Afghan Civilian Programs Overshadowed By Combat

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When General Petraeus assumed command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, he reiterated the move was a change in personnel — not a change in policy or strategy. Michael Semple spent more than 20 years in Afghanistan as a development worker and conflict negotiator. He's now with Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Semple talks to Renee Montagne about the civilian side of the strategy for Afghanistan.


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Mary Louise Kelly, in for Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

When General David Petraeus took over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan this last weekend, he stressed that the strategy there needs to be executed by one team, military and civilian.

This week, we're looking at the civilian side of things. And this morning, we turn to Michael Semple, who spoke to us from Islamabad. He's worked on civilian projects in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, most recently for the European Union and the U.N. Beyond Afghanistan, those civilian efforts are often overshadowed by news of combat and deadly attacks by militants.

I asked Michael Semple if assistance programs were visible to ordinary Afghans.

Mr. MICHAEL SEMPLE (Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard): It's certainly visible inside Afghanistan. The Afghans are very much aware. However, I should say the aspirations that the Afghans had at the start of this process, you know, back down in 2001, were sky high. So it's not so much that it's invisible. It's just that however much is thrown in, there's always a sense, oh, well. It's not quite what we expected.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about one project in particular that seems to be quite effective. It's called the National Solidarity Program. It involves small reconstruction projects which seem to be really right for many of the areas of Afghanistan.

Mr. SEMPLE: The National Solidarity Program is a very interesting example of the kind of work which has been going on in Afghanistan for the past few years. It is run under the aegis of the Rural Development Ministry here, with participation of a range of international NGO's. And the way they work is that they go into villages, encourage people to form committees in their villages to try and identify the kind of small-scale reconstruction project that they would like. And then through the project structure, they supply some more seed capital to enable them to get on with implementing their approach. And this is a very, you know, small-scale infrastructure work, for example, tapping hydroelectric power to provide electricity in the villages.

MONTAGNE: And this works because it gets local people involved in doing the actual work and making decisions?

Mr. SEMPLE: Yes. One of the fascinating things about the project is that when you ask people - the Afghans in the villages why they think these are successful, they often say ah-ha, because it's not a government project -whereas, actually, it is a government project, but it's a government project which is implemented with a high degree of community participation.

MONTAGNE: To the degree that they're successful or visible, would the average Afghan distinguish the civilian projects as separate from the U.S. and NATO military campaign? Part of the military's effort is to do things like build wells and even schools and whatnot.

Mr. SEMPLE: They certainly do overlap. One of the most interesting distinctions that I find is that even some of those people who were engaged in the insurgency, people with the Taliban movement basically say our chief demand is to see the end of the international troops in Afghanistan. But we hope in the future to be benefiting from and participating in international assistance programs. So even some of the people who are involved in the insurgency make this kind of distinction.

MONTAGNE: Both Americans and Afghans can identify General Petraeus as the face of the U.S. military campaign. I'm wondering if there, in Afghanistan, there is a face for the civilian effort. And I'm thinking here of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who mostly travels with the Afghan press - the local press. He's not even that interested in the international press. Has he succeeded in being the face of the civilian effort?

Mr. SEMPLE: At the moment it's clear that the ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, is indeed the face of the civilian effort. And the reason that he is focusing on traveling with the Afghan press is because he's said it is a strategic priority that the Afghan population should understand the good things that are happening and not entirely focus on the ongoing conflict.

And his thinking there is that if the Afghans have a stake in peace, then there's a chance that peace might actually work. And I think he's decided to leave the business of persuading the American public that the intervention of Afghanistan is worthwhile to others. He's focusing on trying to ensure that they, the Afghans themselves, have a stake in success.

MONTAGNE: Michael Semple spent 20 years working on civilian projects in Afghanistan. He's now a fellow at Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

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