Fixing Aid in Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 3/2/2011 · 9 comments

Mark Moyar is onto something:

The story of the Kajaki dam, the largest U.S. aid project in Afghanistan, is emblematic of the U.S. government’s failing approach to development aid in Afghanistan, according to a policy brief by Mark Moyar, a former professor at the Marine Corps University and frequent consultant to U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and the Mideast.

Development aid “should be slashed immediately,” Moyar concludes. Less money should be accompanied by a narrower focus away from common good programs designed to lift the whole of Afghan society and accompanied by clearer security objectives behind each program, Moyar said.

This is absolutely right on. By and large, huge capital-intensive aid projects in Afghanistan have not had the effects desired (including my old stalking horse, the roads), and just as importantly don’t contribute to the counterinsurgency. In fact, the way we’ve disbursed aid so far has created a perverse incentive for more insurgency, as hosting fighters turns an area into a sponge for aid. Moyar’s report (pdf) is right on the broad strokes of what’s wrong with the current aid regime; he fails, however, to offer a viable alternative.

In lieu of summarizing Moyar’s very cogent critique, I’m going to just ask you read his report. Instead, I’m going to focus on his alternative development model.

In the realm of development aid, stacks of excellent instruction manuals and mountains of cash will provide no benefit to a counterinsurgency unless the right leaders are in command. Poor leaders, in fact, are likely to use aid in counterproductive ways, and the more aid they have, the worse it is. Good COIN leaders possessing little development aid are much preferable to bad COIN leaders with much aid, just as a good artist with cheap paint and canvass creates a better painting than a poor artist with the most expensive materials.

This is absolutely correct in a general sense, and forms a good foundation for discussing the role of elites and leaders in aid policy. I don’t think Moyar quite got how leadership in Afghanistan works, though. This can cause substantial problems, as it was our misconception of how Afghan leadership works in the first place that prompted us to reach out to warlords and Hamid Karzai for “stability” in 2002. From Moyar’s piece:

The commanders who have made the best use of development aid in counterinsurgency, however, have figured out that aid benefits the counterinsurgency most when aimed at the elites of a society, and have invested much effort into finding the right elites and seeking to influence them with aid.

I’m not sure which commanders he’s referring to. A routine dynamic we’d notice in the Human Terrain System is the process every single battalion and brigade commander goes through of realizing that singling out a single magic Afghan to be his intermediary, implementer, and proxy authority actually makes every other issue in his AOR substantially worse. In fact, aiming aid at the elites of society is precisely how you encourage their isolation and rent-seeking behavior, and does not necessarily contribute to the development of effective, population-centric institutions (which is really what Moyar is describing, however indirectly).

Channeling aid to elites and demanding their support in return was instrumental to the counterinsurgency triumph in Iraq.

Say it with me now: Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan is not Iraq!

Counterinsurgent leaders often face difficult and momentous decisions on which community elites to co-opt, for not all elites make good partners, and selecting one group may guarantee the hostility of another. The task requires detailed understanding of local political and social dynamics, and sound analysis of the interrelationships between development, security and governance.

I won’t get into a detailed critique of Moyar’s approach to selecting elites, but the idea of basing your entire method of success upon having the wherewithal to choose the “right” elite out of a crowd is precisely why we are failing. No matter the particulars of Moyar’s approach, the U.S. has a very consistent, unbroken track record of choosing the wrong elites. We are bad at this. Basing an entire strategy upon doing the opposite is a bad idea, too.

Finding the right elites in Afghanistan also requires the ability to discern the conflicts among elites and groups, in order to dispense development aid in such a manner as to avoid inadvertent exacerbation of factional rivalries. One of the most important differences between Afghanistan and many other counterinsurgency environments is the extraordinary fractiousness of Afghanistan’s population. Westerners have often underestimated the breadth and depth of Afghanistan’s internal divisions, as a result of reading histories of Afghanistan that focus on the assemblage of Afghan warriors to fight foreign invaders and neglect to mention that the intervals of foreign invasion have been but relatively brief interruptions to almost incessant quarrelling among Afghans.

Again, we lack the ability to do this. Period. Our commanders are never on the ground long enough, and will never be on the ground long enough, to make that decision, and there are no civilians in the government who are, either. In fact, the more Moyar explains how poor elite selection has undone us, the more he is implicitly explaining why we should stop doing this. I could have skimmed past it, but I didn’t see where we ask Afghans themselves to select their own leaders, through whom we can channel development assistance. There are some occasionally effective programs that do this, like the NSP, but they’re not implemented fully. Moyar’s idea, however, has deeper problems:

Counterinsurgency leaders require sound judgment and creativity to select the optimal types of development project in a given locale. In one village, a new paved road may be the best choice because it will allow security forces in the district capital to reach the village much more quickly. In another, a road project would be too vulnerable to insurgent violence, but a school would be an excellent choice because it is the easiest way to get resources to the leaders of a powerful tribe. In a third, irrigation canals may be the most useful project because the workers will be in an excellent position to see insurgents emplacing IEDs.

Frankly, this gets it backwards. COIN leaders should not blanketly provide these services, they should empower the local community to provide it themselves. Earlier in the paper Moyar complained that normal aid ends up breeding dependency; so does relying on “smart COIN leaders” choosing the right elites to do things. I’ve seen communities in the East, on their own, pool together money and purchase their own micro-hydropower plant. No international assistance needed, beyond providing the security to let them make their own choices and develop on their own.

Afghans do not need us, in other words, to do things for us. They won’t say no, because who wouldn’t have rich outsiders do all the hard work? Moyar’s new model is just changing the terms under which the U.S. essentially dictates to the Afghan communities it declines to understand how best they should grow and develop. It is still, for lack of a better term, imperial. And for the inevitable corruption that results when you single out supposed elites in a community to receive cash and power?

Counterinsurgency leaders must be savvy and vigilant to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.

Thanks, Mark. No one has ever thought of that before now. This alternative models suffers from a deep understanding of how current approaches work (who at USAID favors “long term development” over “short term stability?” Certainly no one in Afghanistan). He seems to think empowering elites is the same as empowering communities, and that by doing so you will somehow get functional institutions that encourage development. I don’t see how that works. One of the biggest problems facing many Afghanistan is their elites abusing and stealing from communities and declining to remove barriers to success and growth (one of the factors behind a recent study the Kauffman Foundation published on how businesses in Afghanistan manage to thrive). Empowering those same elites—or conjuring new ones based on a colonel’s careful judgment—is not really an alternative to the current system, but a doubling down on what’s wrong with it.

I’m afraid this makes the critique Moyar posts of USAID and the State Department, most of which I agree with, rather hollow. It’s easy to complain about the broken civilian agencies, until one realizes that the vast majority of development aid goes through the military. The military is who Moyar recommends develop the expertise to select elites and to channel money through them in a way that will somehow not encourage graft and waste. The military is who will ultimately be responsible for this in Afghanistan, since the civilian agencies do not have the resources, domestic constituencies, or political support for substantial overhaul.

In the end, Moyar’s alternative model is lacking. But his critique of the current system is spot on, and I highly suggest reading it in detail.

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– author of 1848 posts on

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Steve C March 2, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Surely the fundamental mistake here is the weaponization of aid and development.

Were development being carried out primarily for the benefit of the Afghan people and not as part of a set of military tactics, the Afghans would be a lot less ambivalent (or hostile) to it.

It’s almost laughable that so many Americans and Europeans fail to see that those funny people with beards and turbans see the distinction.

RScott March 3, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Right on! Had we followed through with the promise of a Marshal Plan reconstruction effort in 02, we would not be where we are today. At least in Helmand, we had a good start with a focus on infrastructure (irrigation) rehab in support of the cash-crop ECONOMY, not as a tactic to undermine the remains of the Taliban government people, several of whom had remained more or less openly in the area. We began in support of the cotton industry with some spare parts for the old but still functioning cotton gin and paying for cotton delivered to the gin on credit. All this coordinated with a counter-narcotics effort of talk and warnings not to plant by the governor and his rural police, followed up with a successful eradication effort for those who did not listen, soon after planting, not at harvest time as our later failed eradication efforts did. And we reduced opium cultivation by 85% during that one cropping season in Nad-i-Ali, some 30,000acres of irrigated land. And at that early time, the role of the military in that region was very low profile, no searching out the potential insurgents, no killing, and a more or less inactive PRT. Funding was through USAID and INL. But funding was cut just before the following planting season in order to change contractors (for some unknown reason), opium returned with a bang, after the farmers had given fare warning, the governor had begged for continued support for the program he had supported, and it took a year for a new contractor to get into the field.
In short, it is a matter of doing the right things in development, right in terms of what the farmers want, not the military or the strategists. And the “right things” do not cost billions that commonly cannot be monitored.
And while Moyar made some good points, like reducing spending on irrelevant (to the farmers) projects and using development effort as a military tactic rather than as real help, his solutions miss the point, I think. While at least the Pashtuns respect their elders and leaders, it is basically a society of consensus not centralized leadership, and so democratic that it almost appears to be anarchy.

doyle March 2, 2011 at 5:26 pm

It’s not a matter of reducing aid or cutting aid, but perhaps a matter of being smarter about how we apply the aid. Current practices look to be a “step aside, we’re going to help you” approach and we wonder why projects are sabotaged or development aid is stolen. In many areas, the western helpers have bullied their way in, grabbed an interpreter for the sole reason of telling the locals what they are doing.

Getting those locals involved in deciding their future, once past the initial skepticism, would enable huge strides in progress instead of the inching along we have been doing for years. Many in the aid organizations have great intentions but terrible skills for the application.

What we need to do is open our ears and listen to the Afghan people. If they tell us to piss off, so be it. What do they need, what will work, when THEY can start, etc… Instead of forcing a fish down their throats, we need to understand if they even have an interest in learning how to fish for themselves.

RScott March 3, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Yes, but how do you get people on their 6-month/one year assignment to listen to these “backward” farmers who (in Helmand) have been very successful cash-crop, double-crop farmers since the 1960s who presently produce most of the worlds opium and would prefer to switch back to their traditional cash crops with a little help which we have been unable to provide over the past 10 years of occupation…because we have been unable to listen. How about a simple ag credit system which the opium trade has in place? How about support for the cotton industry, which was the second most important cash crop in Helmand before the Soviet invasion, with knowledgeable farmers who continue to grow cotton at reduced rates for the government and local privately owned small gins?
In the present system of development work, you are judged by how much money you can “move”, not by the results of your projects.

David Ucko March 2, 2011 at 5:53 pm

It strikes me that Moyar’s focus on ‘good leaders’ is at once obvious and misleading, as was the case with his book ‘A Question of Command’. Obviously good leaders make a difference, but try to take that self-evident truth one step further into the realm of prescription and you get the confused ideas that you review so effectively here.

Somewhat reminiscent of this great old <a href="; Monty Python sketch .

Steve C March 2, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Brilliant. Is that in FM-3-24?

M Shannon March 2, 2011 at 6:48 pm

The reason development in Afghanistan doesn’t reduce insurgency is the same reason increasing welfare payouts doesn’t decrease gang activity in American cities. The villains- whether Taliban or crooked GOA- see the development dollars as easy pickings. They see us not as generous but as simple.

The key to counter insurgency is having the local government seen as being honest and reasonably efficient. The greater the foreign involvement the greater the likelihood for widespread corruption and for foreign paternalism to highlight the incompetence of the local government. The current Afghan war is exacerbated by the increasing level of foreign involvement.

The sooner we start a serious withdrawal the better for us and the more likely the war can be wound down through negotiation.
As long as the billions keep pouring in no one in the senior levels of the Afghan government has any real incentive to fight hard or negotiate.

Mariam Jalalzada March 3, 2011 at 12:47 am

Lets learn something from the Soviets. We Afghans still admire and appreciate the construction projects of the Soviets-one +ve legacy left by them, at least!

G. Jones March 12, 2011 at 6:25 am

I think a problem with development aid funneled through military units is that, as R Scott correctly observes, commanders are evaluated on how much money they spend or how many projects they fund. Is there a centralized plan for how they spend that money? In some cases, I don’t think so. I think they just want to spend CERP money so that they have a narrative for their FITREP/OER.

From my foxhole, I think the Italian PRT in Herat province does a pretty good job of making sure that there is a plan for spending the money. They don’t do a project unless it’s on the provincial development plan – PDP (which the provincial development council has already vetted). From that, they make their own annual plan of the projects that they will do. If someone in their battlespace wants to do a project, they find out if it’s on the PDP or not. If not, the unit wanting to do the project needs to get the governor’s approval. Their annual plan is pretty inflexible, meaning that the incoming PRT commander can’t just scrap his predecessor’s plan so that he can leave his own mark on the province. It should also be noted that the annual plan gets approved at a higher echelon back in Italy, which allocates each year’s PRT budget and ensures that the commander adheres to the plan.

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