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Hans-Joachim Preuss, German Agro Action

“Afghanistan is not ready for a central state yet”


Demonstration in Kabul für eine Amnestie früherer Mudschaheddin-Führer

Demonstration in Kabul für eine Amnestie früherer Mudschaheddin-Führer

Too many innocent people in Afghanistan become victims of air strikes, and yet the security situation keeps worsening. In May, three German soldiers were killed during an insurgent attack in Kunduz. Earlier this year, two aid workers for German Agro Action/Deutsche Welthungerhilfe were murdered in separate incidents.

In response, this Bonn-based aid agency announced that it would not start any new projects in the Hindu Kush for the time being. Hans-Joachim Preuss, the agency’s secretary general, believes that the international community, so far, has focused too heavily on the Kabul government. German Agro Action intends to present a new Afghanistan strategy in October.

Has the stabilisation of Afghanistan failed?
The security situation has certainly not improved. Foreigners and foreign aid workers are in greater danger today than they were either in the times of the Mujaheddin or the Taliban. Nor would I speak of stabilisation as far as economic reconstruction is concerned. There is a huge gulf between how urban areas have developed and what is going on in rural areas, and this gap increases tensions. In short, though the international community resolved to stabilise the economy and the security situation after the fall of the Taliban, it has failed to do so.

Why has the security situation worsened?
The Taliban and hate-mongers who come from Pakistan play a key role. Development policy is unable to prevent that. These people are able to move around freely in Afghanistan, because donor countries did not achieve goals as promised. Furthermore, the insensitive and arrogant behaviour of the foreign military creates considerable tensions among local communities.

Why have development results stayed so poor?
I believe that we have all relied for too long on the assumption that the government in Kabul actually represents all the people of Afghanistan, and I am including German Agro Action when I say that. After five years, we are now finding out that the assumption is wrong. There are regional power centres in Afghanistan, which were not included in the distribution of development funds. This neglect has strengthened the tendency of sabotaging the central government.

Why did it take five years to realise that large amounts of aid are obviously bypassing the local people, and that local forces must be involved?
We have actually been aware of these facts for some time. In the past, we had already pointed out the discrepancy between the high overall sums donors are making available for Afghanistan, and the huge deficits prevailing in rural areas. In part, this gap can be explained by the central government’s lack of adequate capacities. There is still a conspicuous lack of trained experts, be it engineers or administrative staff. It is very difficult to distribute funds sensibly through Afghan structures. Their much-discussed absorption capacity is simply exhausted. So the government is attempting to get work done through non-governmental organisations. However, in doing so, it is revealing an alarming shortcoming: Kabul has a tremendous amount of money waiting to be disbursed, but it is unable to get it moving. It takes the government far too long to approve project proposals and to make money available. In countries like Congo or Sudan we are able, with government consent, to directly cooperate with donor agencies like the African Development Bank or Germany’s KfW development bank. This does not happen in Afghanistan, and I now consider that a shortcoming.

But Afghanistan’s government complains that it hardly gets to see any of the billions of aid dollars, because donors disburse most of it through their own development agencies.
Apart from private donations and governmental funds earmarked for NGOs, the bulk of our Afghanistan budget indeed consists of funds intended for President Karzai’s government. Of course, we negotiate with the Afghan government how to use those funds, and I must say I have never understood the government’s complaint. Yes, many NGOs are active in Afghanistan, and the government, to some extent, does not have an overview of what is going on – but that is, at least in part, due to the fact that the government does not have the capacity to disburse all funds itself.

As part of the new strategy you are designing for Afghanistan, you intend to keep distance from the government in Kabul. Doesn’t that conflict with the international community’s goal to strengthen the state in Afghanistan?
No one will be able to rebuild the state while there is no peace. And there will be no peace without inclusion of opposition forces. It has to be said that, in a very fundamental sense, the conditions needed for a strong central state in Afghanistan do not exist yet. So long as we are unable to get important local leaders and all ethnic groups on board, there can be no vision for a common state. I think that this process will take longer than we imagined it would five years ago.

Let me ask again: why did it take you so long to conclude that the stabilisation of Afghanistan cannot succeed as long as everyone is only focussing on the government in Kabul?
We have cooperated with local forces as far as possible, and we do have a foothold in rural areas. The problem is that the government always wanted to take the credit for projects we carried out on its behalf in the villages. In some cases, that led to resentment in the local community. We have to tackle the question of how to promote typical NGO goals – such as the advancement of women or strengthening local participation and democracy – in the context of existing societal structures. I believe we have sometimes been naïve and over-ambitious in view of Afghanistan’s societal reality.

Aren’t you running the risk of strengthening undemocratic forces by cooperating with local rulers? Where do you see the limits to such cooperation?
I am thinking more of equidistance than of cooperation. We have to deal with criminals in many countries we work in, they may or may not be from the government. In that sense, Afghanistan does not differ from Congo, Liberia or Sudan. We try to keep them all at arm’s length, but we do let them know what we are doing in their particular sphere of influence, checking out whether we’ll meet with resistance or not. In Afghanistan, we were always closer to the government in Kabul than to local rulers, because the former was entitled to represent the entire country. However, that is exactly what it is unable to do.

In future, you also want to keep greater distance from the international troops. Is it possible to carry out development work in Afghanistan without military protection?
It was possible once. The irony is that it is becoming more difficult because of the military’s involvement. We have fuelled a conflict which cannot be put out again overnight. Military intervention should really be about protecting local people from rebels and warlords. But the Afghan people do not need such protection, unlike the people in Sierra Leone, the Congo or Sudan. In Afghanistan, the military tends to protect itself and government institutions, and possibly, in future, increasingly aid agencies too. We have nothing against military intervention if it helps to protect the people, but we do oppose involving the military in development co-operation and thus in areas which do not fall within its area of responsibility.

Germany’s Federal Government specifically refers to safeguarding reconstruction as justification for its military involvement in Afghanistan.
That may have been convincing in regions near the border with Pakistan where the Taliban are strong. So far, however, it was not plausible in Kunduz. Evidently, military presence there is now provoking antagonisms which did not exist before. Kunduz and Jalalabad have never been as unsafe as today, the situation has deteriorated since the foreign troops first arrived.

Are you saying that Afghanistan would be safer today if the international military presence had been considerably reduced after the fall of the Taliban?
We can only speculate about that. But there is no doubt that it was a major omission not to consider all political options – including the one of getting in touch with former warlords and local rulers. Doing so might have reduced the need for foreign soldiers. On the other hand, I am not in favour today of withdrawing the military immediately. That would instantly lead to a power vacuum and the implosion of the Karzai government. The Taliban would most likely be firmly at the helm again soon.

Questions by Tillmann Elliesen.