Sunday, February 12, 2017

Legacies, Badlands and Rough Diamonds

 Untold, development assistance, anecdotes from Lashkar Gah - Helmand Province:  Southern Afghanistan

Disputed territory, towns, borders and key installations in southern Afghanistan Courtesy of the Independent newspaper 
In anticipation of the draw down by International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and subsequent closure of Camps Bastion (British) and Leatherneck (American) in 2014, core development partners were adamant that gains, however small, should be both protected and sustained in partnership with the incumbent Afghan Provincial Government. The Helmand Provincial and Reconstruction Team (PRT), initially located in Lashkar Gah and then subsequently at Bastion, was funded by the troika of British, Danish and Estonia governments closed down well in advance of the military scale down. Collectively, they turned towards the last man standing in the form of the enduring UN agencies, specifically the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as part of a potential exit strategy.
An exploratory Mission in 2013 saw an integrated UNDP and DANIDA – Danish International Development Agency  team visit Camp Bastion, the Lashkar Gah-based PRT  and the Provincial Governor’s office with the express purpose of designing a ‘stop-gap’ transition from purely civil–military relations (Civ-Mil or CMR) to civilian-development relations. Much of the initial design and subsequent roll-out was carried out under the sage guidance of Renaud Meyer, UNDP Afghanistan Deputy Country Director together with a multidisciplinary programme team.

Design team members, representing UNDP and DANIDA, on arrival in Lashkar Gah in 2013
At the pinnacle of Afghan-ISAF Civ-Mil relations, researchers from the Overseas Development Institute argued that 'the belief that development and reconstruction activities are central to security'...'was a central component of western involvement' and that this has been 'highly contentious among aid agencies, perhaps nowhere more so than Afghanistan.' Their April 2013 paper concluded with the following key lessons learned: 
  • Stabilisation (peace and security) approaches are likely to continue to present challenges to the aid community’s ability to act according to humanitarian principles in fragile and conflict affected states (FCAS), and post-conflict environments. Experiences in Afghanistan highlight significant tension, if not outright conflict, between stabilisation and internationally recognised guidelines and principles governing civil–military collaboration.
  • Civil–military engagement was noticeably more effective when it was entrenched in International Humanitarian Law and logical reasoning, as with advocacy focused on reducing or 'doing no-harm' to civilians.
  • Aid agencies need to invest more in capacity and training for engaging in civil–military dialogue and, together with donors, seek to generate more objective evidence on the impact of stabilisation approaches.
Signs of those Times - Senior Provincial Government officials - Helmand
Lashkar Gah - location of the PRT - a variable 'oasis' tendered by Helmandi's with green fingers 
Shoring up previous gains in the province was driven primarily by broad-based ‘legacy motivations’ - the immense human and material resource sacrifices and contributions made by ISAF and international community spanning well over a decade. The combined Civ-Mil machinery and mechanisms were highly impressive even though offensive operations in the province had largely ceased and been replaced (2013/14) by direct support to the Afghan National Army (ANA).

 It’s important to note that both US and British forces sustained the highest ever loses in one province, Helmand, of Afghanistan. Combat operations in Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of British 456 servicemen and women, with coalition losses in excess of 3,000 personnel, many in Helmand Province, dating back to initial deployments in October 2001. Furthermore, Camp Bastion cost £50m to fully build in 2006 and £300m to destroy it again eight years later. The total cost to British taxpayers of setting up and running the camp was £20billion. Contributions from the American war chest, to their own Camp Leatherneck and shared infrastructure at Bastion, are bound to be equally staggering.
Between 2005 & October 2014 it was the logistics hub for ISAF operations. It was capable of accommodating over 32,000 people. Built by the British Army it was the largest overseas military camp built since WW2.   

According to SIGAR’s 34th quarterly report – January 2017 (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) since 2002 the US Congress has appropriated more than $117 billion for Afghanistan’s reconstruction. It is the largest expenditure to rebuild a single country in US history and the tab will continue to run at approximately $5 billion per year up to including 2020. Even though more than half of these reconstruction dollars have gone toward building, equipping, training, and sustaining the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), they remain largely ineffectual at securing all of Afghanistan and have lost significant territory to a mixed insurgency. As at August 2016, it was reported that only 63% of the country’s districts were under Afghan government control or sway -  an effective reduction from the 72% as of November 2015.

“Afghanistan is far from perfect, and it will take sustained engagement and effort in the years ahead to protect the progress we’ve made. We have invested significant blood and treasure in Afghanistan’s future, and we must continue to support the Afghan people as they work to build a secure and peaceful future in the months and years ahead.”

        Secretary John Kerry

Often described as the Badlands of Afghanistan, Helmand province is roughly half the area of England. The area is largely uninhabitable consisting of hostile mountainous and desert areas interspaced with fertile river valleys and flood plains where agriculture is the mainstay socio-economic activity. It's estimated that of the total land area of Afghanistan only 12% is suitable for agriculture. Prior to the arrival of ISAF, three main groups consisting of tribal warlords, Taliban leaders and drug traffickers mostly held sway throughout the province with any form of governance (provincial or district) acquiescing and or playing second fiddle to the trio.
The imaginary, shifting and porous border with Pakistan in the south has also perpetuated this state of apparent ‘lawlessness’ over countless decades. Arguably, this situation does not quite fit our contemporary and Western definitions of democracy, sovereignty and good governance but this has been the ‘law’ of this geopolitical region for centuries – even when carved up into neat, convenient parcels of land. Suffice to say the border dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the form of the imposed and highly divisive Durand Line, remains as highly contested as ever. In the words of Hamid Karzai, former President of Afghanistan, ‘A line of hatred that raised a wall between the two brothers.
The famous Kajaki Dam with its earthen wall & other works - centre of the then Helmand River Valley Authority and now Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) Afghanistan's local electricity utility (1950 - to date). Pic: David Goldman AP
Another key ‘legacy’ consideration is a war of different sorts – that against opium production although both proved to be inextricably linked. Eighty to ninety percent of the world’s non-pharmaceutical-grade opium is produced in Afghanistan and Helmand has long been the centre of this. Early on in the Afghan campaign the UK army was sent to the province with the aim of stopping this illegal trade. Between 2002 and 2013 the amount of land given over to opium production rose from just under 75,000 hectares to 209,000 hectares – more than enough to exceed global demand.
The cultivation and trafficking of illicit drugs also puts the entire U.S. investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan at risk. Although the United States has committed more than $8.5 billion to counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan, farmers are growing more opium than ever with gains all but reversed including poppy eradication which has fallen at the wayside almost completely. 
 “Drugs have direct links with corruption, terrorism and development. Without tackling [the] drug problem and illicit economy, in general, it will not be possible to solve other problems facing Afghanistan.”

        Andrey Avetisyan, Regional Representative of the United
        Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 


Bost Airport - Lashkar Gah upgraded by USAID in 2008 & probably now the only remaining functional airstrip in Helmand Province. In 2014 it was a tenuous lifeline to infrequent return UN flights to Kabul

A downstream view of the Kajaki Dam - it's conceivable that more has been sacrificed for this key installation than any other in recent times Pic David Goldman AP

Sangin, a former Taliban stronghold central to the extremist group’s opium trade, was the scene of fierce fighting during the Afghan campaign, with more than 100 British troops dying in and around the town between 2006 and 2010. In a December 2, 2016 press briefing, General Nicholson reported the ANDSF repelled eight Taliban attempts to seize key cities during 2016—three times in Kunduz; twice in Lashkar Gar, Helmand; twice in Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan; and Farah City. On October 6, 2016 the ANDSF held steadfast against four simultaneous attacks on different cities. More than 2,000 members of the Afghan security forces were killed fighting in Helmand in 2016 and there are reports of a large number of soldiers and police deserting their posts. Insurgency efforts generally ebb and flow according to a timeless timetable - once determined by seasonal offensives (especially spring and summer) but now thrown awry by changing weather patterns, bravado and the whims of regional commanders. However, there is an age old argument in Afghanistan that there is one key element that any insurgency - especially the Taliban has at it's disposal and that is TIME.      

The launch of the UNDP Helmand Provincial office in 2014

It’s against this backdrop that ‘two expendable Aussies’ found themselves at the centre of this pioneering Civ-Mil transition and UN Afghanistan Regionalization Strategy – displaced to the ‘Badlands’ of southern Afghanistan. Ironically, they were ‘hosted’ in the secured Governor’s compound - the legacy of a previous US-Afghan misadventure often referred to as Little America. The fascinating account of the Helmand River Valley Irrigation Scheme (1948 – 1978) is captured in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book entitled Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan. Implemented primarily by the Helmand Valley Authority, the collaborative effort between US-Afghan Governments entailed utilization of American engineering and construction expertise to bring the Helmand region and greater southern Afghanistan irrigation, hydroelectric power and modern roads to transport its latent agricultural potential to markets. Incorporating the construction of the Kajaki Dam and an elaborate irrigation canal network, the entire intervention followed 'classic development' approaches until rudely interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1979.


A legacy of Little America - the Helmand River Valley Authority currently part of the Governor's compound with original country club - recreational facilities in a state of disrepair
A sanger - ANA observation post on the banks of the Helmand River guarding the approaches to the Governor's compound & the town of Lashkar Gah.  

Kevin (affectionately dubbed 007 as part of his ‘man of mystery’ mantle; after his namesake and former Aussie PM Kevin Rudd and by ‘association’ therefore lumped in with a string of other highly flamboyant and reputable Kevs) was responsible for setting up and running regional operations within the provincial capital. Once safely ensconced in our postage stamp-sized compound, within the Governor’s bigger compound, Kev warmed to his many managerial tasks but more specifically to his role of Keeper the UN-Inn.   Over several months he hosted visiting delegations from within the broader UN agency family and within no time, flying the UNDP flag, the office became a critical central point of contact (POC) and staging point for ready and direct access to Governor Naaem Baloch and his staff; conducting rapid assessments, feasibility studies and programme/project evaluations spanning critical ad hoc needs and sectors including humanitarian assistance – emergency shelter and feeding; health - disease surveillance and immunization programmes.
Larger than life Kevin 007 - UN-Inn Keeper,  
Helmand Regional Manager and Chief Horticulturalist and Groundskeeper


A portrait of character and commitment - key members of staff
Displacement of civilian populations, from rural districts, was on the rise as the Taliban began to flex their muscles and reclaim the province as their own. Continued implementation of existing programme and project activities was also supported via relevant Afghan national staff that ‘managed’ their portfolios in collaboration with provincial government counterparts and other stakeholders. The UN-Inn was generally a hive of activity generating much interest from our compound neighbours which often included VIPs, Governor Naeem Baloch himself and other high value targets that frequented the Governor’s guesthouse.   

The former Helmand Provincial Governor Naeem Baloch, colourful and controversial, flanked by the 'two expendables.' The picture background proves to be equally revealing.


The Blogger and Rafeeque who later replaced Kevin as the UNDP Regional Manager: Helmand (lower left) entertaining VIPs at the UN-Inn

My strategic support role was to coordinate and ‘tie’ the component parts of Regionalization Strategy and Civ-Mil transition together providing measures of coherence, consistency and continuity.  Remnants of the Civ-Mil establishment (post-draw down) moved to Kandahar and one of my important tasks was to ‘triangulate’, between the strategic centres of Kandahar and Kabul in developing and supporting Lashkar Gah at the periphery. This triangulation entailed ongoing liaison and information sharing with key partners including: UK-AID DFID, DANIDA, USAID, US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) - US/UK civilian-military in southern Afghanistan. This aspect of my role was particularly satisfying and insightful, providing fascinating ‘snapshots’ of the exceedingly turbulent region past, present and, perhaps, future.
All in the UN Agency Family - Laurance from WHO enjoys UNDP Afghanistan hospitality at the Lashkar Gah UN Inn.   
The UNDP Helmand Provincial Team at their work stations - UN Inn - Governor's compound Lashkar Gah 

Without any template or prior experience as such, this was not only ground-breaking but ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ type stuff. Civ-Mil relations exposure, with occasional visits to Camps Bastion and Leatherneck, and close collaboration with FCO were notable assignment highlights. An equally important ‘in-house’ task was to promote aid effectiveness and harmonization across the suite of UNDP programs and projects operating in Helmand province and southern Afghanistan. This included diverse projects and thematic areas such as democratic/local governance; gender equity; justice and human rights and small infrastructure projects.

Yet another US-Afghan 'Little America' legacy - the immaculate gardens adjoining the Governor's guesthouse and home overlooking the Helmand River

General layout of our compound - the main building left was a traditional Helmandi house & containerized accommodation was provided for our Ghurkha protection force & local Afghan staff 

Throughout our assignment, staff security considerations were key to UNDP Kabul and Kevin had at his disposal a respectable dozen  or more personnel consisting of a specifically contracted and specialized Ghurkha force protection unit and our own UNDP national security advisors and drivers. Local Afghan National Police secured our immediate compound gate and perimeter and in spite of occasional security incidents in the town, we were 'reassured' by senior provincial government counterparts that the Governor's compound was strictly 'off limits' as a strategic target, protected by a seemingly 'unwritten truce' and or 'invisible' hand. This was rather bizarre as it was common practice, by the Taliban insurgency country-wide, to target government installations especially the seats of provincial/district power. Since the bulk of our Afghan staff were 'imported', due to transfers or project staff realignments, from Kabul and Mazar this posed a direct personal threat to them. The likelihood that local townsfolk would immediately identify them as outsiders was considered relatively high. As a matter of necessity 'imports' were housed in our compound and only occasionally ventured out to mix freely with the local populace. Our handful of local Helmandi staff also kept a low profile, often working from the safety of their homes and constantly changing their pattern of work visits to the Governor's compound.

A rare outing to the range with our Ghurkha, Afghan National Police and Army protection units 

A unique feature of these imposed security arrangements is that as an office of diverse UNDP colleagues we soon became a very close and cohesive team. As expatriate staff Kevin and I were 'immersed' in a 'total Afghan' - specifically Helmandi cultural experience. As a 'captive collective,' work and leisure time blurred seamlessly into one where we all lived the 'local reality' without exception. Our welfare and lives were in the hands of our Afghan colleagues, friends and hosts. Fuelled by an endless cocktail of nicotine and caffeine Kevin kept everything and one in check including esteemed Governor Naeem Baloch. With the 'fruitful era of development assistance' (and all associated material benefits) rapidly on the wane, our Governor was eager to eke out any last support for his office and provincial administration.

Sadly,Kevin moved on after several months and was replaced by Rafeeque seconded from the UNDP Nepal office. Rafeeque was a devote Muslim and a very able and capable replacement - operations hardly skipped a beat. Kevin's departure changed the team dynamic considerably as the team had warmed to his 'no worries mate' - roguish Aussie approach. I missed the copious amounts of excellent 'free' coffee occasionally accompanied by an equally excellent French cognac. Kevin had a way with words and staff that was certainly missed!

Rafeeque (top end of the pic in white) leading one of our countless meal times together which was my personal highlight of the day. The fellowship and camaraderie was exceptional and unsurpassed.

Throughout our time together as the UNDP Helmand Regional team we strictly observed and celebrated both Afghan and Nepalese tradition, custom and significant events including Mawlid al-Nabi, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Dashain led inspirationally by Rafeeque and Ghurkha Commander Rana. In addition to his role as Regional Manager, Rafeeque played a vital spiritual role providing guidance and counsel to many of our young Afghan men that were not resident Helmandi's and therefore found themselves a considerable distance from family and support structures. Commander Rana and his fiercely proud and professional Ghurkhas were also an absolute revelation! I recall many occasions, in the dead of night when thoughts and deep-seated insecurities run amok, being lulled back to a peaceful and untroubled sleep by the rhythmic pacing of our 'guardian Ghurkhas' as they dutifully stood guard over our slumbering household. In retrospect, I often feel that I personally short-changed Commander Rana and his men in the gratitude and praise department, as much as I'd like to believe that was not the case.      

A fusion of Afghan-Nepalese cuisine prepared by Commander Rana and his men - special moments and memories  

Without wishing to comment too much on whether or not we succeeded with our assignment there are many vivid memories, worth sharing, that deserve flight and fantasy including:
  • The sheer contrast between urban Kabul city and rural Lashkar Gah town dwelling specifically air quality and noise pollution;
  • Incredible and unfathomable peace and solitude experienced yet even in the wild and very dangerous southern Afghanistan;
  • An acute awareness of the incredible sacrifices made by so many - past, present and future   
  • Helmand's moderate and more liveable climate;
  • Summer fruits - the world's best pomegranates;
  • Communal living and the sheer pleasure of experiencing true Afghan friendship and hospitality;
  • Cultural appreciation and absolute admiration - for the people of both Afghanistan and Nepal;

Nights were often slow and very long especially when away from home and the simplest pleasures shared within the context of our 'local reality' built incredible friendship bonds

A lesser known fact related to Helmand Province - specifically Lashkar Gah and Bost is the immense historical and archaeological significance of the area. This growing awareness and concerns around degradation or complete destruction of national or potentially World Heritage Sites of Archaeological Significance culminated in the Lashkari Bazaar Cultural Exhibition Initiative (LBCEI). Conceived in collaboration with colleagues from UNESCO and the French Embassy and Cultural Institute (DAFA), the overriding philosophy behind the initiative  was to create a climate of hope and rejuvenation as well as position and put the Province of Helmand and the country generally, back on the international map for lesser known, more hierarchical and aspirational reasons of education, science and culture. The intention was to partner closely with both the national Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GoIRA) and the Helmand Provincial Government on the initiative. 

At the centre-piece of purportedly the greatest Empire in the East, the original city of Bost was first occupied by Muslim conquerors around 661 A.D. and went on to prosper as the winter capital of the ruling Ghaznavids from the 11th to mid-12th Century. The city was burned and looted in 1151 by the Ghorids and then completely demolished by Genghis Khan in 1220. By the late 16th Century the city and the region was governed by the Safavid dynasty. It became part of the Afghan Hotaki Empire in 1709. It was invaded by the Afsharid forces in 1738 on their way to Kandahar. By 1747 it became part of the Durrani Empire or modern Afghanistan. The British arrived in or about 1840 during the First Anglo-Afghan War but left a year later in disarray. The city was used by Ayub Khan in the Second Anglo-Afghan War until 1880 when the British helped to return it to Abdur Rahman Khan. It remained peaceful for the next 100 years. The ruins of the Ghaznavid palaces, gardens, mansions and bazaar still stand along the Helmand River, even though the city of Bost and its outlying communities were torched in successive centuries by the Ghorids, Mongols and Timurids respectively. 

The Arch of Bust - on record the best preserved Ghurid-era archaeological remnant dating back to the 12th century south of the inner moat of the Citadel of Bust - Helmand Province 

It was against this backdrop that the partners (French Embassy, DAFA, UNDP, UNESCO) sharing an illustrious albeit relatively short-lived history in Afghanistan felt that it was vitally important, as part of their respective mandates, to jointly profile, generate significant awareness and appreciation of the Lashkari Bazaar’s unique historical, cultural and socio-economic attributes. Historical records, photographs, location maps, and scale models of selective palaces/mansions and the bazaar itself would form the basis for a dynamic and interactive exhibition. The plan was to exhibit in Kabul and Lashkar Gah initially and then take it internationally based on public interest and reviews.   National pride and nation-building were viewed as central to this initiative and other positive, potential spin-offs would include downstream archaeological research and restoration; environment rehabilitation; creation of rural livelihood opportunities and a nursery for cultural tourism.

Unfortunately, the initiative did not proceed beyond conceptualization but the remnants of the Lashkari Bazaar remain, facing increasing deterioration and destruction especially from ongoing scouring and erosion of the river banks and in recent years, actual occupation of the archaeological ruins by Helmandi's displaced by fighting between the ANDSF and Taliban in the outlying districts.

In the broader context of a modern Afghanistan grappling with innumerable challenges this appears to be a rather superfluous  and extravagant initiative but it does connect the present with Afghanistan's incredibly rich past - a truly Afghan legacy well worth celebrating in it's own right!   

During my privileged assignment characterized by a precipitous  learning curve; countless WOW experiences and insights and fiercely intense working relationships I was also able to track - chronologically and developmentally - the passage of recent Afghan history through the Little America initiative in Helmand Province (approximately 1948 to 2017). I sat in on US Army Corps of Engineers briefings where the task and burden of Kajaki Dam operations and maintenance (O&M) including the installation of the third and final turbine (Unit 2) was finally passed from international to local contractors. The Kajaki Dam chapter is all but closed, with a sequel perhaps waiting in the wings, where full responsibility for the key installation is set to be assumed by Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) with effect from April 2017.  



Icing on the cake! With a wicked sense of humour our team would often find a reason to celebrate.   

Towards the end of our assignment there was a marked upsurge in security incidents – the leisurely drive through the town to Bost airport now became a gauntlet run; assassination attempts on senior Provincial Government officials especially ANDSF personnel and suicide bombings of key government infrastructure became the norm – especially within the confines of Lashkar Gah. Most of the surrounding countryside was now under Taliban control and they often brought their fight to the town’s outskirts where pitched, small arms fire fights and battles with the Afghan National Police and Army were audible from the Governor’s compound. The ISAF vacuum had simply been filled!

This was and is still, now years later, 'a sobering and surreal reality' to reflect upon. Whereas the rational for our assignment still holds very true - good development  and the delivery of programme and project activities/services are best performed directly, in closest proximity to communities and in collaboration with sub-national government entities (provincial/district), the rapidly changing context in Afghanistan put paid to a pioneering, best-intentioned initiative that was so captivating and all consuming at the time.    

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