Monday, July 19, 2010

Afghanistan in black and white

One good thing about the security lockdown surrounding the Kabul Conference is that I have enforced quiet, punctuated only by the arrival of fresh iced coffees, in which to write. Expect a pileup of posts on Wednesday, as tomorrow all my usual haunts will be closed and I'll have to settle for chilled Nescafe in my own shaded-but-internet-free garden.

I've been reading good articles on Afghanistan in quantity of late, following current developments but also discovering older studies that just didn't fit into a busy academic schedule. For the moment, though, I'd like to express my annoyance with the Wall Street Journal, who this past week took an important story in Helmand Province and framed it very one-sidedly. The article's title, U.S. Rebuilds Power Plant, Taliban Reap a Windfall, demonstrates all the depth of analysis to appear in the article.

Believe me, there are plenty of stories to be written about the United States inadvertently supporting the opposition. I've noted before that logistics sub-contracting has created a self-sustaining protection racket, encouraging local leaders to manufacture instability along major roads and funnel bribes to the Taliban, for example. But building and maintaining power plants in provinces with insurgency is not as uniformly bad as the article, and subsequent blogs about it, appear.

The brief "on the other hand" pivot in the article acknowledges as much:
U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials acknowledge that the insurgents benefit from Kajaki's electricity. Yet, they say, winning over the South's population centers - Kandahar city and the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah - is the overwhelming priority, and providing them with more power for industries and homes furthers that aim.

"Electricity is changing people's lives. Whatever industry we have in Helmand is booming" since the Kajaki turbine was repaired in October, says Rory Donohoe, the U.S. Agency for International Development field program officer for Helmand.

Like most aspects of security and development work here, there are tradeoffs involved in the project - and exactly how they measure on the balance isn't necessarily clear. However, the author makes no attempt to do so. Reading between the lines of the next paragraph: "American civilian and military officials in Afghanistan have been arguing for months over whether further investment is warranted in Kajaki. Civilian officials point to the hydropower plant's sustainability and long-term potential, while military commanders are pressing to remedy the rolling blackouts that strike Kandahar and Lashkar Gah through a quick fix of installing diesel-fuelled generators in the two cities." It appears that the debate is over how best to extend electricity production, not whether to do so. If this many officials agree on one thing, I think the positives outweigh the negatives, at least in assessments by people on the ground.

Development projects often help both the population at large and insurgents living among them - part of the tricky nature of insurgency is its embeddedness among a much larger group of innocents. The fact that the Taliban are able to collect electricity fees is problematic, but it's not the entire story. Questions I've have liked to see answered: What are the estimates of the populations living in both areas? Is the Taliban able to take credit for providing this electricity, or do residents even in insurgent-held districts know that a Western development project powers their lights? How many jobs rely on the Kajaki plant? Is there any sign that electricity provision and development could reduce public dependence on Taliban governance in these districts? (okay, so the last question may be over-optimistic, but the point stands.)

"Counterinsurgency is complex" is a common trope, and "Afghanistan is complex" isn't a new statement even on this blog. Still, is it so hard to offer some balance in telling what seems to be on the whole a moderately successful development project with a notable downside?


MadMattDog said...

What do you think of the recent decision to direct 50% (up from 30%) of aid through the karzai gov't?

kep said...

Matt -

I'm sure you saw Afreen's "Shells of Development" post, which gives a look into government development work in Bamiyan.

Increasing government responsibility would be a good thing, even to the point of accepting some reduced efficiency. Two problems, however, are that I'm not sure we're going to find the actual government implementation of services and development adequate - and that while the major government donors are doing this, many, many smaller NGOs continue to operate separately in ways that either compete with or replace the government in terms of essential services. The government can fall short, and other actors can still undermine its financial power in the provinces.

Short answer: I guess we'll see, but I'm personally skeptical that it'll improve government credibility (as a result of both 1 & 2 above, though in which proportions I don't yet know).