I wrote for The Atlantic a brief meditation on the nature of delivering aid in conflict zones through the DOD:
While development activities have their own value, and should exist outside any sort of military objectives, I think there is a strong role for an organization like the TFBSO to play in future conflicts. While business development activities don’t seem to affect insurgencies much, they can and do play a substantial role in reducing the systemic failures in a society that lead to unrest and protest, and thus have very definite security value. Keeping military-run development separate from USAID carries other benefits as well, keeping USAID’s civilian employees separate from the discomfort many locals feel at having their businesses supported and run by guys wearing uniforms.
However, without a strategic and political framework to guide the activities of a group like the TFBSO, it will fall prey to the exact same problems that have befallen USAID: activities driven by good intentions but ultimately divorced from any long-term plan for sustainability after the American largess stops flowing so freely. The GAO has recently pinged the TFBSO for its non-transparency and unwillingness to coordinate with other U.S. development efforts; this is a real shame, as a comprehensive framework for guiding the TFBSO’s unique programmatic activities could, potentially, make it both more effective and more accountable.
This is important to keep in mind, as there is a large, politically-connected group of people at senior levels of the Pentagon who think the TFBSO is a key, game-changing contribution to the war in Afghanistan. In Iraq, that’s a difficult case to make, at least using data. In Afghanistan, their activities are structured differently, but they continue to clash with other government agencies (not OGA, best I can tell), operate in complete antagonism with the embassy, and still don’t have good follow-through.
Things might be changing: some memos and rumors escaping OSD are hinting at some changes. But we don’t know what form they take.
I will say this much: the TFBSO is an intriguing effort. Just because it hasn’t worked out perfectly, or more precisely just because we can’t tell whether it worked or not, doesn’t mean it should be discarded. There is a role for it, but that requires calm thinking and a bit less rice-bowl protection.