non-profit, but nonprofit for who?

This Afghan news item is telling.

me>Mr. Hasas’ seven-mile road construction project went so awry that his security guards opened fire on some of the very villagers he was trying to woo on behalf of his American funders.

Mr. Hasas was a point man in a $400 million U.S. Agency for International Development campaign to build as much as 1,200 miles of roads in some of the Afghanistan’s most remote and turbulent places.

Three years and nearly $270 million later, less than 100 miles of gravel road have been completed, according to American officials. More than 125 people were killed and 250 others were wounded in insurgent attacks aimed at derailing the project, USAID said. The agency shut down the road-building effort in December..

The project was managed by an NGO, IRD, which managed to set a record for the price of road construction per mile, cause serious political tension, hire its own militia, fire with live ammunition into a protesting crowd, fund an Afghan flower-arranging project, and pay its executives one-quarter of the $269 million funding provided by USAID. Like our own dear A4E, it was mostly a “non-profit” organisation by virtue of considering the money its founders got paid to be salary rather than a dividend.

This is important. As the piece points out further on:

Officials at USAID and IRD say that the Afghanistan Strategic Roads Project wasn’t a roads program in the usual sense. They said building roads was, in many ways, a secondary goal; the main objective was spreading jobs and money to win over rural communities that harbor insurgents.

“As a grant, this was never intended to be a major road construction project,” says Jeff Grieco, a former USAID official who now serves as communications director at IRD. “It was intended to be a capacity building program. We have dramatically improved Afghan capacity to build roads and to do community development work.”

This now sounds like whistling past the flowers, abandoned building materials, and of course the graveyard. However, it was a genuinely important idea – David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla is full of roads, notably in eastern Afghanistan. Armies have always tried to control the landscapes they operate in, and in this case road-building was meant to alter the terrain in several different ways.

Hard surfaces and wide cleared shoulders would make it harder to place (respectively) on-route and off-route IEDs, and easier to find them if they were placed. Better roads would change the economy of mobility, letting Afghan troops and police in light vehicles move around quickly where before, coalition forces had to use helicopters and medium armour the Afghans would never be able to afford.

It was hoped that better transport would lead to economic growth, of course. And the process was meant to be important. Beyond just spending money, it was hoped that the negotiations regarding road projects would be an opportunity for traditional leaders and Afghan officials to demonstrate that they had influence, a way of improving the government side’s mobility in social terms.

All this activity though, was embedded in a wider context – the economy of the Afghan & Iraq wars, a huge and dubiously policed zone of opportunity on the borders of the US government, its contractors, and the NGO world. Fertilised with money, this swamp blossomed all kinds of strange flowers, and in this case, IRD seems to have recapped the Iraq war on a small scale.

Ajab Noor Mangal, a local construction-company owner hired to work on the project, said Mr. Hasas alienated the community by only hiring workers from two of the five local clans.

Afghans excluded from the project looted Mr. Hasas’s construction sites and stripped them bare. At one point, Mr. Hasas said, four men affiliated with the project were kidnapped, killed and dumped in public with a warning note signed by insurgents. The deaths brought construction to a halt. “We couldn’t find a single person to work on the road,” Mr. Hasas recalls.

Under the IRD contract, Mr. Hasas and the other Afghan firms working on their roads were responsible for providing their own security. So Mr. Hasas said he cobbled together nearly 100 gunmen and armed them with rented rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.

Things reached a nadir in the fall of 2010, when around 100 angry Afghans, including a small number of suspected insurgents, tried to storm the construction site, according to Messrs. Hasas and Mangal. Mr. Mangal, who was in Kabul at the time, says he ordered the contractor’s gunmen to open fire on the demonstrators, including some armed protesters who he said shot at the security team. Mr. Mangal says he is still paying for the wounded villagers’ medical treatment.

Villagers who took part in the demonstration told a different story. Two men involved in the protest said IRD security sparked a larger confrontation after opening fire on a dozen unarmed men protesting IRD’s refusal to move staff from an office overlooking homes where outsiders could see into private family compounds—a major slight in the conservative culture.

  1. ajay

    IIRC “Imperial Policing” is similarly obsessed by road building. Build ’em as you go, Gwynn says. It’ll slow you down to a mile or so per day, but you don’t want to be going much faster than that anyway. Of course, you were supposed to use your own engineers and coolies to build them – ludicrous to rely on the locals.

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