Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Peace in Afghanistan? Watch the militias

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This text first appeared on The New Humanitarian, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Astri Suhrke is a political scientist and Senior Researcher Emerita at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway. Antonio De Lauri is a Senior Researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway.

An Afghan National Directorate of Security police stands guard in Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan on 6 November 2012. Photo: Erik De Castro/REUTERS

The prospects of direct talks between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban have raised cautious hopes after decades of conflict. But if there is to be a durable peace, then Afghanistan’s CIA-supported paramilitary forces must also be disbanded.

In February, the United States and the Taliban inked an agreement calling for US forces to withdraw, and for the Taliban not to support international terrorism. This treaty paves the way for the Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate a comprehensive peace settlement, though this process has stalled for weeks.

Afghanistan has been cursed with foreign-financed militias, and the units supported and trained by the US Central Intelligence Agency are of special significance. The US-Taliban agreement does not include the activities of the CIA in Afghanistan. But the future of these militias – and their involvement in conflict, targeted killings, and political violence – cannot be left out of the conversation.

The agency has a long, torrid history in Afghanistan. As outlined in a recent report for the Costs of War Project, which researches and analyses the toll of post-9/11 wars, the CIA played a key role in the 1980s in American efforts to assist Afghan rebels known as mujahideen, who invoked the duty of holy warriors to fight Soviet forces and the Afghan communist government. Assistance included organising a mule-and-truck trade in arms and opium. 

The CIA took a lower profile in the country during the 1990s when the mujahideen and the Taliban fought for power, but a well-established local infrastructure enabled the agency to rapidly spring into action after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Operatives equipped with mobile phones and large bundles of dollar bills entered the country on a mission to mobilise Afghan militias. 

“Afghanistan has been cursed with foreign-financed militias, and the units supported and trained by the US Central Intelligence Agency are of special significance.”

Since then, the CIA has financed, trained, and worked closely with militias and special forces of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency – the National Directorate of Security, or NDS. These units function like death squads in secretive night raids often labelled simply as search operations.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, found at least 278 civilians were killed and dozens more injured in search operations last year – about three quarters of these were caused by NDS or other forces trained by the CIA.

This adds up to about six percent of recorded civilian deaths attributed to any side last year. But even these numbers are conservative; they include only cases the UN could document and do not include civilian casualties from airstrikes launched in support of search operations. 

Rights groups and journalists have also extensively documented targeted killings of civilians by CIA-supported units. For example, in October 2018, Human Rights Watch found evidence that an Afghan paramilitary unit raided a home in Rodat district of Nangarhar province, killing five members of one family, including an elderly woman and child. Similarly, at least four civilians were executed during a July 2019 raid on a medical clinic in Wardak province; HRW attributed the strike to an NDS unit.

The humanitarian toll is clear. But the very existence of these paramilitary squads has also contributed to Afghanistan’s continuing instability.

Since 2001, the fragmentation of military power has been a main reason for the country’s limited progress in rebuilding and strengthening the central state. Apart from the human rights issues, a peace agreement that allows CIA-supported paramilitary forces to continue operating outside the control of the state and the chain of command of its armed forces – as these units have been doing – would gravely undermine the prospects for a sustainable peace. Shielded from accountability by powerful foreign backers and protected by the country’s forbidding geography and complex social and political environment, the units could run a prolonged, under-the-radar dirty war, setting off a new spiral of violence. 

“The humanitarian toll is clear. But the very existence of these paramilitary squads has also contributed to Afghanistan’s continuing instability.”

Models for a good peace agreement that address this problem are readily available. Over the past three decades, almost all armed conflicts that ended in a compromise settlement have included agreements for the demobilisation and restructuring of armed forces – including paramilitary units and militias. The 1992 Chapultepec Agreement, which ended more than a decade of civil war in El Salvador, is one of the clearest examples: an entire section in the treaty’s first chapter deals with paramilitary bodies that were infamous for human rights violations. In unambiguous language, the treaty stipulates that paramilitary forces have no place in a state governed by the rule of law.

This was also the case in Afghanistan after 2001 when the UN launched an ambitious programme aimed at disarming armed groups or integrating them into regular armed forces. However, under pressure from renewed conflict, the programme folded soon after it began. 

This time around, disarming the CIA’s forces may be more difficult, even if the issue is covered in an eventual peace agreement. The CIA paramilitaries constitute a formidable set of actors in their own right. Given their highly paid and somewhat privileged status, they are unlikely to welcome a drastic reduction in pay that would accompany demobilisation or integration. If violence continues, which seems likely, the militias will be in high demand in the political marketplace. Well trained and well equipped, they may be reborn as private armies or “security guards” in the service of powerful individuals, or operate autonomously to prey on civilians and commercial sources by taxing local businesses and trade. Either possibility is in line with patterns of political violence in modern Afghan history.

The path forward is not simple. But the lessons from history – in Afghanistan and beyond – are clear. To attain a sustainable peace, externally supported paramilitary forces must be dealt with. The proper instruments are iron-clad formal obligations that are vigorously implemented.

Afghanistan’s Corona Threat Contagion Knows No Borders

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This is an updated version of a text published as an op-ed in Adresseaviden, 24 April 2020:  ‘Afghanistan coronatruet – tikkende smittebomber over grensen’.  Translation from Norwegian by Fidotext. The post also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve. Birgitte Lange is the Secretary General of Save the Children, Norway. Kristian Berg Harpviken is a Researcher at PRIO and member of the board of Save the Children Norway.

Taxi heading for the Iranian border, Herat 2008. Photo: Kristian Berg Harpviken/PRIO

During March, 145,000 Afghans returned from Iran, many infected with coronavirus. In Afghanistan, the number of people infected with the virus is increasing every day. This is bad news for Afghan children, who already live in the world’s most dangerous country.

Politically, Afghanistan is in a very challenging situation. The results of last year’s election are disputed, with two men having claimed the post as the country’s president. At the end of February, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement providing for the withdrawal of international forces in return for the Taliban’s agreement to prevent international terror groups from operating from Afghan soil. The United States is frustrated about the dispute over the presidency, and has cut this year’s aid funding by USD 1 billion. The dispute is not only an obstacle to peace negotations, but has also prevented a rapid and effective response to the coronavirus.

Save the Children’s national office in Afghanistan is seriously concerned about the country’s children. Afghanistan is very high on the list of the world’s worst places to be a child. The vast majority of children in Afghanistan have spent their entire childhoods in wartime. A coronavirus outbreak will have huge consequences, and children will be particularly vulnerable. Millions of Afghan children live in poverty, many are undernourished and already have very limited access to food, education and healthcare. The challenges will become even greater if scarce resources get tied up in the management of a coronavirus epidemic.

Children without access to education will be even more vulnerable to violence and the risk of child marriages will increase. Save the Children is working with the Afghan authorities both to provide vulnerable children with access to education at this time and to ensure that they can return to school as quickly as possible.

National borders have been closed all over the world, while at the same time, one border crossing is busier than ever before – Afghanistan’s western border with Iran. In March alone over 145,000 Afghans returned from Iran, a country where coronavirus has caused the deaths of over 6,277 people, while close to a  100,000 have tested positive. Currently there are reports of 2,900 cases and 90 deaths in Afghanistan. Many of those infected had returned from Iran.

The large numbers of people who are now returning from Iran, where there are up to four million Afghan refugees and migrant workers, is causing concern. The government in Kabul sought to close the border on 23 February, but was forced to reopen it the following day. Tens of thousands of people who fled the virus were trapped in no-man’s-land between the two countries. In total, almost 200,000 people have returned to Afghanistan so far in 2020, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The healthcare system in Afghanistan is not capable of dealing with the virus without significant foreign help, even though it has been significantly strengthened by foreign aid since 2001. The WHO is now assisting the Afghan authorities with testing and building up the necessary infrastructure along the border. Funds from the EU and elsewhere are helping to secure equipment to prevent infection, including PPE for health workers. Even so, the needs are overwhelming.

Norwegian military personnel running field hospitals in Afghanistan have taken in the first coronavirus patients. They have told the Norwegian tabloid VG of their fears about huge numbers of unrecorded cases.

According to the BBC, the Afghan health authorities fear that 16 million of the country’s population of 30 million could become infected. The worst-case scenario would involve 700,000 hospital admissions, 220,000 patients requiring intensive care, and potentially 110,000 deaths.

The consequences of the virus for the global economy also represents a serious threat for Afghanistan. International aid comprises almost 20 percent of Afghanistan’s total gross national product (GDP) and more than 75 percent of the central government budget. If donor countries start cutting their aid budgets in order to deal with their own economic crises, the consequences for Afghanistan will be catastrophic. Norway is recognized as an effective and flexible provider of aid to Afghanistan over the course of many decades.

The Norwegian authorities must now increase their aid to Afghanistan in order to finance the country’s plan for a response to coronavirus, and humanitarian organizations must scale up their efforts as quickly as possible. This means providing funds for badly needed equipment such as tests, PPE for health workers, and ventilators for the sickest patients. It is important that the needs of the most vulnerable are prioritized. In addition, Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries must ensure free passage for important supplies, and aid workers.

It is equally important that all parties to the conflict immediately comply with the call by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, for a global ceasefire during the pandemic. This could form the basis for the peace that Afghanistan so badly needs. Afghanistan must now use all available resources in the battle against coronavirus, but the country is completely reliant on support from the rest of the world!

Expanding and improving the quality of girls’ education in Afghanistan

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Afghanistan illustrates how a country emerging from decades of war and in a continued state of conflict can have, together with its donors, a will to prioritize education. Afghanistan is a success story in increased availability of education and in the number of children attending school, girls included. Building up a management structure to handle such a rapid expansion of the education system, while simultaneously improving and maintaining quality, is a massive challenge. At the same time, the government and the international community are faced with tasks of ensuring the collection of accurate data for reporting and planning, the training and development of a sufficient number of qualified teachers, and the provision of a monitoring, evaluation, and assessment system for education quality.

The Afghan Ministry of Education estimates that there are presently 8.4 million students (39 percent of which are girls) in primary and secondary schools, an impressive increase from an estimated 1 million students in 2001. However, around 3.3 million children (about 32 percent of the school-age population), the majority of which are girls, remain out of school. Limited education among adults in Afghanistan poses a significant challenge—the share of the population over 25 years that has completed any level of formal education is less than 7 percent for men and just 3 percent for women.

Major inequities persist within the Afghan education system, including based on gender, geographic location, and language. Afghanistan has the highest level of gender disparity in primary education in the world, with only 71 girls in primary school for every 100 boys. Only 21 percent of girls complete primary education, largely due to cultural barriers, such as early marriage and a lack of female teachers. Further barriers are embodied in long and dangerous routes to schools and a lack of sanitation facilities and surrounding walls once there. There are also major differences in enrollment between rural and urban areas, with girls from rural poor families being most affected.

The Afghan education sector is confronted with numerous bottlenecks in its efforts to improve education. “Supply side” issues include the government’s inability to provide security, limited human resources, poor infrastructure, and lack of trained teachers and teaching materials. On the demand side, economic factors and cultural barriers limit improvement. It is estimated that more than 10 percent of the schools are closed due to insecurity, warfare, and targeted destruction. More than half of schools are in tents, mosques, and private homes. Despite a lack of infrastructure, classes are held outdoors or in other venues.

Afghanistan is presently the world’s second largest recipient of official development assistance (ODA) and is dependent on external donors to maintain and develop its education sector. The expected reduction in external funding and the ability of the Afghan government to maintain its own revenue generation are causes for concern. Without sufficient resources, gains made since 2001 could easily be overturned or reversed.

In a recent paper prepared for the Oslo Education Summit held in July, I describe a number of key opportunities for action in Afghanistan’s education sector, particularly to improve education for girls and increase education quality. Among these are opportunities to strengthen and develop teacher training, increase the number of qualified teachers, and assess if and how the NGOs and community-based organizations might take on a larger role in the education sector.

Equally important is to strengthen the Ministry Of Education in order to improve education quality and better manage the growing number of students. In particular, these efforts should focus on enhanced data collection and management systems, improved coordination, establishing mechanisms for competency-based hiring, and strengthening linkages and collaboration across ministries.

One still cannot overlook the continued challenges posed by insecurity in several parts of Afghanistan as well as community reluctance to send girls to school. Engaging parents and communities in dialogue is key to generating support and resources for education at the local level. If they can see the benefits of education, as well as participate in school management committees and maintenance, parents are much more likely to see schools as a safe environment and keep girls in school.

Integrating these suggestions into government, community, civil society, and donor partnerships can contribute to significant improvements in education for Afghan children, particularly girls.

Note: This blog, dated from 19 August 2015 and written by Arne Strand (Chr. Michelsen Institute), was originally posted on the Brookings Blogs.

Aid access challenges in Afghanistan

NCHS’s Arne Strand (Deputy Director, CMI) provided comments to the analysis Challenges around aid in Afghanistan, published in the humanitarian news and analysis service, IRIN. The analysis discusses the challenges of aid access, risk management and monitoring in Afghanistan after the handover of security by NATO-led ISAF to Afghan Security Forces.

Reminding of the fragmentation within Afghanistan, Strand anticipates that serious NGOs with knowledge and dedicated staff will remain, but that “monitoring capacity will need a boost in the current environment.”

The author, John James, states that: “To face the future security challenges, analysts suggest a range of measures, from negotiating with a broader set of stakeholders, to using cash-transfer schemes, remote management, third party monitoring, and having a greater tolerance for risk, allied with risk mitigation measures.”

Read the complete analysis here.

Read Arne Strand’s recent Chatham House briefing paper on innovative aid delivery here.

The Unspoken in Kabul: What does the future hold for humanitarian actors?

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On the day that the UN announced the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan has fallen for the first time in six years, NCHS hosted a lively and interesting panel debate on the contemporary and future state of humanitarianism in the country (19th February). Based on a recently published report from the Feinstein Center, Afghanistan: Humanitarianism in Uncertain Times, the event took stock of the current humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan as well as how humanitarian actors can prepare for the forthcoming 2014 withdrawal of ISAF forces.  Panelists included Antonio Donini from the Feinstein Center and co-author of the report, academics from SOAS and CMI, and senior representatives from the Norwegian MFA, the Norwegian Red Cross and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In a packed room at PRIO composed of Afghans, practitioners and policy-makers, Antonio Donini outlined the legacy of decades of international involvement in Afghanistan. Remarking on the similarities with the Soviet withdrawal from the country in 1989, Donini asked, what has been achieved? He noted that the human development indicators make somber reading after a decade of international engagement since the fall of the Taliban and millions of dollars of aid.  He observed that a unique feature of the Afghan situation is that all major donors are also belligerents, including Norway.

Having been invited to discuss possible scenarios for Afghanistan come 2014 and the need to engage in serious contingency planning, there was general agreement among panelists concerning a set of key issues: the re-categorization of the Afghan situation from “post-conflict” to “humanitarian crisis” around 2008 was very belated and had important implications for humanitarian strategies and policy.  The (marginalized) role of UN agencies and accessibility to various parts of the country remains a challenge. The withdrawal of ISAF forces is seen for some humanitarian actors as a positive development but perceived by panelists with varying degrees of apprehension. There was widespread agreement that there is also an acute need to address Afghanistan’s youth bulge.

Despite some agreement across the six panelists, there were strikingly different perspectives on what has and hasn’t been achieved in Afghanistan and what will come next for both ordinary Afghans and humanitarian organizations.  Some panelists suggested that it was not all doom and gloom, while others were more cautious.

Donini reflected on the fact that humanitarian response had not been overly successful in Afghanistan. The Norwegian Refugee Council described humanitarians as having achieved “remarkably little progress”. However, pointing to the successful work of local organizations in the more stable regions of the country, CMI argued that there were distinctly positive aspects to build on for the country’s future.

The lack of open discussions about contingency planning at the UN level was described by one participant as “the unspoken in Kabul, the elephant in the room”. There is a continuing bunkerization mentality within Kabul and agencies were reluctant to admit that their access is limited. On the positive side, 2014 will offer opportunities for looking more carefully at what negotiated access will mean and broader acceptance of the Taliban as a partner around the table. There is also the possibility that the ISAF withdrawal will undermine the Taliban’s main message of fighting a foreign force. Increasingly, the group will have to ask themselves what they now offer the population beyond attacking foreign troops. Humanitarians will also have to ask themselves difficult questions. As pointed out by a member of the audience, there cannot be an assumption that humanitarian actors (especially international) are actually welcome across the country. For many Afghans, they have already overstayed their welcome and humanitarians need to think carefully about what their future contribution to Afghan society can be.

As other countries scale down their funding, the Norwegian MFA repeated its commitment to maintain its funding for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.  The MFA emphasized that it saw humanitarian aid as distinct from the Norwegian participation in ISAF. The focus of the Norwegian efforts would be on generating resilience through local capacity building.

In a comment, the SOAS participant, who is also an Afghan national, questioned why pour funding into capacity building now?   He also wondered why none of the other speakers had mentioned the role of the Afghan state which strongly asserts – at least rhetorically – its sovereignty and desire to actively participate in relieving poverty and suffering across the country.  He also described the humanitarian debate about a lack of access as slightly naïve: Afghani politics is about deal making and leveraging resources; humanitarian, drug related or otherwise.

He expressed concern at the militarization of rural Afghanistan as villages and communities are being armed as part of the ISAF withdrawal strategy.  Yet, he suggested that doom and gloom humanitarians also need to question their own contribution to the military Armageddon narrative: “As soon as we pull out, everything will go to hell. But while we were there, things held together”.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was no generally shared apprehension about insecurity.  The Norwegian Red Cross expressed concern about a decreased capacity to deliver as security deteriorates and international contributions to Afghanistan are reduced.  According to CMI, local Afghan NGOs will probably continue to work quite effectively with local populations. It was suggested that only certain kinds of humanitarians – those with foreign funding, dual citizenship or who financially benefit from disseminating a ‘worst-case scenario’ narrative – engaged in doomsday scenarios.  Local staff, particularly in the northern part of the country, focused on getting their job done with quality and politeness as keywords. While there had been a radical under-investment in peaceful areas with the bulk of funding going to Afghanistan’s conflict zones, there was eagerness in Afghan society to move forward.

A final point of discussion brought up by panelists and by young Afghans in the audience was the potential role of the emergent generation of young Afghans.  Afghani society has irrevocably changed and social media has become an integrated part of everyday life. What kind of space for leveraging social changed can be carved out between the traditional political elite, the warlords and the “NGOized” groups of privileged civil society actors?

A Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies?

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This is our first blog posting at the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. The Centre is the brainchild of a multidisciplinary group of researchers from CMI, NUPI and PRIO, while the blog will host a mixture of reports from the field; thoughts on new issues such as emerging donors, urban violence and humanitarian technology; discussions on (in the first place Norwegian) humanitarian policy and critical reflections on the emergent field of humanitarian studies. We welcome your comments and inputs.

Change is upon international humanitarianism.

Whether caused by violent conflicts or natural disasters, humanitarian interventions (armed and unarmed) raise fundamental questions about ethics, sovereignty, and political power. The global humanitarian system has gone through significant, and often poorly understood, changes over the last two decades. What are the implications for the protection of civilians? Humanitarian work has expanded to cover more long-term development activities at the same time as emergencies have become more frequent. Meanwhile the division between man-made and “natural” disasters is getting increasingly blurred. Humanitarian reform initiatives, with their focus on accountability, transparency and financing, have become institutionalized. But they are raising further questions in their wake.

New actors are rapidly transforming the humanitarian landscape: heavyweights like China, Brazil and Turkey engage in cross-border humanitarian action in ways that differ from the “classic” humanitarianism of Northern donors.  Global philanthropy and the rise of “for profit” NGOs reshape the political economy of humanitarian aid. Social media and so-called “humanitarian technologies” continue to transform understandings of what disasters are, and how civilians can be aided and protected.

In the midst of this, most humanitarian assistance remains a local affair: Human rights groups, social movements and a multiplicity of faith-based organizations bring their specific rationalities to the table in their efforts to address the needs of community members and displaced individuals fleeing from crisis. And of course, for all that humanitarianism is constantly in the news, most of the time the international community is not present, or it arrives too late.

The Norwegian government and Norwegian NGOs have long been (and remain) important actors on the humanitarian stage.

Humanitarian principles are central to overall Norwegian foreign policy, and humanitarian donorship is central to the Norwegian national identity.  In 2011, funding for humanitarian issues totaled 3, 3 billion Norwegian Kroner. This constituted 12% of the Norwegian aid budget, and according to OECD/DAC, the Norwegian contribution represented around 3 % of all humanitarian aid given.  Norway is home to myriad organizations that self-define as “humanitarian”, ranging from mom-and-pop shops to the big internationally known organizations like the Norwegian Red Cross, the Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE International, Save the Children Norway, the Norwegian Peoples Aid and the Norwegian Church Aid.

These organizations work in conflict zones across the globe. While Norway’s roles in peace negotiations and in development aid have been contentious issues for some time, the channeling of these funds to the world’s emergency zones has so far been relatively uncontroversial at home.  For all Norway’s imprint around the globe there is surprisingly little public debate about humanitarian issues in Norway itself.

Based on our work in a range of conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Colombia, the Horn of Africa and the two Sudans; in post-conflict settings like Liberia and Uganda; and in the air-conditioned meeting rooms of the “humanitarian international” in New York and Geneva, our aim is to change that.