The fourth of occasional postings
Guest Post by Afghanistan Ag Man
Perception is reality in Afghanistan. Anything and everything–from my appearance, to my actions, to my words–can have a positive or negative effect on our missions. In rural Afghanistan, situations may not be exactly as they appear and people may not be who they claim to be.
For example, before I left for Afghanistan in late 2009, I received a lot of advice on how to conduct myself while there. One suggestion was that I grow a beard in an effort to blend in. In Afghanistan, it is widely known that beards are a symbol of both status and wisdom. In fact, the greyer the beard the better (alas, being only 25 years old, I was out of luck on the color, but that didn’t stop me from trying). When I left the United States, I was sporting a poorly grown, patchy beard. However, it didn’t take long working with Afghan locals and farmers before I realized that my attempts were somewhat foolish (and could perhaps have actually been counterproductive).
Let’s face it: I’m an outsider. Instead of denying this fact, I purposely wear Levi jeans, plaid shirts, and an old Tractor Supply Company hat. Hell even if I could grow a grey beard it would not help me blend in, especially because I’m usually traveling with an entourage of camo-clad soldiers. Not to mention it’s really hard to shave out in the field, since we’re often without showers, bathrooms, and running water.
Oddly enough, because of my appearance local Afghans find it easier to trust me. In a recent meeting I attended with the Provincial Agriculture Director and his employees, it was their opinion that I look different with “my green eyes and red face.” They have seen pictures of stereotypical American farmers and I embody that picture. To them, my appearance lends me legitimacy; it helps to convince them that I am indeed an agricultural advisor and not bent on gathering information for a secret Special Forces operation.
All of which provides a nice segue to the real purpose of this post. Since arriving in Afghanistan I’ve become more attune both to what I think are ill-placed efforts on the part of some foreign civilians to blend in to the local communities and villages by simply growing a beard, and the hostility with which some Afghans still view U.S. military personnel. A large part of my job is to build trust with local farmers and to work with them and Afghan ministry officials to identify and find solutions to agricultural and development problems. Yet while protocols do not allow me to travel the country without US and/or ISAF escorts, the fact that I am embedded with military personnel does not necessarily mean that my aid has become “militarized”…
Some United Nations officials and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) operating in Afghanistan have recently criticized ISAF for allegedly “militarizing aid.” This so-called militarization, however, needs to be better defined and the execution of aid–through Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), District Support Teams (DSTs), Civil Affairs (CA)–should be kept in perspective.
Aside from the CA team of military officers that primarily distribute our Commanders’ Emergency Response Program (CERP) and Field Ordering Officer (FOO) funds aimed at quick-impact and emergency programs, each member of my team (whether they be from the Department of State or the US Agency for International Development or the Department of Agriculture) is an employee of their home agency on loan to the Department of Defense. Our goal is to begin development and reconstruction activities once military operations have “cleared” an area of security threats.
Though a technicality, it is important to point out that we work with the military when it comes to transportation and security needs, which allows me and my civilian colleagues to quickly respond to a cleared area. We do not, however, use our aid as a reward for intelligence. The military realized long ago that there are many tribal tensions in Afghanistan and that different tribes have tried to use ISAF as a tool to exact revenge on a rival tribe or to carry out a personal vendetta against a neighbor. I do not–nor does my civilian team–participate in the trade of infrastructure or “Cash-for-Work” projects in return for intelligence.
In fact, to accomplish many of our goals, we usually assess a need and often work with NGOs as implementing partners of our programs, projects, and trainings, who in turn employ local nationals (LNs) to physically perform the tasks in the communities. The actual implementation of aid, therefore, is not “militarized” in the negative sense that many have labeled it.
In a perfect world, NGOs would be the first-responders, as they were before the NATO-led military operations started in 2001. However, they are usually incapable of entering zones that are insecure, even when employing local nationals. Instead, those of us from State, USAID, and Agriculture often enter these unstable areas to begin delivering the first allocations of assistance, which could include the reconstruction of community buildings or homes destroyed during fighting, to assisting with a long-standing orchard disease or pruning demonstrations.
While I appreciate that this is a sensitive issue, it is hard for me to find merit in the argument that aid should not be delivered to Afghans in Helmand or Kandahar or Wardak (three of the most violent provinces) simply because it is delivered with ISAF security and transportation.
Again, in a perfect world, I would go without military security to locations throughout the province, thus avoiding any possible confusion that I am a part of the military. Better yet, officials and employees of GIRoA would directly deliver this much-needed assistance to their fellow citizens. In fact, as mentors and advisors to the GIRoA directors and extension workers, my colleagues and I are trying to augment their capacity to deliver aid. However, I often serve as a liaison between the farming community and Afghan agricultural extension workers due to their fear of retribution for working for GIRoA. Were I not allowed to physically walk into the fields of Afghanistan’s farms (which requires military escorts), needs would not be met.
Furthermore, I think it goes too far to place the blame for violence against UN and NGO employees in Afghanistan on blurred lines between military personnel and the PRT, DST, and CA workers they protect. Doing so obscures the fact that the abductions and killings of foreign aid workers by the Taliban is due to calculated targeting, not “confusion” that arises from “militarized aid.” The execution of aid workers is often blatant and planned.
That said, I recognize the fine line between military and civilian assistance, which is why I take every step possible to differentiate myself from the (necessary) military aspects of our operations. For example, when I enter a village, I do not partake in the military’s system of documenting individuals for tracking purposes. I do not go on missions or patrols that are strictly for security purposes (though often security issues and agro-economic issues are interrelated). I do not wear Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs). And I do not carry a weapon.
I know my appearance alone will not win over Afghans, but it can become an unnecessary obstacle to achieving our development goals. How I am perceived by Afghans is, rightly or wrongly, who I am to them. Likewise, if the first-line of aid must be provided by clean-shaven, foreign civilian officials like myself, accompanied by ISAF troops, then I think the label of “militarized aid” should not have the negative connotation that it currently is given by some in the UN and NGO communities.