Peacebuilding in conflict torn societies – a perspective from Afghanistan24.09.2015
After over three decades of conflict and multiple regime changes, the post-Taliban period of 2001 provided a massive window of opportunity for peaceful transformation in Afghanistan.
Although much progress has been made over the past 14 years, the country is once again engulfed in violent conflict. With the withdrawal of international military, ground combat has grown, sadly with high civilian casualties.
The Afghan security forces are increasingly challenged in their fight against the insurgency with population protection being difficult to master. According to a July 2015 UN report, in the first six months of 2015 a 23 per cent and 13 per cent increase in women and child casualties respectively was documented.
The fact that Afghans bear the brunt of insecurity – both insurgency and crime-related – is also reflected in disproportionate aid worker casualty rates: 85 per cent of UN staff involved in security incidents are Afghan nationals; for international NGOs the rate is 76 per cent. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as these numbers do not include the numerous community members killed for engaging with development actors to improve the lives of their families. Some might be surprised to read these figures, as the death of Afghans is rarely news-worthy – unless it comes in excessive numbers such as in the wake of the August bombings in Kabul. Afghan casualties, both civilian and aid worker, are of course higher than international casualties, as Afghans are at the front line of service delivery. Decreasing security in the country – and high associated security costs for international staff – has slowly shifted development work to Afghan staff and local organisations. Some of this is positive as local organisations have stronger linkages to and enjoy the trust of the communities they assist. Delivering development is important, but one needs to ask at what cost, and also whether or not the risk management of international organisations protects its operations and international staff first, while Afghan staff/communities come second. As the number of international military-linked targets has decreased, attacks on soft targets such as international aid workers have increased as they create news and force donor countries to cut or withdraw their support.
It might be time to shift the debate back to how development can best be accomplished despite risks in conflict-torn societies such as Afghanistan, something that is asked prominently in the conflict-sensitive approach (CSA) to development. In contrast to the CSA, which is a tool to avoid doing harm with development interventions, risk management has become an objective rather than a tool –distorting resources and action.
The questions raised above are hard ones, but they need to be asked, as the past delivery of international assistance has much to answer with regard to the current security impasse. The long years of militarisation of aid have blurred the lines, making it difficult to identify neutral and impartial players. The growing fragmentation, and also criminalisation, of the insurgency has made this complicated, with communities having to adapt to changing rules of engagement by non-state armed actors.
So, what is to be done? The key to success for international actors is to treat local organisations as equal partners, focussing on capacity building of staff and strengthening organisations’ structures in long-term partnerships. This, instead of micro-managing aid delivery, requires trust based on past performance of local organisations to deliver assistance as best as they can. Difficult times need creative and realistic strategies, and above all, true partnership.