November 30, 1999

Stuck in the middle with you? Threading the needle between Moselle and Bacevich on Stablization in Afghanistan

Tyler Moselle, a smart and capable researcher based at Harvard's Carr Center, has a bizarre op-ed in today's Financial Times in which he warns that counterinsurgency not be considered "a panacea for American national security and foreign policy." Which is quite good advice save for the fact that I cannot name a single person arguing that counterinsurgency should be a panacea for American national security and foreign policy. (To be fair, Tyler calls this a "basic fact." Which is exactly what it is, in the sense that you cannot argue with facts.)

If I am reading Tyler's op-ed correctly, though, one of the things that concerns him is that a lot of the aid and development work being done in Afghanistan is being effectively militarized by the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. For this concern I have some sympathy. But not much.

As I see it, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is one of stablization. That's not the same thing as nation-building, which is what Andrew Bacevich claims -- not without justification -- the United States and its allies are doing.

Moselle seems to want something more. He wants, in his words, "a mixture of nation-building, stability operations, long-term humanitarian and economic development, precision-based counter-terrorism strikes, political negotiations with the Taliban -- plus counter-insurgency to put down the Taliban."

Goodness gracious, Tyler, is there anything you don't want?

This is the kind of stuff that drives people like Bacevich nuts, because it's a prescription for a 30-year occupation of the country without any discussion of resources (hint: they're limited) or prioritization of effort.

So what's the solution?

I have been thinking a lot about this in advance of and since I returned from a conference on assessing the stablization effects of aid and development programs in Afghanistan. Some really good work is being done by folks like Eli Berman and Andrew Wilder to determine which aid and development projects are actually addressing drivers of conflict, which aid and development projects might be exacerbating the conflict, and which aid and development projects are quite nice when considered in and of themselves but which have no real effect on levels of violence.

Considering the fact that the United States and its allies a) have decidedly limited resources and b) do not want to continue to occupy Afghanistan too far into the next decade, it is my humble opinion that we should focus what money and resources we are sending to Afghanistan overwhelmingly on those projects which can demonstrate they are having an effect on levels of violence. In Iraq, as Berman & Co. demonstrate (.pdf), that meant CERP funds -- especially when those CERP funds were used in conjunction with a PRT. In Afghanistan, that might mean whatever they are calling CERP these days (I forget), and programs like the NSP.

It also means that we should be constantly assessing what programs are having an effect, even if that means folks like me have to swallow our pride and hand over our data to the quant geeks who specialize in analyzing it. Because, as Berman points out, if you tried to spend $30 billion on a domestic program in the United States without any pilot programs or means to assess its effectiveness, you would get laughed out of the Congress. The reforms initiated after the Great Society programs, in fact, made doing such a thing hard if not impossible. But we have spent well over $30 billion in humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in Afghanistan, and as far as I can tell, no one really understands yet what programs are having a stablizing effect, what programs are either exacerbating the conflict or turning Afghanistan into a bona fide rentier state (it's already is, actually), and which programs are nice but ineffective.

In conclusion, you may have never thought you would read a call for minimalist means on this blog, but I have come to believe that is more or less what we need in Afghanistan in terms of aid and development.