Using surveillance technology, international military forces in Afghanistan watched an old Toyota pickup truck drive from village to village. Each day, they tracked the truck’s path, recording its activity as suspicious. In a war zone, everyone is suspect.
International military forces could have called the truck in as a target for a drone strike. But instead, they stopped the truck at a roadblock. In the truck bed, they found sick or wounded people.
This old Toyota pickup truck was a makeshift ambulance; a local family who made it their business to go from village to village to pick up people who needed to travel to a health centre. Many people in Afghanistan have no local access to healthcare and no private vehicles. In a country without a strong central government, people set up their own informal systems of healthcare and transportation.
But local civil society’s efforts like this one in Afghanistan are invisible to outsiders. Too often, countries at war are portrayed by the media as harbourers of corrupt politicians, violent insurgents, and innocent victims. There is no conceptual category for the locally led efforts of people showing leadership, innovation, and great compassion for their neighbours.
A member of the US 101st Airborne unit stationed in Afghanistan told me the story of this makeshift ambulance service during a recent training session I provided on “Assessing Local Capacity in Afghanistan.” After several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, some savvy insiders recognised the 101st Airborne needed to have a way of understanding civilians. Fortunately, an enlightened few in a handful of military academies and bases are now adding courses on civil society and assessing local capacity to the curriculum.
Military forces receive most of their training in physical endurance, weaponry, targeting and enemy identification, and extraction of intelligence from the environment where they are stationed for their mission– their “battle space.” They receive little to no information on who might also be living and working in these same places.
I train military forces in basic international humanitarian laws, such as the Geneva Convention that provide rules on how military forces treat all civilians, and agreed upon Guidelines for Relations Between US Armed Forces and Nongovernmental Humanitarian Organizations in Hostile or Potentially Hostile Environments. I also teach them about the other potential people and groups working in their “battle space”, including international organisations such as the UN and World Bank, regional organisations, international and local NGOs, and then the wider array of local civil society organisations that may operate much more informally.
In general, there is very little understanding of civilians working in war zones. Drawing comparisons, I remind them that in their own communities, local people come to the aid of neighbours in the midst of hurricanes, tornadoes and storms just as these local ambulance drivers do in Afghanistan. I remind them that in their own communities, religious organisations run homeless shelters, soup kitchens and programmes that complement government efforts – just as NGOs in Afghanistan fill in gaps.
During these trainings, some of the soldiers argue with each other about the nature of NGOs. One will repeat a widely held belief that “NGOs clog up my battlespace” meaning they are a nuisance that soldiers have to try to avoid in the midst of hunting and tracking enemy forces. But another will say, “NGOs are important, they are a force multiplier for us” a term that makes impartial and independent NGOs cringe, but one that recognises that NGOs can help communities reduce vulnerability to violence. Another will quip that NGOs are traitors, calling in the military when they get in trouble but never offering any intelligence to help them.
Over the last decade, escalating tensions between civil society organisations and international military forces operating in the same regions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere make it even more important to raise awareness of local civil society efforts.
The three most important lessons for military forces include the following:
- There are diverse types of civil society organisations (CSOs) in all communities. As well as NGOs, there are local women’s groups, religious organisations, academic centres, artists, journalists, and other groups of people trying to improve their communities. Some CSOs make important contributions to peace and human security. These organisations are working on the ground long before and long after the military makes their home communities a “battlespace.” Respect for people’s local efforts is essential.
- All civil society organisations require independent space in order to best contribute to human security and peace. Civil society organisations’ (CSOs) independence and impartiality means they need to make decisions based on local people’s needs regardless of their religious, ethnic, tribal, or political identity. CSO organisations cannot do their work if they are making decisions based on funding guided by broader geopolitical calculations that ignore local needs, interests and perceptions. CSOs have to be very careful of how local communities perceive their efforts. If military leaders call them “force multipliers” this communicates that the CSO is working on behalf of a security goal rather than on behalf of the local community. Attacks against local and international CSOs are rapidly increasing. Many perceive the increase correlates with how military forces increasingly attempt to make contact with local organisations to offer funding tied to geopolitical security goals, not local needs.
- Military forces may have opportunities to support local efforts that contribute to stability. But that support should not be through direct contact. Military forces can best support local efforts for development, peace and human security through a credible development coordination mechanism by the local government, the UN or the World Bank. This helps to ensure that any funds provided by military forces do not inadvertently lead to local perceptions that can make CSOs a soft target for insurgents, fuel corruption by going around legitimate development funding streams, or reinforce autocratic governance structures by buying or renting the allegiance of tribal elders, who may or may not choose to use the funding to benefit the whole community.