The execution of six Afghan development workers by the Taliban last month who were doing work for the NSP, the Afghan National Solidarity Program, may be a sign that after 11 years, development may be starting to work. The attack signaled an escalation in the violence previously aimed at foreign non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross, and western corporations and their employees. The NSP is an indigenous program which, until now, insurgents have pretty much left alone.
Run by the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, the National Solidarity Program has been the underfunded stepchild of development programs, most of which have served as little more than money laundering operations. American companies like Chemonics and Black & Veatch have recycled billions of development dollars back into their coffers, in the form of enormous overheads and profit margins, with precious little reaching the ordinary, poverty-stricken Afghan. The NSP, in contrast, funnels development funds down into many small, locally managed projects, which are chosen by a communal decision-making process. In a country where corruption is rampant, the NSP received high marks for sound management even from the hard-nosed U.S. Special Inspector General for the Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR.)
The killing of NSP workers is a move fraught with danger for the publicity-conscious Taliban. The NSP is popular among Afghans. Dennis de Tray, a colleague of the intellectual author of the NSP idea, said in an interview with the Washington Monthly in 2007, “you don't want to create animosity among citizens you're trying to recruit to your side." The title of the article is “The Schools the Taliban Won't Torch.”
Why then would the Taliban suddenly include NSP workers on their target list? Because effective development is anathema to any party wishing to keep the country unstable. Poverty and hopelessness are two requirements for keeping the ranks filled with fighters on all sides.
In a country with 35% joblessness in relatively secure cities and much higher rates in the countryside, the kinds of projects sponsored by the NSP, clearing irrigation ways, small hydro-power, roads, and schools, create the kind of employment which offers an attractive alternative to hiring out as a fighter. And hiring out as a fighter, whether for the Afghan army or to insurgent groups, has for too long been the only job in town. Seen from this perspective, the attack on Afghan NSP workers can be seen as sign of desperation. With a public relations cost, Taliban warlord attacks on good development can indicate a fear that further development could dry up manpower, as Afghans' appetite for more war is near nil.
Young Afghans want to learn to program computers, become electricians, masons, generator mechanics, and in general join the rest of the world, and do what other young people do. After forty years of bullets, rockets, bombs, hunger, cold, and never-ending strife, the last thing Afghans want is more of it.
The Taliban is thoroughly disliked among large segments of the population, including Pashtun. It is well-known that financing and operations are backed by the Pakistani military, which has an interest in keeping Afghanistan unstable in order to keep from being flanked by India, its arch-enemy. A stable Afghanistan almost certainly means economic influence from India, the region's economic powerhouse. This is the kind of global chess which has victimized ordinary Afghans for decades, if not centuries.
The lesson is that this is no time to scare, away from development which in any event costs a tiny fraction of the cost of military occupation. The places of the fallen Afghan aid workers will almost certainly be filled with brave and willing replacements, as Afghans grasp the best hope for a future that they have seen in many a decade. The West should stand by them, and honor their courage, as NATO troops withdraw, by redoubling support for programs like the National Solidarity Program.