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Views and opinions

Sgt Dave MacAulay

DND photo IS2008-9252 by Corporal David Cribb

Sergeant Dave MacAulay with the Specialist Engineering Team (SET) monitors construction of a new bridge near the Dahla dam, 20 November 2008.

Military Development and Diplomacy in Afghanistan

by Francis Conliffe

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The Defence, Diplomacy and Development approach to operations in Afghanistan aligns with good theoretical counterinsurgency (COIN) practices. In theory. In practice, however, it has been hampered by human resources being too thinly spread, compounded by inter-agency and multi-national friction. Enemy action has further exacerbated these problems. For example, the Afghan Development Zone (ADZ) is a textbook COIN concept, but it is dependent on a persistent concentration of resources. Enemy pinprick raids in distant locations, for example capturing remote, isolated District Centres, result in Canadian elements being diverted from their primary mission in order to drive off Taliban occupiers, exposing the ADZ to enemy destabilizing activities. The textbook solution thus requires tinkering in order to achieve the desired effect while being executed with limited resources. These difficulties have been compounded by an unimaginative approach to development and diplomacy that hampers the growth of Afghan security forces and social and economic development. This need not be the case, as technology exists to permit developing societies to ‘leapfrog’ past stages and notions of infrastructure upon which developed societies are built. Bypassing traditional development models of electricity generation, sewage treatment, and finance, and considering a different model for education, has the potential to create a more stable, prosperous Afghanistan than do current efforts to mimic western development. Similarly, rural regions far from political centres are struggling to develop effective governing institutions. Their primary Canadian assistance is coming from captains and majors who, while willing, typically lack a background in municipal governance. This need not be the case. The Canadian Forces has proven to be skilled at the ‘Defence’ leg of the 3D triad. We need to focus efforts on improving our ‘Development’ and ‘Diplomacy’ works. While some of the concepts presented here are beyond the scope of the Canadian Task Force to deliver directly, they are presented to provoke thought about options when conducting aid-related interactions with local Afghans as well as with aid agencies.

Electricity is a rare luxury in Afghanistan. Electricity in rural regions is all but non-existent. Villages plug mosque speakers to a car, tractor, or motorcycle battery for expedient power. Generators for wells run off similar vehicle batteries. Diesel or gas-powered generators are the next most common form of electricity, and sprout a delicate web of wires connecting family compounds. Currently, the main focus of restoring electrical power to the south of the country is the Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province.1 Predictions are that the Kajaki Dam project will cost up to $500 million and will take two to three years to complete, although frequent Taliban attacks keep delaying this forecast. The dam has two turbines, each producing approximately 16 megawatts of power, one of which is working and the other is being repaired. A third turbine is planned and is to produce about 18 megawatts, which will result in a total generation capacity of 51 megawatts.2 Yet, NATO forces are having difficulty simply securing that one site to allow construction and upgrades to take place. Assuming it is completed, in order to provide power to Kandahar Province a grid of pylons and transformers will also be required, each vulnerable to attack and vastly more difficult to protect than the dam itself. Consider the difficulties experienced in north-eastern North America during the 2003 blackout, and extrapolate those difficulties to restoring a power grid in a combat zone. In short, few Afghans believe they will receive power from the Kajaki Dam.

Alternatives exist. Numerous companies make portable solar generators of varying size. Generators capable of producing approximately 1500 watts cost roughly $1,500 to $2,000 each. About 250,000 portable generators can be bought for $500 million, producing a combined total of 375 megawatts of electricity, although not all on one grid, and thus more suitable for household rather than for industrial use, with a far more robust, redundant infrastructure that is not vulnerable to sabotage. A small, localized grid of portable generators would provide families and villages with reliable power without having the problems of vulnerable dams or pylons. Assured power would result in greater civil contentment and support for the government than a hydroelectric dam that fails to live up to its promises.

Another option is plasma incineration. While rural regions of Afghanistan are so efficient in their re-use of items that the very concept of garbage is alien to them, urban areas do produce solid waste. Modern plasma incinerators dispose of this waste while producing electricity, potable water, commercial salt, construction aggregate, and sulphur agricultural fertilizer.3 The City of Ottawa is conducting a trial with a PlascoEnergy incinerator that disposes of 75 tonnes of waste per day, and, in turn, provides electricity for 3500 households, as well as providing power for its own activities. Such technologies could be adapted for Afghan applications, incorporating lessons from Canadian trials such as the one in Ottawa, and would resolve multiple Afghan problems, such as electricity generation and waste disposal ‘in one go.’

Sewage treatment is a less obvious problem in rural areas, where human waste is used as fertilizer, and treatment does not exist. In urban areas, however, waste can also cause health hazards, particularly in the event that waste disposal consists of dumping it in the most convenient river. Lessons can be learned from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Healthy House project, which developed houses in Toronto that were entirely self-sufficient for water, electricity, heating, and waste disposal without requiring connection to any city utilities. While this may seem a radical concept to North Americans, it is, in effect, very similar to how Afghans actually live, although Afghan construction is rarely subjected to building code inspections. The Healthy House sewage treatment system involves three stages consisting of primary treatment in a septic tank and anaerobic filtration, a Waterloo Biofilter, and a slow sand filter.4 The end result is potable water. The system used in the Healthy House is designed for substantially greater water consumption than that used by an Afghan family, and would thus require some modification. It is also somewhat expensive at approximately $10,000 per unit.5 On the other hand, building and maintaining an urban sewage system would be similarly expensive, would require trained workers, and would have continual operating costs. In a region characterized by limited education of its inhabitants and difficulties maintaining civic infrastructure, self-contained systems grow in attractiveness.

Afghan worker

DND photo AR2007-M016-0019 by Captain Dave Muratt

An Afghan worker at the well-punching project in Pasab, Zharey District, uses water to lubricate the well punch, 27 January 2007.

Clean drinking water is the most precious commodity in Afghanistan’s rural desert regions, where water comes from two sources: rain water run-off, and wells. Run-off is collected in large, open-air cisterns, and it is used for irrigation. Drinking water comes from wells, but wells are scattered and are often non-functional, due to the theft of working parts. As an example of the fragile potable water dynamic, communities in the Spin Boldak region get their water in the following manner. One community will have a working well, powered by a small generator, or, in some cases, an old car engine. Every day, the surrounding villages send a donkey cart with a large plastic tank to the well to buy water. Typically, villages will have to make two such runs each day, with each run being a multi-hour journey. Once a week, the villages will take some harvested wheat to the nearest market (again, a multi-hour journey), sell their wheat, and thus make enough money for another week of potable water. The village selling the water will use the profits to buy fuel for the generator. If any one component of that procedural network fails, villages risk having to move to displaced person camps. Yet, one of the simplest ‘low technology’ solutions already exists to turn dirty run-off water into potable water, namely, clear plastic water bottles and thermal radiation. A plastic water bottle half-filled with water and left on a black surface, such as a roof, will, within seven hours at 45 degrees Celsius, kill all bacteria present.6 This practice is prevalent throughout Africa and parts of Central Asia, where water treatment is otherwise unavailable. It is cheaper and faster to implement than drilling wells, and it does not generate any adverse effects on the local water table. Further, villages benefit from freeing the labour and money previously spent on potable water, thus being able to divert those resources to other village improvements. This should not be considered a permanent solution to potable water shortages, but it represents the form of quick assistance that can be offered to a village by any patrol passing through the area.

Afghanistan lacks an established banking system and is, therefore, a cash economy. This poses immediate tactical and strategic problems for coalition forces, as Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are paid in cash, when they are paid at all, and require extended periods of time to travel to their homes to pass their pay to their families. Further, corrupt commanders frequently help themselves to their subordinates’ pay. This results in Afghan battalions suffering from high absenteeism, as well as police extortion of the population. On a broader scale, the lack of banking establishments causes problems with respect to national revenue collection. For example, customs fees are a cumbersome nightmare to collect, and they must be shipped by road to Kabul for inclusion as part of the national revenue. And yet, a simple solution to these financial difficulties has been in practice throughout Africa, where many nations suffer even greater challenges than Afghanistan, in the form of cell phone banking.7 In essence, cell phones act as debit cards, and money can be sent via text from one phone to another.8 Payment of police and soldiers, regardless of where they are posted, is as simple as a mass texting of funds, employing similar principles as cell-phone advertising. Individuals can then text their pay to their families while staying at their place of duty. Police can be paid consistently, removing their excuses for extorting money from local citizens. Customs fees can be sent directly to Kabul rather than through the hands of border police and customs officials. Further, this system generates electronic receipts and trails, making it simpler to investigate and prosecute allegations of corruption and ‘skimming’ by persons of authority throughout the chain of command.

Illiteracy and a generalized lack of mathematical skills will pose challenges for wide-scale implementation of such cell banking, but similar problems have been overcome in Africa as users have learned basic phrases and requirements. Afghanistan has a solid and growing cell phone infrastructure,9 and most Afghans are already familiar with cell phones, using them not only to communicate, but also to transmit pictures and video. Incorporating cell phones into the economy, as is the case in the Congo, is not problem-free; Congolese officials have reportedly started demanding bribes in the form of air time transferred to their cell phones. On the positive side, however, Congolese rebels have turned in their weapons in exchange for job training, a one-time payment of $110, and a monthly stipend of $25. Most collect this stipend through cell phone transfers, and clerks are also able to check identity cards against a national database of former rebels in order to confirm eligibility for this stipend, and to confirm that former rebels remain in their home regions rather than traveling to ‘hot spots.’10 The applications of this initiative with disarmed Taliban fighters are obvious.

Taken a step further and expanding this cell banking system across the country would facilitate commerce, providing a simple means for purchasing goods, rather than dealing through Afghanis and rupee currencies. Cell phones already provide a convenient way for checking market prices in different regions. Cell banking would permit financial speculation and transactions previously only possible after hours-long car trips over broken roads. On a macro-economic level, creating an electronic banking system would shift money from individual hording spots into a banking system that can, in turn, put that money to use in investments, helping to further build the Afghan economy. From a tactical perspective, such regular and simple banking transactions would negate the need for Afghan Security Forces to leave their units to pay their families, thus increasing unit effectiveness. From a strategic perspective, it would eliminate an excuse for police corruption, which currently erodes government legitimacy in the eyes of the population, and, by association, erodes the coalition legitimacy for supporting corrupt police.

Education is the most critical long-term issue delaying the development of Afghanistan. Currently, the illiteracy rate is staggering. This is compounded, particularly in southern Afghanistan, by a culture that is reluctant to educate women, and considers memorizing the Koran in Arabic the acme of a young male’s education. Since the Koran is considered accurate only if written in Arabic, Afghans are unable to confirm or refute passages as taught to them. A recent effort to translate the Koran into Dari resulted in the publisher being arrested.11 Boys, particularly those brought up as orphans in refugee camps and thus denied the opportunity to grow up in functioning societies and around females, are especially vulnerable to radical clerical interpretations of Islam. Madrassas preaching virulent strains of Wahabism and Deobandism to impressionable boys are insurgent breeding grounds.12 A potential solution to this problem is to devote resources to educating Afghans in Arabic. Learning to read Arabic would permit Afghans to read the Koran in its original language and to actually debate radical clerical interpretations that, to date, have had to be taken at face value. This is not to suggest that basic instruction in Arabic will make the Afghan population literate in 7th Century Classical Arabic any more than the bulk of the Arab world is conversant in Classical Arabic. However, the ability to read the ideas in their original language would present incredible opportunities to shift this campaign from the physical plane to the moral plane, as the so-called ‘war of ideas’ would become a real debate.

Diplomacy is an area where, at first glance, one would expect Canadian officers to be fairly strong. We have, after all, over a decade of experience in complex peace support operations in the Former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Eritrea, and East Timor, where officers from platoon to battle group level routinely interacted with indigenous politicians and international agencies In many cases, they served in roles similar, if at a much lower level, to those of the Strategic Advisory Team – Afghanistan. However, there is a subtle, although significant, difference between the political realms in peace support operations and counterinsurgency. Peace support operations, as the name implies, focus upon the prevention of outbreak of hostilities. Politics plays a supporting role in these operations. Counterinsurgency, by contrast, is the struggle for political legitimacy. Combat plays a supporting role in the political struggle. As a result, governing institutions are far more important in a counterinsurgency campaign such as in Afghanistan than they are in a location such as Bosnia. The Afghan population is faced with a handful of choices to support: the Kabul-based government, the local strongman, or the Taliban. Canada and Afghanistan may be very different countries, but, politically, we do have similarities. In both nations, the political institutions that most affect the population’s daily life are those that receive the least attention: the municipal leaders. Unlike most Canadians, however, Afghans are extremely interested in their local politics.

Afghan communities in Kandahar Province are represented by a combination of local village elders and District Leaders. Tribal affiliations play a major role in determining who wields actual influence in the region. Local security force leaders, such as national or border police, also wield influence in the region. Canadian officers frequently attend the regular district meetings (shuras) and offer advice and guidance to local leaders. Given that these local leaders are effectively the face of the Afghan government, acceptance or rejection of the central government rests largely in the hands of the local leaders. General Petraeus, the commanding general of coalition forces in Iraq, has observed, “...[that] ultimate success depends on local leaders.”13 Petraeus notes that these leaders are the key to Iraq, and that it takes only a casual acquaintance with Afghanistan to recognize that the same holds true in Canada’s theatre of operations. And yet, the officers we assign to these regions receive no formal training, education, or instruction in this role. While the suggestion of more training may seem daunting in the already torturous work-up training schedule that seems to last a year, given the importance of political legitimacy in this campaign, and contrasting it with our already-demonstrated combat effectiveness, a few days of professional development for sub-unit commanders, seconds in command, liaison officers, and possibly sergeants-major, would appear to be time well spent. This training should be a study in municipal politics, to include observing council meetings and the make-up of a city hall. It should be tempered with cultural awareness training specifically focused upon shuras, regional tribal relations, and Afghan politics. It should be stressed that Canadian officers will not be actually making political decisions, nor are we seeking to create ‘clones’ of Western political institutions. Rather, the idea is simply to help prepare officers to assume an effective advisory and assistance role in the complex world of local politics.

Well drilling in Afghanistan

DND Photo AR20070281a by Sergeant Dennis Power

A worker with a well drilling team clears mud and rock from a drill head while working on a CIMIC project in Pasab, Zharey District.

These concepts are just a few of the many options available to organizations trying to combine development, diplomacy, and security in Afghanistan. When employed in concentration through the concept of the Afghan Development Zone, they have the potential to dramatically alter local social systems for the better. The ideas are a blend of quick impact and long-term projects requiring varying degrees of resources and investment. This is intentional, as credibility in Afghanistan is based upon demonstrable results, and therefore, quick projects are powerful tools that help in initially proving to the population that coalition forces are serious in their commitment to support the Afghan government. But quick impact projects alone will not help Afghans build a functioning, stable, and effective society, and they require longer-term assistance that will bridge multiple Canadian deployments. Moreover, there is no military solution to Afghanistan, and there needs to be an increasing effort made to incorporate civil institutions, and to include international government and industry in the effort to support the economic and political recovery and rehabilitation of Afghanistan. Canadian assistance to Afghanistan has, to date, been mostly successful. However, the approach taken has largely been based upon ‘what worked’ during our past 15 years of operations. Further, there has also been a ‘stovepiping’ of missions, with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and the battle group focusing upon separate missions. The PRT does outstanding work, but it is a small organization. All forces in Afghanistan should be engaged in development work and building institutions. Without evolving, our current approaches will likely not be sufficient to maintain our rate of progress. We face a dynamic enemy in Afghanistan – one who must be engaged on both the moral and physical planes. We need to continuously develop and implement new ideas in order to render the insurgency ineffective and to give Afghanistan the time required for effective institutions to mature to the point where the country can function on its own.

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Captain Francis Conliffe is an officer with the Royal Canadian Dragoons, where he is the Operations Officer of the Headquarters Squadron. He has been employed as a troop leader with his regiment, as well as being the Adjutant of the Governor General’s Horse Guards. He has served in Bosnia as an assault troop leader, and in Afghanistan as 2IC of the Reconnaissance Squadron.

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