Dec 4, 2009

Going wrong in Afghanistan? Show, don't just tell...

The latest story to hit the top headlines around the world: “Obama to send in 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.” Well, it certainly has many implications, but I’ll focus more on the strategic communication aspect, especially in light of our recent class material.

(Photo courtesy of Defenselink)

Public diplomacy and strategic communication are increasingly criticized for not being responsive to the recent trends of globalization: they have grown increasingly ineffective, they are not engaging enough, and in many instances, they are even counter-productive, if not detrimental, only fuelling the extremist discourse. Many various solutions have been suggested to address the problem, and from all these, I think Daryl Copeland’s approach sounds as the most comprehensive one. He suggests having guerilla diplomats – agile, acute, and autonomous – as “network-builders” and “knowledge-workers” to be able to maneuver better in the increasingly “bazaar-like” horizontal power-dynamics and to manage the challenges of globalization more effectively. What I like most in his argument, however, is the emphasis on the fact that underdevelopment is the major cause for insecurity, and the need to have guerilla diplomats actively contributing to sustainable development so as to successfully address the problem in societies with chronic instability and lack of governance.
   Development as an instrument for stability has been among the key American strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq (CERP just one of them), with increasing resource commitments, which are sure to rise with the tentative date of withdrawal now set.  In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Wilder and Gordon say their research has shown, however, that “there was very little evidence of aid projects winning hearts and minds or promoting stability,” and that the Afghans themselves explained the increase in insurgency by increased disenfranchisement with their own government, seen as largely “corrupt and unjust.” The Afghans were also very critical of all the foreign development aid, which was perceived as fuelling massive corruption and undermining the “positive impacts it may otherwise had.” The more interesting fact is that the U.S. is itself actually paying millions of dollars to ensure security – or at least, not to create insecurity – to Afghan officials, tribal leaders, security forces… and insurgents, including the Taliban.
There goes credibility - the much-acclaimed element so vital to strategic communication - down the drain... Should we blame the money-driven mindset that somehow missed the target in a fundamentally different society?
In the same article, Wilder and Gordon say that the only development-related case that the Afghans perceived as successful was the National Solidarity Program, where the local communities played a greater role in planning, designing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating the projects.  A tribal leader quoted in the end of the article states: “Money can't win hearts and minds. If you give an Afghan a great meal but insult him he will never come again. But if you treat him with respect but only give him a piece of bread he will be your friend forever.” 
Therefore, Copeland is only right. Development – but, real and sustainable development, that can ensure the existence of proper institutions and governance (unlike the small-scale short-term projects envisioned by CERP, for example) – coupled with increasing trust from the local people, can prove to be the key to achieving stability in Afghanistan. To build trust, NATO needs to listen and involve the Afghan people themselves - NOT only the Afghan officials – to gauge the effect of its programs, formulate more appropriate strategies, and SHOW (and not just TELL) that it really cares about the Afghan future. If anything, they would only benefit from the Pragmatic Complexity Model, and the recognition that sustainable long-term stability (or, especially, democracy) cannot be imposed, but rather, has to be cultivated and nurtured together with the Afghans themselves. After all, a stable Afghanistan will only contribute to a stable world and thus, national security.


  1. "To build trust, NATO needs to listen and involve the Afghan people themselves - NOT only the Afghan officials – to gauge the effect of its programs, formulate more appropriate strategies, and SHOW (and not just TELL) that it really cares about the Afghan future."

    Perhaps NATO can do that, but the United States has already made it clear through both Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama that they are not there for the Afghan future, only to disband and disrupt Al Qaeda. They have no plans of nation building (though they sure are keen to give Pakistan everything they demand).

    In an interview with Christiane Amanpour, former Afghan Presidential candidate, Dr.Ashraf Ghani responded to Clinton' statements by saying "that threat cannot be eliminated unless Afghanistan is made stable. And it cannot be made stable unless a process of state-building is made in earnest.“ However, within 18 month timeline for gradual troop pullout and statements directly saying they are not there to build a nation, it seems unlikely the U.S. is willing to do that.

    I still tend to agree with our presentation that the U.S. must find a way to make the Afghans human and relatable to the American people for them to take any serious interest in helping Afghanistan when they have an economic crisis and 47 million Americans don't have health care.

    Though Obama did spend a paragraph of his speech trying to do that, the bulk of his efforts to talk about any nation as more human seemed to be aimed at Pakistan.

    Obama made statements about watching Karzai and putting pressure on the Afghan institutions, but he never gave equal time to such pressure for Zardari and the Pakistani institutions. Obama talked about Taliban attacks in Pakistan and about America's aid and committment in Pakistan but said little of the human cost to Afghans of this war and insurgency.

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  3. (I wish I knew how to edit comments so I wouldn't have to keep deleting them to edit them. Someone give me a clue.)

    Ali, Lena's posting actually reminds me of the panel interview you participated in about Afghanistan and the debate over whether development projects were a feasible or effective tool for stabilizing the country and/or gaining popular support. I recall the military vet on the panel being pretty adamant that there is no way to carry out development programs if the people working on those programs cannot operate in secure conditions. Over the past few months I have seen a lot of articles on Afghan and foreign road-workers kidnapped and held for ransom. I wonder if there is some sort of grass roots effort that could be implemented to protect crews working on the roads, but I assume that the fear of retaliation would be an obstacle for getting rural people involved in the most dangerous construction areas.