As Afghans await the results of the April 5 presidential poll, policy makers in Washington are fretting about whether a new president in Kabul will help clear the way for a long-deferred bilateral security agreement, which would keep a small contingent of American troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014.
The real issue, however, is not whether the new Afghan president will endorse the agreement (all candidates have indicated their intention to sign it), but whether those troops will help protect the many increasingly endangered aid workers who remain.
More than 12 years after America’s longest war began, tens of billions of dollars have been spent on aid and reconstruction projects designed to shore up support for the government of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai. But for those of us who have worked there — and have seen too many colleagues killed or wounded — the safety of aid workers is just as important a gauge of America’s legacy in Afghanistan as any security agreement. The troops that stay must help secure ongoing development efforts; anything else would be a dereliction of America’s responsibilities.
In 2010, I was working in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz for a consulting company contracted by the United States Agency for International Development. I had been dispatched, with six colleagues, from Kabul; our mandate was to disburse small grants to help earn community support for the fledgling — and often slow-going — efforts of local Afghan government officials to bolster their credibility. We called it “stabilization.”
At around 3 a.m. on July 2, a Taliban suicide bomber exploded his vehicle outside our building. Five militants then stormed the compound. For six hours, my colleagues and I were caught in the middle of a hellish battle between the Taliban and the Afghan National Army, which was backed by the United States Army’s 10th Mountain Division. In the course of the fighting, two of my friends were killed and three were wounded; I was shot in the arm.
After three years of emotional instability, physical pain and a constant battle to overcome both, I still cringe when I hear of an attack on aid workers.
March marked the first month in over seven years in which America suffered no military casualties in Afghanistan. But there has been an alarming rise in attacks on international aid workers and their Afghan colleagues, who continue to be “soft targets” of a violent campaign designed to erase any trace of America’s presence.
Beginning in January, with an attack on the Taverna du Liban restaurant in Kabul, there have been several attacks on aid workers and the places they frequent. Late last month, the Kabul residence of Roots of Peace — a nonprofit that helps clear Afghan farmland of Soviet-era mines — was targeted in a complex attack involving gunmen and suicide bombers. Two Afghan guards were wounded, and two Afghan civilians and five of the attackers were killed.
This recent wave of violence against civilians bodes ill for both the people of Afghanistan and for regional stability.
All of this comes as Mr. Karzai — whose personal security was once handled by American special forces — is voicing support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and praising Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s rejuvenation of Soviet-era investments in Afghanistan. This snub to President Obama, consistent with White House struggles to negotiate the security pact, makes Mr. Obama’s Afghan exit strategy seem naïve at best. A pillar of that strategy is the presence of aid workers beyond the troop drawdown; reduced American leverage in Afghanistan means exposing these men and women to lethal violence.
What’s at stake is not only security for aid workers, but American credibility in the region. In December 2009, Obama promised to focus American assistance in Afghanistan on “areas, such as agriculture, that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.” But with programs like Roots of Peace being attacked even in the relatively secure environs of Kabul, there is little hope that American aid will reach those who need it most.
American leaders understand that inaction is not an option in Afghanistan. Doing nothing would echo America’s disengagement after Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan over two decades ago, which helped speed the country’s spiral into extremism and its rebirth as a haven for Al Qaeda.
As it plans its military exit strategy, America must craft a human development strategy that accounts for the constraints facing aid programs in Afghanistan. Aid workers who remain must be afforded enough security to do their jobs. Without that, no amount of American assistance will be worth the risk, and the real cost of development after the troops leave — or severely restrict their mission — could be too high to sustain.
I’ve often wondered what would have become of us that day in Kunduz had American troops not been nearby. This isn’t an argument for using more military force in Afghanistan. But I know all too well what so many victims of extremism have known for decades: Good will alone cannot protect against those determined to wreak havoc for ideological ends. Defending against those who would sabotage the needed humanitarian work of mine-clearing, say, or improving educational opportunities for girls is a different kind of mission.
What that mission would look like is a question for military planners, but front-line aid workers should be part of the conversation. Policy makers who recognize the vital importance of development to Afghanistan must not underestimate the perils of assistance in a country still wracked by poverty and instability. That would only endanger more lives.
Biljana Hutchinson worked on development aid projects in Afghanistan from March 2009 to July 2010.