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Keep a Tight Lid on Aid Givers

November 23, 2001|EDWARD N. LUTTWAK | Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Now that war has been given its chance in Afghanistan, let's not lose the peace.

If the usual assemblage of frantically competitive nongovernmental organizations is allowed to descend on Afghanistan to dispense their usual mixture of useful, useless and counterproductive aid as they did in Kosovo, the consequences could be disastrous.

A tightly controlled flow of aid is the key to the formation of some sort of provisional government of national unity for Afghanistan. The warlords and tribal chiefs striving to assert their overlapping claims to local power must be given a compelling incentive to cooperate in or with a central government in Kabul. That must be a coalition government of course, one at least roughly representative of the different ethnic and religious groups.

But a representative government is only the necessary condition for any hope of political stability. It is not sufficient, because even a local potentate who views the central government as fairly representative would want to retain all local power in his own hands rather than surrender any to authorities in the capital. What is likely to follow is the emergence of an alliance of recalcitrant local rulers ready to use force to seize the central government for themselves. That is what happened before, with terrible consequences.

The only way to overcome the political fragmentation that is already causing friction and might explode in violence is to reward cooperating local leaders with a flow of aid to their people while denying aid to troublemakers. That obviously requires central control of aid so that it can be channeled to preserve the peace as well as to bring urgent help to a long-suffering population.

But if the dozens of competing aid organizations are allowed into Afghanistan, each warlord will acquire his own supply of food for his men and also a steady source of cash from the aid organizations. That is because the groups pay off local warlords and gang leaders in transactions thinly masked as "escort fees." And when unarmed aid operatives are handing out food and other help, men in arms are bound to be the first claimants on anything going. Aid organizations thus serve as the quartermasters of civil war, as they did in Somalia most notoriously.

In Afghanistan, because the country is so large and heterogeneous, an influx of aid organizations would be particularly damaging. The best intentions would yield the worst results: Each local potentate would have one or more aid outfits to serve his own interests in exchange for the privilege of feeding his people, thus allowing him to spurn aid from the central government and defy its authority.

Further, it would be easy for each warlord to deny aid to any village that was insufficiently loyal by simply withdrawing his escorts. Aid operatives who insist on supplying disloyal villages would be exposed to bandit attacks, and if bandits were lacking--not likely--the warlord's men would act the part very convincingly, killing and wounding as required to make the point.

So far, aid organizations' access from Pakistan is barred by continuing war. And to the north, the government of Uzbekistan is refusing to allow them to cross over the sole bridge on the only road to Mazar-i-Sharif. It is imperative to encourage Uzbek obstructionism while supplying abundant official aid, under the control of the same United Nations and U.S. officials who are urging Afghan leaders to unite in forming a coalition government.

Nongovernmental aid organizations have their place. There are flood victims in Algeria and malnutrition in many countries. But the aid groups must not invade Afghanistan, where their good intentions could only have disastrous results.

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