Helping Afghanistan easier said than done

Vocational training envisioned to replace maritime gas station limited by lack of jobs, even less security

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo News

Following Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada’s surprise visit to Kabul on Sunday, the government is stepping up efforts to work out measures that can benefit Afghan people on the ground.

But this is turning out to be a difficult task because of the deteriorating security situation, and Japan’s presence in the region is likely to wane with the planned end in January of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Indian Ocean naval refueling mission in support of U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan.

“The security situation is deteriorating even in Kabul. It is difficult to expand contributions that would actually let (local people) know that Japanese people are working in the country,” an official in the Foreign Ministry’s International Cooperation Bureau said.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Japan has pledged a total of $2 billion in Afghan assistance — third only to the U.S. and Britain — for security, infrastructure, education and other fields.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency has also sent experts on agriculture and other areas. About 50 Japanese are still engaged in assistance activities in Afghanistan, but the number is being kept to a minimum due to the security situation.

As far as infrastructure assistance goes, a Kabul International Airport terminal was completed last November with Japanese company officials overseeing the project from outside the country.

So far, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Okada have stressed the need for vocational training to keep former Taliban members from returning to the insurgent group, given that many people join because they have no other way of supporting themselves.

President Hamid Karzai also told Okada during his one-day visit to Kabul that vocational training is needed as part of efforts to promote peace in Afghanistan.

But the ministry official said that if the government plans to enhance vocational training, it should also consider ensuring that people who get such training are then given job opportunities.

“We would have to create jobs through road construction and other projects. But this will cost quite a lot of money,” she said.

Another senior Foreign Ministry official said there is “no end” to the need for civilian aid in Afghanistan but noted that “what an unarmed person can do will naturally be limited.”

While ministry officials believe Japan’s nonmilitary contributions have been welcomed by local people, some are wary that ending the MSDF Indian Ocean mission, which has generally continued since the end of 2001, and focusing on economic assistance will draw criticism that Tokyo is “returning to checkbook diplomacy.”

The involvement of the Self-Defense Forces had a “symbolic” meaning in the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts, the official in the International Cooperation Bureau acknowledged. “We cannot deny the impact to be caused by withdrawal.”

Japan was criticized heavily for lagging behind in contributing personnel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, despite disbursing some $13 billion.

The SDF’s activities, especially when it comes to deploying overseas, are a sensitive issue under the Constitution.

Given the restrictions imposed on the SDF, only the MSDF has been sent to provide fuel and water to foreign naval vessels participating in operations to interdict ships linked to terrorism in the Indian Ocean.

The activities have often been seen in the government as “ideal” for the SDF as it has been easy to ensure the safety of its personnel and because it has been welcomed by other countries.

But a policy change is expected now that the Democratic Party of Japan, which has been insisting on the need to offer more support for people’s livelihoods rather than continuing the refueling mission, took power in September.

Okada has also said that the refueling activities have “nearly fulfilled” the SDF’s role as seen in the fact that the MSDF has replenished other ships only about seven or eight times a month recently.

But it is uncertain whether enhancing aid to civilians will make up for the withdrawal from the refueling mission.

“I don’t think this is the kind of issue where it can be said, please allow us (to end the mission) because we will double aid to civilians,” the official said.

Meanwhile, an official at a Fukuoka-based nongovernmental organization that engages in medical assistance and activities to restore agriculture in Afghanistan, said he basically welcomes the new administration’s idea of enhancing civilian aid.

“Under the previous government, I think Japan’s assistance to Afghanistan, including the refueling mission, was conducted by gauging U.S. policy,” said Mitsuji Fukumoto, secretary general of Peshawar-kai.

“The basic principle should be that we conduct assistance by siding with the people of Afghanistan, who are suffering most,” he said.

But he proposes at the same time that the government focus more on restoring agriculture, for example through irrigation projects in drought-stricken areas, rather than enhancing vocational training.

“Eighty percent of Afghan people are farmers and many Taliban members are also originally farmers. That means that restoring agriculture would help them live their lives even without forcing them to receive vocational training. If they can find ways to eat, the security situation will stabilize,” he said.