KABUL, Afghanistan — To recast the 19th-century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s enduring axiom of war, economic aid has become “the continuation of war by other means.”
Nowhere is this more obvious than in “The Commander’s Guide to Money as a Weapons System,” released by the U.S. Army in early 2009.
It is a handbook for using assistance as a tool of war.
“Warfighters at brigade, battalion, and company level in a counterinsurgency (COIN) environment employ money as a weapons system to win the hearts and minds of the indigenous population to facilitate defeating the insurgents,” says the handbook.
It continues, “Money is one of the primary weapons used by war fighters to achieve successful mission results in COIN and humanitarian operations.”
With the U.S. military escalating troops in Kandahar this summer, a development offensive is part of the strategy. In fact, the “civilian surge,” as it is being called, is already well under way.
But civilian-military relations have taken a beating over the past few weeks, which is sure to have an impact on the efficacy of aid delivery.
It is a famous axiom of military strategy that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." This GlobalPost special report looks at how economic aid in Afghanistan has become "war by other means." It reveals how the "civilian surge" is struggling to succeed and in some places actually creating instability and inadvertently benefiting the Taliban.
Part 2: Arming the militias
Part 3: Guardians of Wardak
Part 4: The law of unintended consequences
The resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, in the wake of remarks he and his aides made to Rolling Stone magazine, exposed profound fault lines between the Pentagon and the rest of the administration’s Afghanistan team.
There seems to be mistrust and at times even contempt on the khaki, or military side, for their civilian counterparts, and a feeling the civilian side doesn't understand the reality of war. The civilian crowd often see the military as a machine that needs to be controlled or it can end up working against the goals of rebuilding Afghanistan.
In a June 24 meeting with reporters in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who also served two tours in the country including one as a lieutenant general heading up the Combined Forces Command, was at some pains to downplay any possible rift between the civilian side and the military.
“Civil-military integration, cooperation, collaboration — it doesn’t mean the absence of debates,” said Eikenberry, whose career path has placed him squarely in the middle of this civilian-military divide and who was the target of criticism by McChrystal and his aides in the Rolling Stone piece. “It doesn’t mean that everyone’s perspectives are identical … . So, sure, with any kind of civilian-military team there is going to be — if it’s a good team, an active team — there’s going to be, behind closed doors … vigorous discussions, vigorous debates.”
Resolving the tensions that lie behind these comments and the dramatic resignation of McChrystal will be a profound challenge for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in the months ahead, and Gen. David Petraeus will need all of his diplomatic skills to heal the divide.
In addition to the 30,000 troops that are being put in place in Afghanistan this summer, more than $20 billion in additional aid to the country is also being funneled into Afghanistan. It is part of a greatly enhanced development budget that will carry through until the end of 2011, when President Barack Obama has set his sights on beginning a drawdown of troops.
This highly promoted “civilian surge” from USAID and the State Department includes several development and training programs designed to boost the figures of the Afghan National Security Forces in record time.
Many welcome the increased focus on building stability in this war-ravaged nation, where the under-30 generation — who constitute more than 70 percent of the population — cannot remember a time of peace.
But those who have followed the uneven progress of Afghanistan’s development over the past eight and a half years are wary of the new enthusiasm. Rushed and poorly conceived initiatives that promise quick results have all too often led to disasters in the past — squandered money, wasted effort and ruined lives.
In some cases, well-intentioned aid can backfire and inflame already volatile situations. Development projects can end up pitting tribes against each other and stirring old rivalries among warlords who often end up controlling the funds.
For any aid program to work there are two necessary conditions on the ground: stability and a strong central government. Afghanistan has neither. This is why so many development experts are extremely concerned about the coming months.
“Many of the problems that the international community faces in Afghanistan arise from their own hastily-made decisions and short-term planning, driven by political expediency,” writes the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, in a report released in April.
Afghanistan and the international community are preparing for the Kabul Conference this summer, which will provide a forum in which to assess the progress that Afghanistan has made toward stability and prosperity, as well as an opportunity to rethink strategies that may not have yielded the desired results. In the run-up to the event, many are taking a new look at the programs that — for good or ill — have brought Afghanistan and its international partners to their current state.
In many respects, the picture is less than promising.
A thriving insurgency shows little sign of buckling under the U.S. troop surge: a disappointing offensive in Helmand province in February ended in little more than stalemate.
Billed as “a turning point in the war,” Operation Moshtarak, in Marjah district of Helmand Province, was designed to clear the Taliban out of a small, poppy-rich, insurgent-plagued area.
The Afghanistan NGO Safety office, a security organization that provides information and advice to non-governmental groups working in Afghanistan, shows in its first quarterly report of 2010 that levels of violence in Marjah, the focus of the February offensive, were little changed after Operation Moshtarak. The insurgents may have buried their weapons and sent their command-and-control structure to a neighboring province for a few months, but the rank and file are still in the town, planting explosives and terrorizing the local population.
A far larger military effort was planned for Kandahar this summer. It was originally dubbed Operation Omid (Hope), but fear and resistance among the locals have forced the Afghan government and the U.S. military command to drop the word “operation” altogether. President Hamid Karzai now calls it “a process” and the U.S. forces have begun referring to it as “Cooperation for Kandahar.”
McChrystal, shortly before his ouster, had begun saying that no military operations would take place in Kandahar until the fall.
Observers are concerned that, whatever the plans for Kandahar, they will simply prolong the conflict by visiting more destruction upon the local population, while yielding little in the battle for peace and stability.
Worst of all, the central government has never seemed weaker.
The Pentagon released a report early this year showing that the administration of President Hamid Karzai enjoyed strong support in fewer than 25 percent of what Washington deems “key areas.” For the new counterinsurgency strategy, which places emphasis on winning hearts and minds and relies on a strong government partner, this is bad news indeed.
Just three months after he was appointed as commander for the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in May 2009, McChrystal issued a directive which updates the standard Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Called “ISAF Commander’s Counterinsurgency Guidance,” it gets right to the point:
"Protecting the people is the mission," it begins. "The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy. ISAF will succeed when GIRoA (the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) earns the support of the people."
If the Pentagon report is correct, victory could be a long way away.
The Afghan government has documented an upsurge in civilian deaths, many due to the new military offensives that have accompanied the increase in U.S. troop figures.
It sometimes seems that the harder the United States tries to make things better in Afghanistan, the more quickly the situation deteriorates.
In large part, say diplomats, analysts and longtime observers of Afghanistan, this is due to a lack of strategy — there has from the outset been little clarity in what the United States is trying to achieve.
“Policy? What policy?” fumed a Western diplomat, speaking on background. “The United States has never had the slightest idea what its goals are in Afghanistan.”
Therefore, U.S. assistance efforts have fallen victim to a series of stop-gap measures that have sometimes produced results that are worse than useless — they can be downright counterproductive.
According to Andrew Wilder, research director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, aid may actually contribute to destabilization.
“When we pump large amounts of money into insecure areas, with limited capacity for management and oversight, we fuel corruption, or the perception of corruption,” he said in a recent interview with GlobalPost. “This undercuts the government; it leads to the perception that the government is corrupt, which delegitimizes that government.”
In other words, such assistance actively sabotages the very phenomenon it is supposed to be bolstering: the strengthening of the central authority.
“Aid dispensed in insecure areas leads to tribal and ethnic polarization,” Wilder said. “One group’s gain is another one’s loss.”
The second pillar of successful aid — security — is therefore also undermined, as formerly peaceable actors begin to squabble, often violently, over aid resources.
Wilder does not suggest that assistance in and of itself is harmful — quite the opposite; many development programs have contributed to significant progress in areas such as maternal and infant mortality, adult literacy, small business development, etc.
But when aid money becomes just another arrow in the military quiver, then, like all weapons, it has the capacity for harm.
“In Afghanistan, assistance money becomes a resource to be fought over,” he said. “This is inevitable in a lawless environment with a weak government and high instability. Money generates conflict, it does not alleviate it.”
Few would argue with the premise that the boost in assistance resources is closely tied to the proposed drawdown of U.S. forces, and the concomitant need to show progress in the effort to stabilize the country.
The sand is now running rapidly through the hourglass, with the promised start of the withdrawal — July 2011 — looming ever more clearly.
Already, the U.S.’ allies have begun to make noise about leaving: Canada will bring home its 2,800 combat troops by July 2011; the Netherlands will be gone by the end of this year, leaving the coalition with 1,900 fewer soldiers. In the U.K., which has almost 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, the change in government could bring renewed pressure on the government to disengage from the increasingly unpopular Afghan war, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is fighting hard to defuse calls among the populace to bring its troops — which number some 5,000 — home.
The spike in aid dollars, according to the Congressional Research Service, “is intended to stabilize and strengthen the Afghan economic, social, political, and security environment so as to blunt popular support for extremist forces in the region.”
But according to Wilder, in his testimony before the House Subcommittee of National Security and Foreign Affairs in December 2009: “There is very little evidence that development assistance is effective at ‘winning hearts and minds’ and promoting U.S. security objectives. Aid programmed first and foremost to achieve security rather than development objectives often fails to achieve either, and in some cases can do considerably more harm than good.”
War by other means: a series