HERAT, Afghanistan — If the underlying intent of international aid projects is to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, then by many measures the United States is failing.
Despite investing nearly $50 billion in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, only half of Afghans polled last year have a somewhat favorable or better view of the United States.
India, meanwhile, has managed to become one of the most-liked foreign countries in Afghanistan — with almost three-quarters of the population finding India somewhat favorable or better — after committing just $1.2 billion to the country.
Regional, often over-shadowed, governments like India are beginning to think more carefully about their relationship with Afghanistan as Western militaries, including the United States, approach deadlines to withdraw troops.
Aside from political motivations, recent attention on what Afghan officials say could be up to $3 trillion in untapped mineral resources has given neighboring countries more reason to forge a stronger foothold here.
“When the Western countries came to Afghanistan, many [neighboring countries] asked, ‘Why are we behind them? We should be leading here. We should have priority,’” said Bazin Khatibi, a political analyst in Herat and deputy of the Afghan National Congress Party. “Each of these countries is thinking about its own political strategy, they want to show that they are not weaker than other countries.”
For a nation like India that is not officially part of the coalition fighting the war in Afghanistan, soft power has proven the most effective means of projecting its influence.
Though some of India’s success in winning over Afghans has to do with historical ties between the two countries, when it comes to administering aid, analysts say India is often simply better than the United States at developing projects that locals find more tangible and effective.
“The Indians over a long period of time have not had so many projects of high magnitude compared to some of the other [international donors] … but they have a reputation for having targeted areas of specific need,” said Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Fisal Ahmed Zakeri, director of water management at the Ministry of Energy and Water in Herat, said that in his experience India is far better at implementing aid projects than United States. Zakeri has worked with U.S. organizations on a number of programs that he says are often plagued by inefficiency and poorly allocated resources.
Most recently, he worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, as it administered a small water accessibility study in Herat. His ministry offered to do the work for free, but he said USAID refused and instead gave the contract to an NGO, which then subcontracted it out to another NGO and so on until it ended up with a local village council that finally hired people to conduct the study.
“It seems that at the end nothing will be left because each organization takes money,” Zakeri said.
He compares this with the $180 million Salma Dam development in Herat, India’s biggest aid project in Afghanistan. Though it’s had delays and problems, Zakeri said it stands out when compared to U.S. projects because there are Indians on site to oversee the work and there hasn’t been unnecessary subcontracting.
That such inefficiencies or other forms of corruption don’t happen with non-Western projects may be more perception than reality, said Kate Clark, a senior analyst at the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul.
While India was constructing a major road in Afghanistan, she said, the project fell victim to the same sort of poor oversight, corruption and poor craftsmanship that Afghans often complain about in Western projects.
Neighboring states “say [their involvement] is humanitarian, but they’ve got very clear strategic interests in Afghanistan,” Clark said.
India, for example, is interested in preventing Pakistan, its longtime enemy, from gaining too much influence here.
Fortunately for India, that interest actually appeals to nearly three-quarters of the population, which has a somewhat unfavorable or worse view of Pakistan and tend to blame it for their country’s problems.
These Afghans tend to view India’s aid work here as motivated primarily to curb the interests of Pakistan, something they strongly support, further bolstering India' s reputation as a benevolent neighbor, Gouttierre said.
India, of course, insists that it is here solely to help a traditional ally.
“We are trying to help Afghanistan to stand on its own two feet,” said Tara Chand, consul general for India in Herat.
Unlike previous aid projects in Asia, India does not stand to directly benefit from projects in Afghanistan. For example, it recently funded hydropower stations in Bhutan, which sends the majority of the power it generates to India.
“This is the first large-scale benevolent aid program, and I think it’s something of a gamble,” said Gareth Price, head of the Asia Program at the Chatham House in London. “If it works, and the [Afghan] government survives, then it will strengthen the relationship between Afghanistan and India.”
India has also focused largely on projects with tangible results, like dams or roads. Though the United States has invested in tangible projects, it has also spent millions of dollars on projects to build institutional capacity — training government bureaucrats, for example — that produce results that are often difficult for average Afghans to see.
Nine years into the war, Price said the United States has now begun shifting toward an Indian aid model, focusing on projects that produce brick-and-mortar results.