Posted by: Christian | June 8, 2008

The Politicization and Militarization of Aid to Afghanistan

The politicization and militarization of aid to Afghanistan did not start in 2001. The nature of aid to Afghanistan started as both political and military with British subsidies. In the 1950s the peaceful but very political battle between the US and the USSR to win over the Afghan government with assistance began. The Americans ended up “losing” this “battle” by a 3-1 margin (US$1.5 billion versus approximately 500 million in olden days dollars). Plus the Americans sunk much of their resources into the hugely problematic Helmand Valley Project while the Soviets opted for highly visible prestige projects in Kabul plus a nifty highway system with bridges to accommodate a full rage of Soviet military equipment……uh, rather “local lorries delivering fruit” is what we meant. Da, eto fakt.

Once the anti-Soviet jihad got started the flow of American, Saudi, Chinese, Pakistani, Egyptian, et al. military aid commenced. Included in this, to a lesser degree, was humanitarian assistance. This is obviously well known. But what about the politicization and militarization of NGO work? And I’m not talking PRTs here. I’m talking about well-established international NGOs with a long track record of good works around the world basically setting up shop with some of the Peshawar-based Mujahideen Parties. There were of course those “fake” NGOs which were created by the US, Saudi and Pakistan to spy and deliver assistance on both sides of the line. But again, I’m also speaking about groups which today are complaining about the militarization of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan who, in the 1980s willingly entered into a position of assisting and empowering Islamist and royalist guerilla factions.

I wonder how many employees are left over from the Peshawar days who could relay to the younger generation how they “set up shop” in refugee camps which were controlled by the mujahideen parties and used by those parties as recruitment bases and for resources. You could not, as a refugee, get any assistance without a refugee ID card that identified you as living in one of the mujahideen camps. And the aid was funneled through the mujahideen leaders inside their camps, fully controlled by them. Your life as a refugee was controlled by one of the parties and your rations were a resource for them.

Photo: The Shamshatu refugee camp in 2002. It is alleged that Hekmatyar uses it as a resource base. So things are still political (and military).

So if your NGO was in the Rabbani camp, you were materially supporting Jamiat-i Islami, who could mostly control access to you and control what you did in the camp. The same goes for Hizb-Islami Gulbuddin and Khalis, Ittihad, etc… So there are NGO workers who, along with the US government and CIA in the 1980s, were supporting Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Rasul Sayyaf, among others. I’m not exposing any secrets here. This is generally well-known. What’s funny is that the Soviets complained about this militarization and politicization of humanitarian aid. And the range of NGO cooperation with the mujahideen varied. I’m sure some managed to maintain a respectable level of independence under the circumstances.

What else occurred? What higher level of assistance did some NGOs provide to the mujahideen parties? Going into that would be mostly anecdotal. But at the bare minimum there were a few NGO workers who carried out some (hopefully) unauthorized work that went well beyond their mandate and mission. If you wish to investigate I suggest reading stuff written in the 1980s and early 1990s when some of these NGO workers were more forthcoming about their actions and motivations.

What I also want to stress here is that I’m not attempting to use this as part of the contemporary debate on the militarization of humanitarian aid. This issue should be analyzed separately, on its own merits. But the fact that there a couple of NGOs still operating that fully cooperated with the mujahideen factions and now see cooperating with NATO/ISAF as an anathema is, well… it’s something. I’m sure they have seen the error of their ways (eyes roll). I can almost guess their motivations. Probably something to do with usually siding with David versus Goliath. It’s just so gray these days. Not as much black and white as there used to be perceived to be. But it is, of course, not something that should factor into the debate over the militarization of aid in Afghanistan.

The vast majority of aid to Afghanistan is politicized. Even if you don’t think so. All it takes is for either the US, the Taliban, the locals or the central government to see it as political and becomes so, despite the protestations of those delivering it. But what about the contemporary militarization of humanitarian aid? I’ll try that one later.

And a final note. After this rather “interesting” history of aid to Afghanistan, is it any wonder that Afghans, elite and non-elite, see aid as a political resource?


  1. “All it takes is for either the US, the Taliban, the locals or the central government to see it as political and becomes so, despite the protestations of those delivering it.”

    And as soon as one side or the other sees it as political you lose that cornerstone of most NGO’s acceptance strategy, ‘acceptance’. Current NGO security still suffers from the choices they made in the 80s.

  2. Sorry, that should read security strategy.

  3. Aid has always been political—and I don’t think saying so is even very controversial.

    However, while everyone will admit aid has always had some form of military component, the way in which civilian aid has been recently coopted by the military is certainly new. There hasn’t been something like Provincial Reconstruction Teams in recent memory, certainly not during the post-WWII era. I know you want to separate the two, but it is that dynamic I think many find major fault with.

  4. No, nothing controversial about saying aid is politcal. But too few NGOs would still care to publicaly admit it.

    Some of the anecdotal evidence of NGOs supporting the mujahideen makes for interesting hearing. If you could recommend anything specific from the ’80s or ’90s that is a bit more openely verifiable it would be much appreciated.

  5. This is an early starting point for those interested in further reading on the issue:

    “NGOs and the Afghan War: The Politicisation of Humanitarian Aid” by Helga Baitenmann

    Third World Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1, (Jan., 1990), pp. 62-85.

  6. […] Great post from here […]


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