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.