Of the many enduring tenets shaping America’s state-building project in Afghanistan, the belief that expanded economic opportunities can promote long-term stability has long been received as gospel. Past 2014, that principle will continue to animate U.S.strategy in Afghanistan.
Jim Bullion, the director of the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), said in a recent interview with Foreign Policy’s Situation Report that America’s long-term presence could be robust. TFBSO itself hopes to strengthen existing industries in Afghanistan by luring private sector investment. Its broader mission is to promote “economic stabilization in order to reduce violence, enhance stability, and restore economic normalcy in areas where unrest and insurgency have created a synchronous downward spiral of economic hardship and violence.”
That thinking is consistent with the U.S. Army’s Stability Operations Field Manual [3-07], which states that the “long term and costly” effort to reintegrate former combatants includes vocational training, relocation and resettlement support, and assistance in finding employment. Indeed, a couple years back, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton articulated a similar vision when she made clear that for those militants who turned away from the Taliban, “we need incentives in order to both protect them and provide alternatives to them to replace the payment they received as Taliban fighters.”
So much is wrong with this way of thinking it’s difficult to know where to start. First, part of the coalition’s problem has been attempting to secure and stabilize an active war zone while simultaneously spending staggering sums of money to develop it. As a result, numerous audits, reports, and investigations have found that a number of projects and programs funded by DOD, State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have been ineffective, unsustainable, produced unnecessary redundancy, wasted resources, and fraud.
In addition, as Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) asked last year in a statement on the TFBSO and a defense bill appropriating $150 million to operate it:
When in the course of this long war did it become the Department of Defense’s role to facilitate business opportunities for Afghan and foreign companies?
Is it really within the Pentagon’s expertise or mission to excel at business development, farming, or mineral exploration?
Every House member needs to ask why the Pentagon is supporting the development of the Afghan carpet industry while U.S.soldiers are under attack.
McCollum makes some astute points. That said, she also argues that the role of promoting economic development belongs to civilian agencies like USAID, State, and Commerce. On that point, we diverge.
The underlying assumption of economic development programs in Afghanistan is that locals will gravitate toward the Taliban if they lack an alternative livelihood. Certainly, the promise of money and jobs has lured some militant foot soldiers off the battlefield, but to adopt this position as the crux of an overarching strategy does more to trivialize the complex blend of intangible motives that spur many locals to fight.
Some Afghans (and Pakistanis) take up arms for reasons other than economic impoverishment. They do so for reasons such as factional infighting, traditional/local/tribal vendettas, the promotion of jihad, or group exclusion from power. In this respect, the causal link between economic development and conflict alleviation is not so robust, especially if other more pervasive forces are underlying the conflict.
Moreover, a few of Afghanistan’s most insecure provinces have received the most development aid. Matt Waldman, Oxfam International’s former head of policy in Afghanistan, wrote years ago, “if it were a state,Helmand [province] alone would be the world’s fifth largest recipient of funds from USAID, the US Agency for International Development.”
Part of the problem is that money that’s pumped into unstable environments becomes unaccountable. That often creates a feedback loop in which foreign aid breeds corruption and generates more instability. In fact, that was the finding of a June 2011 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report:
Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.
Ironically, the “economic opportunity = long-term stability” strategy achieves neither. In certain areas, continuing such policies beyond 2014 may not only do more harm than good, but also perpetuate the dysfunction and underdevelopment that has plagued Afghanistan for centuries.