Food, Not Bombs

What does a $150,000 artillery shell have to with Canada’s aid efforts in Afghanistan? Not much, but it is an excellent example of everything wrong-headed about our mission there.

Canadian Forces were recently given the go-ahead to begin using GPS-guided shells that are so expensive, each one is like firing a brand new Ferrari out of a cannon.

It is ironic that the same day, a report was released showing that almost all Western governments, including Canada, have not lived up to their aid commitments to that war-torn country.

Ninety four international aid agencies under the banner of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, reported this week that western governments had shortchanged impoverished Afghanistan by a staggering $15 billion in pledged aid since 2001.

Canada committed $779 million in aid but came up almost $50 million short. It seems when given the choice of investing in artillery shells or schools, Ottawa has made their decision.

Other countries are even more stingy. The US welched on $5.5 billion in pledged aid. The World Bank jammed out on $800 million. Germany didn’t pony up $400 million, and the UK came up $200 million short.

The outrage of the richest countries on Earth shortchanging one the world’s poorest should not ignored. It is equally important to remember that this lack of focus on aid and development has seriously undermined the country’s already shaky stability. .

The authour of the report, Matt Waldman, Afghanistan policy adviser at Oxfam states it plainly: “The combined effect of having this shortfall in aid is that no doubt insecurity has spread. We have to acknowledge that there are links between security and development, and if we reduce poverty …we will be paving the way towards stability and peace.”

Afghanistan remains one of the most grindingly impoverished places on the planet. Failing to deliver on identified aid requirements to such a desperately poor and unstable country is not only immoral, it is imprudent.

While this hardscrabble nation is not rich in natural resources, it is awash in small arms and munitions after decades of war. The cost of a used AK-47 in Afghanistan is about $10. Bullets are 30 cents each. Scores of land mines and anti-tank mines are strewn throughout the country, providing the raw materials for improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Should people wish to commit acts of violence on each other, or mount an insurgency against perceived foreign occupiers, they have plenty to work with.

The emergence of the IED as brutally effective weapon is a good example of the shifting ground around armed conflict. For millennia it has been possible (and often profitable) for a superior military force to conquer another nation and subdue their people. For perhaps the first time in human history, that is no longer so simple.

A roadside bomb can be built for less than $50, but can destroy a tank worth several million. The US military has so far spent $6 billion trying to counter the growing threat of IEDs to no avail. These simple and deadly devices are making occupying a hostile country prohibitively expensive. The economics of war have suddenly become very bad.

Whether the military wants to admit it or not, investing in peace is becoming much more cost effective than conventional, and increasingly counter-productive, military solutions.

Yet the obvious connection between grinding poverty and violence remains lost on most western governments, including our own. The stubborn belief that it is possible (or desirable) to win over a people by trying to kill all those that oppose you may take a long time to leave us. The US continues to spend over fourteen times as much on military actions than on aid in Afghanistan, a country already ground to dust by decades of war.

While some may argue that soldiers have also been delivering medical and other aid, groups like Oxfam are clear that it should be instead civilian and NGO sectors doing such work. “The aid agencies that are behind this report believe that aid is best delivered through civilian agencies and not by the military”, said Waldman.

It is particularly maddening that our leaders in Ottawa have put our Afghan mission in lockstep with US tactics when the world is increasingly questioning America’s moral leadership. While our soldiers are bravely and effectively carrying out that mission, such tactics are not our country’s strong suit.

As a people we are much better at offering help than kicking in doors. We should build on the strength, not squander our hard won international reputation by adopting a failed strategy of aggressive counterinsurgency at the very time in history when these methods are least effective.

Canada is a uniquely tolerant and diverse country that has much to inspire the rest of the world. There is no doubt that we should be in Afghanistan - the question is how. Paying our bills in strategically targeted aid would be a good place to start.

A thorough housecleaning of notoriously bloated government aid agencies would be another step in the right direction. This should be accompanied by developing meaningful and long-overdue accountability benchmarks for aid delivery. OXFAM estimates that 40% of delivered Afghan aid has been squandered by bureaucratic inefficiencies, or cynically tying aid dollars to our own domestic industries.

Lastly, taking a hard look at whether our military intervention in Afghanistan is making things better or worse is unavoidable. High tech artillery shells are unlikely to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

Our soldiers, as always, will carry out the orders given to them by our elected government - often at the price of their lives. It is the duty of all Canadians to ensure that those orders are continually held up to public scrutiny and debate.

No comments: