Afghan Pullout 'Not Soon Enough'

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Phil Sparrow has the look of a man who has been in perilous situations and remained calm. It’s clear that he has come from distant lands by his all terrain travel attire, and the worn look on his face, stark against a shiny backdrop of boomtown Perth.

Sparrow is the Development Support Director for the International Assistance Mission, a Christian capacity building NGO based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Their work involves health and education programs. Village by village they work alongside Afghans in the slow process of development.

Sparrow, a Perth native, doesn’t only work in Afghanistan, he also calls it home with his wife and three children, and has done so for the majority of the past 13 years. Sparrow was working there before Operation Enduring Freedom began and NATO arrived.

"Afghanistan was on a smoother track of developmental progress before 9/11", he tells New Matilda. "It may have been glacial, but progress was happening."

He believes all that changed with the arrival of a foreign military contingent. According to him the NGO community that existed in Afghanistan prior to the deployment was never consulted in the nation’s "rehabilitation" process, and the officials tasked with creating infrastructure to bring this nation "out of darkness" neglected to create a dialogue with the various Afghan communities.

Sparrow says foreign aid officials rarely leave their safe compound or understand where and by whom their huge sums of money are misspent. Laughing, he cites an incident late last year in Jalalabad, where an official working with a private development organisation commissioned a $16,000 chicken coop. "They never even thought to [go out there and]see where their money was going," he says.

Private organisations like Chemonics, Social Impact, and Dynacorp are implementers for foreign aid bodies like AusAID, USAID, and DfID, some of whom establish subsidiary organisations, like AusAID’s Development Assistance Facility, Afghanistan (DAFA). Sparrow says aid and military spending comprise 92 per cent of foreign capital flows in Afghanistan.

In a nation with more than 50 languages and disparate ethnic groups, Sparrow says time and money should have been spent on nation building through harmonising existing ethinic communities, rather than on security training and infrastructure. For a nation of people that he says barely even identify as Afghan, a foreign instated Afghan state was always going to be a farce. "Very few Afghans give the Karzai Government allegiance," he says.

Sparrow and his family live like locals, speaking in local dialects, donning head coverings, walking their kids to school and picnicking in the mountains. They count Afghans among their friends. But they do worry about security.

"There were several events between 2008-2009, when the US forces were very obtrusive in the city. The main danger is soldiers misconstruing simple actions like answering a phone for pulling a gun and shooting pre-emptively," Sparrow says.

His concern is that soldiers are being sent into a combat zone with tension high from the outset. He sites an example where US Soldiers arrived at the airport in shorts, which Afghans consider to be underwear. When Sparrow told the soldiers this was considered offensive, one pointed a handgun at him. But while he has had US troops aim guns at him, he has in fact only been shot at by an Afghan. 

Sparrow feels that NATO has not approached Afghans with respect and that they are widely seen as an occupying insurgency, which has further destabilised the country and created violence. "I can’t wait for the day that the troops leave, if they left tomorrow it wouldn’t be soon enough," he says. Some 130,000 NATO troops remain stationed in Afghanistan.

Australian Special Forces have been training an Afghan National Army (ANA) to help support the transition to Afghan-led security in Uruzgan province, with the hope it will later continue across the whole of Afghanistan. It has been hard to gauge the success of the endeavour, and that may not be clear until withdrawal.

He thinks that as soon as Australian troops leave, few of the ANA will remain loyal to the Karzai government. What he believes will eventuate is a system of "security extortion". Previous to NATO’s involvement Sparrow says security worked at a local community level, among ethnic and language groups.

"You’re not going to avoid a conflict, it will happen anyway." Sparrow says. "Afghans need to own their own development; their own country."

New Matilda

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