You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How NGOs Became Pawns in the War on Terrorism

Independent humanitarian action, commonly if not entirely accurately thought to have begun with the so-called ‘French Doctors’ in Biafra in the late-'60s, was never as independent as either relief groups like Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, or the International Rescue Committee, themselves liked to claim or as the general public assumed them to be. U.S. organizations in particular, despite their efforts to develop an individual donor base, were always and remain too dependent on American government funding for the claim to stand up to scrutiny. Nor were the actions of relief groups ever as apolitical as many of them liked to pretend (often including to themselves, I think). To the contrary, the formative Biafra experience itself was an exercise in the NGOs taking sides, and following their own government’s agenda in the process. Bernard Kouchner, who would go on to be one of the co-founders of Doctors Without Borders and is now the (increasingly marginalized) French foreign minister, was as pro-Biafran secession as General De Gaulle’s government in Paris. Indeed, Kouchner’s original idea was not for Doctors Without Borders to be an independent group, but rather that it stand ready as a resource at the service of governments in times of relief ‘emergencies.’

And even in the so-called ‘golden age’ of humanitarianism, the identification of NGOs with military action dates back at least to the support relief groups gave to the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan between 1978 and 1989. In the 1990s, as Kouchner’s doctrine of so-called humanitarian intervention gained adherents in the capitals of the major NATO member states, aid in places like Somalia, Kurdistan (during and in the aftermath of the First Gulf War), and Kosovo was linked to Western political and military aims.

But not all linkage is created equal. Between the end of the Vietnam war, during which, the Quaker American Friends Service Committee apart, the mainline U.S. relief groups were largely instrumentalized to provide the ‘hearts and minds’ dimension to U.S. counterinsurgency operations, and September 11, 2001, it was not unreasonable to assume that there had been at least some shift toward an interaction between governments and NGOs that was both more nuanced and more ambiguous. But in late 2001, after the invasion of Afghanistan, then Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a speech to NGO representatives, articulated a view of their role, at least in conflict zones where U.S. forces were fighting and areas where the country had a strong national interest, that were straight out of the civil affairs-oriented counterinsurgency strategy pioneered by General Edward Lansdale in the Philippines in the 1950s and Vietnam in the early '60s. The NGOs, Powell said, were a tremendous “force multiplier” for the U.S. military, and, by extending the reach of the U.S. government, would do much to help accomplish the intervention’s goals.

As with Afghanistan, so with Iraq. In June 2003, in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, instructed another audience of NGO officials that if they wanted to continue to be funded by the U.S. government they needed to emphasize their links to the government, and that, if they were not willing to do this, he would find other NGOs or for profit contractors that were, and fund them instead. Their work in the country was inextricably linked to America’s strategic goals, he said. In fairness, Natsios was not offering this Faustian bargain on a global basis–only in the theater of war, and, by extension, where the U.S. government had crucial strategic interests. Natsios did not say or even imply USAID funding for programs in places where much, if not most, of the core of relief work takes place–countries like Niger, Congo, Bangladesh, or Kyrgyzstan–would be contingent on NGOs participating in Iraq, and, indeed, the IRC pulled out of Iraq at the end of the so-called ‘emergency phase,’ having decided not to participate in further development efforts. (It was almost alone among the mainline U.S. relief agencies in this: Mercy Corps and Save the Children/U.S. both signed on.) And it was not penalized in any way.

The problem is that the terms of the so-called global war on terrorism are such that the conflict zones–that is the areas that either now are or are likely to soon become places where NGOs will be expected to further U.S. policy aims–are constantly expanding. The war zone itself is now commonly assumed to include Yemen, Somalia, Mauretania, Chad, and Mali, as the extensive deployments of U.S. military trainers in these countries (in the case of the Sahelian countries, since the launching in 2005 by the U.S. military’s European Command of its Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative, now administered by the new Africa Command) amply demonstrates.

Significantly, on the civilian side, this year alone USAID has awarded $114 million to aid projects in Yemen for such goals as “improving the livelihood of citizens in targeted communities and improving governance capabilities,” and assisting “the Government of Yemen in its efforts [sic] to improve livelihoods, increase access to basic services and broaden citizen participation and prospects for economic development in targeted communities.”

At the same time, many of the countries, in which, in the past, American relief organizations have pursued USAID-funded development projects with little or no interference from Washington, have now become ‘front line’ states in the long war against the Jihadis. Kenya, Uganda, and Thailand are only the most obvious examples of this global shift in U.S. policy thinking–a change that will inevitably have knock-on effects on the work of the relief NGOs.

Given such radically changed circumstances, it was probably the triumph of hope over experience that led mainline American NGO officials to believe that, unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration would at least lighten the policies the Bush administration had imposed that explicitly yoked their funding to participation in what military planners considered the essential civilian side of counter-insurgency operations (the so-called COIN). Still, beyond the scenes the U.S. NGOs have fought hard at least to have explicit COIN objectives removed from grant language: to no avail. If anything, the Obama administration has tightened rather than loosened the linkage between aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan and its political and military aims in the region.

In addition, it has taken the unprecedented step of funneling $500 million, the largest tranche of this year’s portion of the five-year, $7.5 billion aid package to Pakistan known as the Kerry-Lugar Berman Aid Bill, through the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad or else directly from Washington to the Government of Pakistan rather than through USAID and its NGO contractors. Effectively, this puts the aid budget under the control of Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and marginalizes AID and the NGOs. To paraphrase Clausewitz, development is a continuation of war by other means.

But of course, this is not development, however the budget lines may describe it, as at least some U.S. government officials in both Afghanistan and Pakistan privately concede. As a USAID official in Afghanistan put it to a friend of mine, “the multi-year aid budget here is close to four billion dollars. If we were really doing development, it would be a hundred million. But this is not about development, it’s about national security, and it's a priority of the highest order.” The official in question said that President Obama participates in a monthly video-conference call and that the message is clear: all U.S. government resources should be directed to national security interests. USAID officials are clearly interpreting that–rightly or wrongly–as an instruction to direct most of their money to the hottest spots.

As a result, the NGOs are seeing development priorities follow the battle space. A year ago, in Pakistan, when the goal was to drive the Taliban out of the Swat Valley, the development effort was focused there. Today, one NGO official told me, Swat is no longer a priority. It’s all about Waziristan now,” he said. And, he added, “in Afghanistan, it’s all about Kandahar.” To be clear, there is little USAID could do, even if its leaders wanted to. The catchphrase ‘civil-military cooperation’ may read as if it were a marriage of equals; it is anything but one. USAID officials are said to have bitterly protested Holbrooke’s bureaucratic coup in taking much of the Pakistan development money away from the Agency, though whether the new administrator, Dr. Rajiv Shah, thought this fight worth pursuing personally against so experienced a Washington bruiser as Holbrooke is unclear. Shah came from the Gates Foundation, where he was a key figure first in the philanthropy’s global health and then in its agriculture programs. Experience like that teaches you when and when not to fight institutional battles against past masters of the art. Of course, the past master in question, Richard Holbrooke, has spun all this as an effort to get away from Washington contractors and indignantly denied that there was any serious danger of the monies transferred directly to the Pakistani authorities being misused or stolen. "There's an assumption here [that] anything that goes to the government automatically disappears into a corrupt maze,” he said. “That's not the case with these aid funds…There’s very good oversight.”

This hardly seems likely. If anything, the reverse is probably the case with the Government of Pakistan, as it was with Washington’s official aid over the decades to the innumerable dictatorships we have wanted to keep in the fold. “Very good oversight” … in Pakistan, where corruption has always been the norm from the political top to the village bottom? That Holbrooke could say this with a straight face is a tribute to his thespian abilities, which have always been over-developed, but not too much else. Or, as a friend of mine in the relief world put it, with a mixture of disgust and resignation: “Let’s just throw a bunch of money at the Pakistan Government … that worked so well in Zaire, Liberia, and Somalia didn’t it?”

But then, given the folly of continuing to prosecute a war in Afghanistan that will either involve our staying for decades (lest Al Qaeda return; lest the Afghans who sided with U.S. be killed–on that logic we could very well still be in Vietnam!–the rationales go on forever) or just cost the lives of many Americans and other NATO soldiers and an enormous number of Afghans before we leave, our unachievable ends unachieved, whether or not we proclaim victory as we do so, why shouldn’t we do the development side of the counterinsurgency in the stupidest and most destructive way imaginable as well? If the blood weren’t real, it would be the stuff of black comedy. But the blood is real, and instead it is the stuff of tragedy.