan, 2002–13,” which considered this question mostly through the lens of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), military units with 3-4 civilian development managers. A panel convened April 25 at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) discussed the report and how civilian and military goals often remain at cross purposes.

Judging from the panelists’ conversation, differing goals and capabilities complicate civilian and military collaboration. On the surface, perhaps unsurprising: most International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel travel around well-armed in reinforced armor, while NGO field staffers are usually Afghans in Corollas. Some 10 years of experience, however, show that processes and coordination among the two have yielded lessons they are still learning.

Robert Perito, Director of USIP’s Security Sector Governance Center, facilitated the panel with three development representatives and one with military experience. Mr. Perito opened the discussion recounting how U.S. PRTs include State Department and USAID officers, and as of 2007, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officers as well. He added that he “never really understood” the USDA addition, a curious statement since roughly 80 percent of Afghan livelihoods relate to farming and/or livestock, and such expertise has generally increased PRTs’ legitimacy.

One of the biggest let-downs of cooperation, per Ashley Jackson, a research fellow at ODI, was the inertness of the Kabul-based Civil-Military Working Group, which started in 2007 trying to bring all actors to one table. The group had Afghan government, ISAF, and U.N. officials sign agreed-upon guidelines detailing roles and coordination, which fell apart in practice. As meetings progressed, Ms. Jackson states, ISAF increasingly used them to further their own goals and narrative. As the ODI report states, over time “many aid agencies sought to avoid direct contact with the military, either to limit the perception of association with ISAF – and increasingly the UN”; the effort eventually petered out in 2011.       

John Agoglia, who formerly directed the ISAF Counterinsurgency Training Center in Kabul, distinguishes among humanitarian, development and military actors. (Development in this case being government personnel charged with economy/governance/infrastructure portfolios.) Each has its own role and abilities, he emphasized, and when people blur the lines, they confuse goals. “One cannot judge ISAF developmental assistance with a humanitarian assistance lens, since they are not the same,” he said. A rough example is disaster assistance, where relief organizations would be coordinated by the U.N., and PRT-funded construction of a district police station to build state capacity.

One of the most divisive issues across the country has been whether military units should visit NGO development projects. Many commanders argue that since their country is funding it, they should show overt support. NGO and humanitarian actors however often feel targeted by militants simply by association with PRT/military personnel (and there have been tragic consequences). Ann Vaughn, who served with USAID in Kandahar, stated that Mercy Corps does not allow ISAF or military units to approach their projects as they feel it would result in militant targeting.

On the other hand, in some remote areas the PRT/other ISAF troops may be the only substantial security present. While some humanitarian organizations say that they accommodate militants and government forces alike, there have been occasions when NGO staffs sensed threats and sought refuge with ISAF forces. Separately, in April 2011, the U.N. office in Mazar-i-Sharif was overrun by a demonstrating crowd, killing three U.N. officers and four Nepalese security guards. Afghan security forces reportedly turned down offers of assistance from the local PRT.

Ms. Vaughn also recalled disincentives resulting from uncoordinated approaches. She highlighted the difference between the military’s Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP) money and long-term aid through USAID, which was night and day. Military counterparts have ready cash while civilians have to sometimes wait months. For example, a provincial elder would not foster support for a community credit union since the PRT commander had $5000 to spend on whatever the community judged a priority. On the other hand, when the PRT is the only game in town, a functioning district government is much better than insurgent-inspired chaos. What needs to be discussed seems to be the timing and extent of assistance, given local conditions.

Perhaps most astonishing has been the extent to which Afghans had been excluded from the civil-military discussion. Lisa Schirch, a policy adviser with the Alliance for Peacebuilding, recounted how the U.N.’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) was ostensibly coordinating Afghan NGOs, but this was limited to the largest four or five, with others overlooked, and infamously poor facilitation of meetings.

In a related phenomenon, Ms. Schirch recalled, provincial elders and leaders sometimes felt ignored since ISAF would attempt to build the legitimacy and capacity of state officials that communities did not want. Afghan communities are well acquainted with corruption practices at the higher levels of government, and they thus saw ISAF as complicit, or at least uninformed.

Where do practitioners go with such observations? Mr. Agoglia feels that the ODI report “re-hashes what people have been saying for the last 10 years,” and it needs to go further. The report looks to not necessarily have learned lessons but to still be in search of common ground, albeit with significant, contoured facets, so that civil and military actors now know where and what to polish.

This discussion is an extension of a question from 2004, when PRTs began in Afghanistan: who is best able to support local government and develop health and education in the aftermath of violent conflict? Many answer that by saying “both”— the military has the mobility and security in the short term, and NGOs can enact long-term programming when threats have subsided. The reality in Afghanistan is that, under current conditions, threats are not subsiding.



Jason Anderson

Jason has lived and worked for over five years in Russian-speaking countries. He spent April-May 2014 researching religious extremist groups in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He previously served as a trainer for U.S. military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks conversational Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.