The Humanitarian Invasion of Afghanistan: Occupation by NGO

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They’re called NGOs — non-governmental organizations — but the description is misleading at best, or an outright lie generated by intelligence agencies at worst.

In fact, almost all development NGOs receive a great deal of their funding from government and in return follow government policies and priorities. While this was always true, it has become easier to see with Stephen Harper’s Conservative Canadian government, which lacks the cleverness and subtlety of the Liberal Party who at least funded some “oppositional” activity to allow NGOs a veneer of independence.

The example of the NGO called Alternatives illustrates these points well. This group, which has ties to the progressive community in Canada and Quebec, has done some useful work in Palestine and Latin America. But, at the end of 2009 the Canadian International Development Agency failed to renew about $2.4 million in funding for Montreal-based Alternatives. After political pressure was brought to bear, Ottawa partly reversed course, giving the organization $800, 000 over three years.

Alternatives’ campaign to force the Conservatives to renew at least some of its funding and CIDA’s response tell us a great deal about the ever more overt ties between international development NGOs and Western military occupation. After the cuts were reported the head of Alternatives, Michel Lambert, tried to win favour with Conservative decision makers by explicitly tying the group’s projects to Canadian military interventions. In a piece claiming Alternatives was “positive[ly] evaluated and audited” by CIDA, Lambert asked: “How come countries like Afghanistan or Haiti that are at the heart of Canadian [military] interventions [and where Alternatives operated] are no longer essential for the Canadian government?”

After CIDA renewed $800,000 in funding, Lambert claimed victory. But, the CIDA money was only for projects in Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti — three countries under military occupation. (The agreement prohibited Alternatives from using the money to “engage” the public and it excluded programs in Palestine and Central America.) When Western troops invaded, Alternatives was not active in any of these three countries, which raises the questions: Is Alternatives prepared to follow Canadian aid anywhere, even if it is designed to strengthen military occupation? What alternatives do even “leftwing” NGOs such as Alternatives have when they are dependent on government funding?

One important problem for Alternatives and the rest of the “progressive” government-funded NGO community is that their benefactor’s money is often tied to military intervention. A major principle of Canadian aid has been that where the USA wields its big stick, Canada carries its police baton and offers a carrot. To put it more clearly, where the U.S. kills Canada provides aid.

Beginning the U.S.-intervention-equals Canadian-aid pattern, during the 1950-53 Korean War the south of that country was a major recipient of Canadian aid and so was Vietnam during the U.S. war there. Just after the invasions, Iraq and Afghanistan were the top two recipients of Canadian aid in 2003-2004. Since that time Afghanistan and Haiti were Nos. 1 and 2.

For government officials, notes Naomi Klein, NGOs were “the charity wing of the military, silently mopping up after wars.” Officials within the George W. Bush administration publicly touted the value of NGOs for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Three months after the invasion of Iraq Andrew Natsios, head of USAID and former World Vision director, bluntly declared “NGOs are an arm of the U.S. government.” Natsios threatened to “personally tear up their contracts and find new partners” if an NGO refused to play by Washington’s rules in Iraq, which included limits on speaking to the media.

International NGOs flooded into Iraq after the invasion and there was an explosion of domestic groups. The U.S., Britain and their allies poured tens of millions of dollars into projects run by NGOs. Many Canadian NGOs, such as Oxfam Quebec and Alternatives, were lured to occupied Iraq by the $300 million CIDA spent to support the foreign occupation and reconstruction.

In the lead-up to the invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell explained: “I am serious about making sure we have the best relationship with NGOs who are such a force multiplier for us and such an important part of our combat team.”

Up from a few dozen prior to the invasion, three years into the occupation a whopping 2,500 international NGOs operated in Afghanistan. They are an important source of intelligence. In April 2009 U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, told the Associated Press that most of their information about Afghanistan and Pakistan comes from aid organizations.

Canada’s military also works closely with NGOs in Afghanistan. A 2007 parliamentary report explained that some NGOs “work intimately with military support already in the field.” Another government report noted that the “Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) platoon made up of Army Reserve soldiers organizes meetings with local decision-makers and international NGOs to determine whether they need help with security.” Some Canadian NGOs even participated in the military’s pre- Afghanistan deployment training facility in Wainwright Alberta.

As Paul Martin’s Liberals increased Canada’s military footprint in Afghanistan they released an International Policy Statement. According to the 2005 Statement, “the image that captures today’s operational environment for the Canadian Forces” is the “three-block war”, which includes a reconstruction role for NGOs. On the third and final block of “three-block warfare” troops work alongside NGOs and civilians to fix what has been destroyed. (The first block consists of combat while the second block involves stabilization operations.)

Canadian military personnel have repeatedly linked development work to the counterinsurgency effort. “It’s a useful counterinsurgency tool,” is how Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Doucette, commander of Canada’s provincial reconstruction team, described CIDA’s work in Afghanistan. Development assistance, for instance, was sometimes given to communities in exchange for information on combatants. After a roadside bomb hit his convoy in September 2009, Canadian General Jonathan Vance spent 50 minutes berating village elders for not preventing the attack. “If we keep blowing up on the roads,” he told them, “I’m going to stop doing development.”

If even a “progressive” NGO such as Alternatives can be pushed into working as a tool of the military, shouldn’t we at least come up with a better description than “non-governmental” organization?

Yves Engler is the co-author of Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority. His most recent book is Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid. For more information, go to his website, yvesengler.com


Articles by: Yves Engler

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