Afghanistan and the US
The Power of Peace
Earlier in this war torn month of August 2014, an article from Reuters about a little known power generation plant in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan appeared. Written by Jessica Donati and Sarwar Amani, it reported that the US was stopping its long time funding of the Kajakai Hydro Power Plant which will mean that the lights will go out in Kandahar and surrounding environs, making that already dark area of the world even darker. The plant had been a priority for the US, a counter insurgency program that created opportunities for a better life, including much needed jobs in factories that could now be powered by the plant.
Ms. Donati and Mr. Amani state that “Bringing a stable source of electricity to Kandahar, the cradle of the hardline [sic] Islamist movement and once a base for its leader Mullah Omar, was a top U.S. counter-insurgency priority as Washington pursued its policy of winning hearts and minds.”
When the US stops its funding for the plant, the region will be plunged once again in darkness. The reality is that neither the government of Afghanistan nor the people of the region can pay for the complex costs involved in sustaining the electricity supply. The resulting darkness will now play into the hands of the Taliban insurgency. Men now unemployed as factories close will be tempted to join the insurgency to fight against the foreigners who let them down. The hearts and minds once so eagerly courted by the US will now feel only disappointment, and may seek comfort elsewhere. Another failure of US foreign policy. An end game sum of zero. What happened? Why should we care?
We should care because providing positive improvements like stable electricity in conflict ridden areas and winning the hearts and minds of the residents in those places are perhaps the most important things the US can do as it intervenes in the world. Doing both of them well creates new atmospheres in which stability and its resulting peace are allowed to get a foot hold among disillusioned, weary people who have little hope left. They are shining opportunities to be the kind of US that its own citizens believe it to be.
Yet, despite the best of US intentions, building much needed infrastructure projects like the Kajakai Hydro Power Plant is not easy. Such projects cannot be done successfully, and for the long term, without a plan for real communication to the local populations about the complexities and pitfalls as well as the benefits of such projects, and the responsibilities of those who will directly benefit. Unfortunately, these are things that the US with all its good intentions, does not do as well as it could
I found this out first hand during 9 years spent in Afghanistan attached to reconstruction projects there that were funded in the hundreds of millions by the US. I had the privilege of working on a pilot project in journalism which simultaneously trained Afghan journalists as it told Afghans the truth of the positive things that were happening in their country, things like the power plant in Kandahar. We layered information to the populace, both about the technology of modern electricity infrastructures and their benefits, and, perhaps most importantly, about all the problems inherent in that particular project and the need for faith and patience as it unfolded. We also reported on the responsibilities these new consumers would have when, finally, power was established. In other words, we talked about the complexity of bringing modern electricity to a war ravaged place like Kandahar while we talked about the possibilities that were unfolding.
People responded favorably to that combination of edification, encouragement and unvarnished truth. They began to realize that all the fighting that had gone on in the decades before the US involvement had created huge problems that needed to be fixed before the electricity could flow. They began to appreciate the expertise of foreign engineers who were working hard to fix those things. Before this, they had despised their presence. They also began, very slowly, to realize that there would come a time when they and their government would have to take up the total responsibilities for the running and maintenance of the plant, that the Americans were not an endless well of money. They would have to come up with the resources needed.
It was not an easy campaign, but this model of layered communications that was consistent and truthful began to convert many, among them the very officials whose culture of corruption was threatened by the new concepts of transparency and incorruptible systems of business that were being introduced. For the first time in long time, the very consumers who would benefit the most were beginning to dare to believe that things could change.
The truth was that American funding for Kajakai needed to stop sometime. The US cannot and should not carry the loads for such projects indefinitely. They should not always need to take responsibility for the fruition of such projects, being able at times to hand the off to the governments and the people who really own them. It is in the way in which these truths are made part of US outreach in places like Afghanistan and elsewhere that will, to a great degree, decide their success. If, as an integral part of our foreign outreach, we include a comprehensive, truthful and effective communication campaign to local residents and their governments, we set the tone for whatever follows. Being honest, outlining all the pitfalls that inevitable exist in such reconstruction, and providing as much information as possible to people will reap positive and consistent rewards.
Populations in such place are often occupied with the business of daily survival and not as focused on something that is not immediately making their lives better such as long term reconstruction projects with far away promises of improvements. A full fledged campaign of truthful information about as many aspects as possible can provide the basis for good decisions by local populations and their governments. Such a response will ensure that whatever happens they are better prepared to positively face whatever happens. When the US pulls out, or scales back, one of which it will almost inevitably do, at least it leaves behind a population that is more well-informed than they were. Thus, the chances are that they will perhaps be more willing to try to keep up positive momentum rather than falling back into despair, more willing to hold their own governments accountable rather than just laying blame at the feet of the foreigners and giving up.
Our government,however, is not comfortable with such seemingly simplistic communications outreach. It prefers to communicate with war torn populations that are not solidly in the 21st century with such means as Twitter and Face book. A painstakingly layered campaign of more direct outreach, using a variety of communication methods that range from the face to face dissemination of needed information to rural residents to radio and video productions tailored to the culture in which we worked rather than our ideas of media was not deemed as desirable as modern technology, which could handle whatever outreach was needed in Afghanistan. So, projects such as mine fell by the wayside, run over by modernity. But modernity requires electricity, and that is something that will not be in great supply in Kandahar anymore. Hhmm……..