Published On: Wed, Apr 9th, 2014

Lessons from America’s failed Afghanistan partnership

U.S. Air Force photo by by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras

U.S. Air Force photo by by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras

PRESS RELEASE: 9-Year Aid Worker Shares Observations from the Front Lines

By the end of this year, the United States will have spent more than $102 billion on Afghanistan reconstruction projects – from roads to wells to education – since 2002.

These projects, intended to help stabilize the country by addressing residents’ needs, have done anything but.
“We’ll be withdrawing more than 33,000 U.S. troops this year. What will we leave behind?” asks Mary Ann Callahan (www.callahans-pen.com), who spent nine years in Afghanistan working on humanitarian projects under the aegis of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“We need to understand mistakes made on the non-military side of the war because they’re the same ones we’ve made in the past and will repeat in the future unless we address them. We had great intentions, and most Afghans were thrilled to see us at first. But we made serious mistakes, and the consequences may prove to be tragic.”

Callahan, now 60, lived independently in Afghan neighborhoods from 2003 to 2011, when she was forced to move behind international barricades because of increasing threats to foreigners in Afghanistan. She has written three books based on her experiences, including her newest, “Clouded Hopes: 9 Years in Afghanistan,” an insider’s view of the international teams of workers and local Afghans with whom she lived and worked.

“Life for Afghans got worse, not better,” Callahan says. “In a Gallup poll last year, 55 percent rated their lives as ones of ‘suffering.’ ” 

 She offers these lessons from the front lines:

•  Provide real information and background on what the U.S. mission is about.

Whenever the United States goes to a war-torn country like Afghanistan in a military capacity, that mission often grows to include reconstruction and law and governance programs. “But the original purpose of the projects becomes clouded because of a lack of communication that’s meaningful to local populations,” Callahan says. “This opens the door for those who do not want ‘outsiders’ in their country to concoct opposing stories that tarnish U.S. objectives and demonize the U.S. role.”

•  Build on existing systems that are already part of the culture.

We wanted to help stabilize Afghanistan, but we didn’t try to build on important concepts like family or the ancient system of grassroots democracy already in place, Callahan says. Afghan villages have long relied on councils, called shuras, to resolve disputes and provide governance. The concept of a community coming together to dialogue is one which Afghans know and support.  Helping to broaden the ancient Afghan democratic system by encouraging participation of all members of the community would have allowed for a more democratic system to take hold. Former war lords and corrupt officials would have been marginalized.

•  Provide a transparent atmosphere so contracted workers can admit to problems and mistakes that occur.

Americans who went to work in Afghanistan with the best of intentions soon found that their salaries reflected large upticks for danger pay and post differentials that exponentially surpassed salaries back home. The companies they worked for gained lucrative contracts, with often impossible goals. “As money flowed and problems inevitably arose, many contractors didn’t want to acknowledge negative things because they didn’t want their contracts yanked,” Callahan says. “They became more interested in pleasing their funders than actually rebuilding the country.” The resulting substandard project outcomes didn’t benefit local citizens, so regular Afghans became less and less interested in what the U.S. was doing. We ceased being their friends and became part of their problem.

By not focusing on improving the everyday lives of regular Afghans, and effectively encouraging a national identity among them, we’ve actually left Afghanistan even more vulnerable to the Taliban, Callahan says.

“When we failed to be seen as meeting the population’s needs, the Afghans’ perception of the West became one of ‘invaders’ who had come to fulfill their own agendas. That allowed the Taliban to portray itself as Afghan liberators, not enemies, especially in the rural areas.”

About Mary Ann Callahan
Mary Ann Callahan (www.callahans-pen.com) worked in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2012 in a variety of capacities, most involving communications. She developed and implemented an independent journalism program that trained Afghans to accurately report on international development efforts in their country, and received recognition from both the U.S. and Afghan governments for her work. She is the author of three books based on her experiences. “Clouded Hopes” is the second in a series that also includes “Clear Differences: Short Stories from Afghanistan.” Her children’s book, “Little Heroes,” is about two cats growing up in Kabul and Paris and helps to acquaint young readers with the disparities of our world.

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