“I have some gifts for your village. I’d like to give them to you to distribute to the people.”
Air Force Lt. Col. Andy Veres, commander of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Zabul province, was addressing Haji Sayeed, the head man of a small village. We were sitting in the courtyard of Sayeed’s mud-brick house, a few hours’ drive from the provincial capital, Qalat. Veres has forged a friendship with Sayeed over the course of two deployments here, and Sayeed is old enough – perhaps 75 – to speak more frankly than the average Afghan would to an American commander.
Sayeed answered, “I would prefer if you distribute the gifts. This will prevent rumors. If I give the gifts, people will say you gave me more than this amount and I kept some for myself. I know you Americans have given millions to our people. So this will be good for you that the people know you are their friend.” He also urged Veres to distribute half of the goods to a village nearby.
This simple exchange, which I witnessed last month as a journalist embedded with the Zabul PRT, underscores critical issues in the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan that play out on a grander scale here every day, all the way up to our relations with President Hamid Karzai.
First, there is the question of “putting an Afghan face” on the good things the United States does here, vs. making the American origins of aid crystal clear. What Veres suggested is the official American policy – and it’s a terrible idea. Pretending to Afghans that their usually dysfunctional government is providing for them hurts all concerned. Last month, an Asia Foundation survey found that 74 percent of Afghans agree with the statement “I don’t think the government cares much about what people like me think,” with 30 percent agreeing “strongly.” American efforts to cover for Afghan incompetence relieve the Afghan government of pressure from the people to perform; they reinforce the beliefs of some Afghans that the United States is in league with corrupt power brokers; and they keep in the dark the many Afghans who are unaware of just how much the United States is doing for their country and its citizens.
Recent polling by the International Council on Security and Development, a private group funded by foundations in Europe, found that 72 percent of 1,000 southern Afghan men surveyed believe that foreigners are disrespectful of their religion and culture. Reinforcing that belief are examples such as this case from Zabul: Last month, for the Muslim religious holiday of Eid al-Adha, when gifts of clothing are traditional, the Zabul PRT gave 1,700 shawls to local men. That is, the PRT paid for the shawls but didn’t hand them out directly; they were given first to the provincial ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs, which distributed them. A win for the Afghan government? Maybe – depending on the reputation of this ministry and complex local political factors. (Afghan politics obeys the cliche about academic politics – that the smaller the stakes, the more bitterly they are contested.) But it was certainly a lost chance to show American solidarity with Afghan traditions.
Second, when we put an Afghan facade on American aid, local officials are given more power than they would otherwise accrue on their own. Some local figures owe their influence to violence and crime, others to having proved themselves effective servants of their people.
Even in the best cases – and Haji Sayeed is probably one of those – our acts amplify power brokers’ influence, concentrating power in the hands of a few. In a society prone to conspiracy theories, such actions, though well-intentioned, risk swaying many Afghans to believe that the honest are corrupt. Further empowering those known to be corrupt, of course, inflicts a different kind of damage.
Finally, we risk undermining U.S. efforts to bring the rule of law and democracy to Afghanistan. Washington is seeking to create a country of laws and systems. In some ways, the fallout from these American missteps can be seen in the rule of Karzai, where far too much power and influence have been centralized in one office. Even if Karzai had been George Washington, the scenario might have worked out poorly.
Back in Shahr-e-Shafa, Veres, a highly intelligent and adaptable leader, took Sayeed’s advice. The gifts his team distributed wouldn’t have drawn attention in the poorest American slum – cheap Chinese children’s socks and gloves, polyester sweaters for the girls and women, blankets for adult men – but they were eagerly received here, where many children are barefoot and there is no electricity or running water. Sayeed watched and then hobbled off toward his house. Later, Veres told me, “He taught me a valuable lesson.”
In this village, Afghans know that Americans are people of good will. But American policy of putting an Afghan face on our taxpayers’ generosity is to blame for the attitudes in other, similar places, where rural Afghans whose support we are trying to gather believe that we disrespect their traditions or are the dupes of their worst elements.