March 15, 2011

Is US Aid To Afghanistan Helping Win The War? Doubts Are Increasing

Are the billions of dollars in aid money that the United States is spending in Afghanistan helping the US military to win the war there?

This will likely be a key question on Capitol Hill this week as Gen. David Petraeus, commander of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan, testifies at three separate hearings, the first of which begins Tuesday, on the US military’s progress in that country.

Increasingly, some defense analysts are coming to the conclusion that development aid is not, in fact, helping America win its war in Afghanistan. In reaching these conclusions, these analysts are increasingly calling into question one of the key tenets of the military’s current war-fighting strategy.

This strategy, known as counterinsurgency, is widely interpreted as the effort to win a competition for the hearts and minds of the Afghan population. Critical to this effort, defense officials have long argued, is aid money that the US military spends in small villages and towns. Help citizens improve their quality of life, they say – by building wells and schools with US aid money, for example – and the more supportive they will be of the US war effort.

This is because much of current military doctrine also holds that insurgents are better able to garner support among Afghans if the local citizens have economic, governance, or security grievances. The argument goes that if Afghan citizens don’t feel as though they are getting needed services such as water or electricity from the Afghan government – or if they feel the government is too corrupt – they will transfer their support to the insurgency.

But in many areas of insurgent-dominated Afghanistan, “development spending has done little to increase popular support for the government, casting doubt on the counterinsurgency and development theories that have inspired this spending,” says Mark Moyer, a former professor at Marine Corps University and a Pentagon adviser, in a widely circulated paper published by Small Wars Journal, a policy publication.

Funnel aid through elites

Dr. Moyer further contends that it’s not that development aid doesn’t have the potential to be productive – rather that US officials must rethink how they use it.

To this end, Moyer, who is director of research at Orbis Operations, a consulting company specializing in stability operations, writes that “development aid should be used to co-opt local elites, not to obtain the gratitude of the entire population, and should be made contingent on reciprocal action by those elites.”

This argument has stirred up some controversy among officials at the Pentagon, where Moyer was invited to present his paper at a meeting last week. “The one concern I’ve heard expressed the most,” he says in an interview, “is that basically this is tantamount to buying off people's support. That it’s only a very short-term solution – and you can’t really buy their loyalty.”

Moyer’s response is that carefully selected elites can do more than average citizens to help the US military improve security throughout the country, because they have the ability to influence others. What’s more, he adds, the primary focus for the military should be on providing security. “If you can get security right, development shouldn’t be that hard.”

Distortions in the economy

And while there has often been a perception that this cash is more important to “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency warfare than establishing security, analysts are increasingly discovering that large infusions of aid have created distortions in the Afghan economy. These distortions have aided the insurgency since the money is often difficult to track, and also led to corruption among key Afghan government officials.

The US military would be better served by focusing on what it does best, say some analysts. “We’ve confused what ‘hearts and minds’ is really about,” says Andrew Exum, an analyst with the Center for a New American Security. “It’s basically gratitude theory – we’ve built you schools and so you like us and work with us.”

However, that’s not always how things happen in conflict zones, he says. “It’s more about convincing the population that you’re going to win – establishing that control which then leads to collaboration.”

The economics of counterinsurgency, as he calls it “are a bit more cold-blooded than that,” Mr. Exum adds. The people of Afghanistan will make their decisions about which side they ultimately support “based on who they think is going to win,” he says, “not on who’s building their roads.”