Reconstruction Goulash: Hungarian Assistance to Afghanistan

Article excerpt

It was early 2006 when Endre Molnar, a burly Hungarian diplomat in his mid-thirties, first saw the city of Kabul from the narrow window of a United Nations-operated Antonov twin-turboprop aircraft. Snowcapped Hindu Kush mountain peaks embraced the narrow valley that gave shelter to Afghanistan's war-ravaged capital alongside the Kabul River at 5,900 feet (1,800 meters) above sea level (see Figure 1). Before starting the all-too-routine steep landing maneuver, the captain shouted, "Everyone, please put on your bulletproof vests and helmets."

Hungary was planning the dangerous task of taking over the leadership of a provincial reconstruction team in Northern Afghanistan. Molnar was on a historical mission charged with collecting information and establishing contacts on the ground. En route he met Antje, a charming German adviser working with the Karzai government. It was wintry cold, and the sundown painted the surrounding mountain range red as they stepped out of the plane at Kabul International Airport. While waiting for their luggage, the amiable Antje spoke endlessly about security and health threats with disturbing accuracy; "80 percent of the air inhaled includes excrement particles--basically shit--due to the complete lack of canalization."


Molnar attended an international conference in Kabul's plush Serena hotel where he learned that provincial reconstruction teams had been established to bring together efforts among defense, development, and diplomacy--labeled by pundits as the three D's. This is a new doctrine used by U.S. and NATO troops as part of current post-conflict operations. Its historical roots go back to the British-Malay antiguerilla campaign and the Vietnam War when special units offered medical, engineering, and financial help to win the support of the public. As a result, support increased for the troops and expanded the sources of local intelligence.


After countless PowerPoint slides it becomes clear that reconstruction teams are involved in short-term development and infrastructure projects, support of local governments and security forces, intelligence gathering, and assistance to governmental programs. Civilian and military specialists work together to perform small reconstruction projects that aim to build confidence at the local level. They also provide security for the implementation of the Afghanistan Compact, a five-year national development plan endorsed internationally at the London pledging conference in February 2006. Reconstruction teams were originally established by U.S. forces, and their command gradually transferred to NATO's International Security Assistance Force operating in Afghanistan.

During the coffee break Molnar explained to a group of NATO military advisers that Hungary was eager to take on additional responsibilities as a new member of the alliance. While drinking a local brew, Molnar learned that the Afghani operation has exposed stark differences between the levels of risk particular NATO members are willing to take. "Most fighting is borne by American, Canadian, British, and Dutch forces deployed in the most volatile southern and eastern regions," complained one of his coffee partners. "Other governments have imposed caveats to keep their troops deployed in safer regions and even refuse to share equipment, such as helicopters or ambulances," countered another.

Closing presentations included expositions from representatives of all provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan (there are a total of twenty-five teams as of 2008). The differences between various countries' operational methods and effectiveness became clear. The British use a humanized approach to gather intelligence, exchanging helmets for berets when visiting village elders. Americans, best equipped technically and well-funded, often take on an influential role in local politics, which the population does not always applaud. …