It Takes a Potemkin Village (to Lose a War)

This spring, phrases like "population-centric warfare," "protecting and servicing the people," and "whole of government approach" became the dulcet tones of the U.S. military’s latest incantation, composed to soothe and reassure edgy audiences here and abroad that the Obama strategy for Afghanistan is not the Bush strategy for Afghanistan.

But independent aid organizations struggling to pursue humanitarian development in Afghanistan wonder if the carefully tweaked message will ever translate into reality on the ground. They say that despite the rhetoric, civilians are still being caught in the crossfire, while NGOs (non-governmental organizations) with local staff and decades of experience in the country remain critically sidelined and even thrown into harm’s way by U.S./NATO military forces in the field.

In fact, when people read about the recent American raid on a Swedish charity hospital in Wardak, or the 500-pound bomb that reportedly killed 30 or more adult civilians and children in Kunduz, they no doubt begin to question whether today’s "it takes a village" invocation by the Obama administration is nothing more than Potemkin window dressing.

Oxfam, one of the most prominent humanitarian NGOs still operating in Afghanistan, was cautious but pointed in its response to when asked about the hospital raid and whether things have improved since it published last year’s "Caught in the Conflict" [.pdf], which called for the military to curb operations within civilian populations and to stop "blurring the lines" between the military mission and independent aid efforts.

"We have seen the Obama administration change the rhetoric [from the Bush administration] to define the core of U.S. strategy as protecting civilians, putting Afghans in charge of their own development, and decentralizing the building up of government capacity," said Shannon Scribner, humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam America.

"How this plays out on the ground remains to be seen."

The U.S. military reportedly found no insurgents in the Sept. 2 hospital raid in Wardak, despite tying up patients and employees and demanding that doctors seek permission before treating "any patient who could be an insurgent," according to the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, which runs the hospital and has been operating in Afghanistan since the early 1980s. The allegations are being investigated by the U.S. military, which initially denied storming into the hospital and restraining individuals, according to reports.

But it was the second such intrusion, according to the SCA. On July 13, private military contractors came into the hospital seeking shelter "in a very aggressive manner" and "proceeded to assault staff and damage property."

"This is simply not acceptable," said Anders Fange, the NGO’s Afghanistan director. "[We] cannot and will not tolerate this kind of treatment."

Representatives from aid organizations contacted by were understandably careful responding to the SCA allegations, but some American foreign policy observers, including supporters of the COIN (counterinsurgency) operations in Afghanistan, were more blunt in their assessment of how the new "population-centric" strategy is going so far.

"’Protecting the People’ Probably Doesn’t Mean ‘Attacking Hospitals,’" charged Joshua Foust in a headline at his blog,, which is a go-to sheet for Washington’s newest war whisperers, otherwise known as the COIN set.

Foust is a believer in COIN, but he has displayed increasing skepticism of its prospects for success. He notes with some irony Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s much-heralded pledge, issued in June, to pursue a "cultural shift" in the military, in which civilians become the number-one priority. “The reason we’re here, is the people, not the Taliban,” McChrystal told soldiers at Camp Leatherneck June 25.

"I’m curious … why do we even bother having rules, when they can be discarded on a whim with no consequences?" Foust questioned in a blog post following the hospital raid.

PRTs – Pretty Rotten Things?

Representatives from aid organizations told that military-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams are one of the most destructive elements of the so-called "civilian surge" announced earlier this year by the Obama administration.

"Military actors have started engaging themselves in development and even emergency relief, which is widening the confusion of people as to who really are the humanitarian workers and non-humanitarian workers," points out Zarrena Vasquez, spokeswoman for ActionAid Afghanistan.

"If executed as planned, the ‘civilian surge’ may worsen the situation here," charged Anna Husarska, senior policy adviser for the International Rescue Committee, in a July opinion piece.

"Make no mistake: The civilian part of the coalition operations here is subservient to the military arm, and the two are known together as an ‘integrated approach.’ The problem with this approach is that when military structures perform and oversee civilian tasks, the non-military humanitarian work often gets politicized and militarized, and the difference between the two is blurred. … Integrating more civilians into military structures means further militarizing what has traditionally been humanitarian work. This is not in the interest of the Afghan people, who expect security from coalition forces and assistance from civilian aid agencies."

PRTs, despite repeated pleas from the independent aid community, have crowded out the NGOs and made their jobs more dangerous, charges Anne C. Richard, vice president for government relations and advocacy at the IRC. First instituted in Iraq, the units, which come under the command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), have been operating in Afghanistan since 2005.

"Sometimes military commanders say, well, we have to win hearts and minds and do more relief work to win over the locals, and what they will do is they will undertake projects without their troops having the right training or background, or do things that just aren’t sustainable," said Richard in an interview. Meanwhile, the military face on these civilian outreach efforts breeds suspicion among local populations and creates ill will generally for Western aid groups operating in the area.

"Our activities depend on us not being confused with the military," she said, and that is often what happens. "The biggest concern we have is being attacked."

As the military dominates relief and development work in Afghanistan, NGOs have experienced "shrinking humanitarian access." As of April, according to "Caught in the Conflict," one-third of the country was closed to aid groups because of growing violence and hostility against Westerners.

"The space for humanitarian work is slowly getting smaller as aid workers will not go to areas where these military actors are operating, and ‘hotspots’ are getting bigger," said Vasquez.

Richard said that Oxfam, the IRC, ActionAID, and others have been operating in Afghanistan since the 1980s. That means little to the U.S. government, which has put the military PRTs out in front of development there.

"While PRTs were originally set up to create a safe and stable environment, they have gone beyond this to do development work of variable quality and impact," charged Oxfam’s Scribner.

"Initially, there was an expectation for things to work well, we should coordinate with PRTs and our folks said no, we’re not going to do that," said Richard.

"When we are reluctant to work [on the ground] with the military, it is interpreted as an attitude problem, even an unpatriotic attitude. But we have a different mission than you, we say. When we work with you it looks like we are working in the counterinsurgency. We are there to work for the people."

Some would say that was all well and good as long as civil development was getting done, but it’s not.

The PRTs – which were adapted as a way to incorporate civilian agency capabilities into counterinsurgency operations – have been called dysfunctional and have had questionable success on the ground. They have been accused of lacking clear mandates, guidelines, and accountability and of being inconsistent, due to the rapid turnover of staff, with assignments lasting less than a year, sometimes less – hardly a way to achieve knowledge and trust among the locals.

"I think it’s a real barrier, that all the folks involved are coming and going – they want to see success on a short time-frame, and then they leave," said Richard.

Furthermore, PRTs are said to be rife with tension, mostly between the military personnel and the civilian foreign service officers, USAID reps, and other U.S. government employees operating within the units. Lagging recruitment means the teams are underrepresented on the civilian side, and the chain of command is often ambiguous, leading to greater strain among the group.

As a result, they operate as "combined military-military-military-military-civilian" units, as Nick Dowling, a PRT embed, reported in May. Much has been made of the "anti-civilian bias" on these teams, which does nothing to make them operate more efficiently or to encourage more civilians to volunteer for the jobs.

In the meantime, complained Scribner, PRTs "have been diverting resources from the local Afghan government, even substituting for local government in some cases, which slows down the creation of Afghan institutions" – which is supposed to be the goal of the so-called "civilian surge," right?

Fresh Message, Stale Strategy

The war in Afghanistan "has to be a whole-of-government approach," declared Gen. David Petraeus, in a speech to his acolytes at the annual Center for a New American Security (CNAS) conference in June. It was springtime in Washington and a new season in the American war in Central Asia.

As the leaves change color and Afghan civilian deaths, combined with the crumbling legitimacy of the central government there, have further eroded confidence in the much-ballyhooed "population-centric" counterinsurgency, even once-swaggering COINdinistas are looking at the deteriorating situation and experiencing an unfamiliar loss for answers.

The problem is that from the outset of the Obama administration’s transition to power, the words that were meant to be so game-changing, so reaffirming, turned out to be so contrary to what was – and still is – happening on the ground.

"Too many innocent people are dying, and this needs to stop immediately," said G.B. Adkihari, former director of ActionAid Afghanistan, back in July.

"The military option is not proving to be a viable solution."

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.