WASHINGTON — By pumping more than $100 million into a hydropower plant, the United States sought to improve the lives of Afghans and win the hearts and minds of tribesmen and farmers who might otherwise turn to the Taliban insurgency. Instead, a prominent outside Pentagon adviser argues, the bungled boondoggle ended up funding the insurgents while doing little to help the United States end the war and bring troops home.
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.
Moyar's critique of the U.S. approach to aid and development in the nearly 10-year-old war will appear this week in an online scholarly publication, Small Wars Journal, which is widely read by military officers and academics.
He argues that grand gestures such as the dam have flopped, largely because development spending does little to increase popular support during an insurgency. Half the electricity from the project in the volatile Helmand province goes to Taliban territory, enabling America's enemies to issue power bills and grow the poppies that finance their insurgency, he says.
The assessment challenges basics of counterinsurgency theory as the spring fighting season in Afghanistan approaches and American commanders claim tactical gains ahead of the planned start of a U.S. withdrawal in July. And it comes amid questions over how the process will play out in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar, where the U.S. has devoted large amounts of money to areas it has struggled to control.
It is written by a well-regarded counterinsurgency theorist who asserts that money and good will – the currency of counterinsurgency – can turn out to be counterproductive. In some ways, it surprisingly echoes Afghan President Hamid Karzai's sentiment that the volume of U.S. contract cash and development money fuels corruption and delivers as much harm as good when directed to a place where wealth is so scarce without it.
Moyar says aid should focus on short-term security goals, not long-term democratization or infrastructure plans. Money should be used to buy the allegiance of power players, from national decision-makers to tribal authorities, with the immediate goal of co-opting them on U.S. security objectives. He cites the positive changes in Iraq after 2006 when aid began to be channeled to local elites in exchange for their support against al-Qaida and anti-government forces.
In Afghanistan, stronger military forces, national police and provincial governments under the control of Kabul will make security better, but he says they need the support of local and sometimes undesirable partners.
"Afghanistan is a hierarchical society and elites make the decisions," yet most U.S. aid operations bypass them, said Moyar, who is also author of "A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq."
The criticism touches on an essential quandary for defenders of the U.S. government's big-picture – and expensive – plans to build the grass-roots bases for democratic and social change in a country ravaged by conflict and endemic poverty over the past three decades.
Despite spending nearly $23 billion on development and humanitarian aid programs in Afghanistan since 2001, there is no easy way to measure the effectiveness of the effort. Winning hearts and minds doesn't lend itself to macroeconomic indicators, though U.S. programs have helped deliver education, better health care and other services to tens of thousands of Afghans. Still, desperate poverty and hunger persist.
Supporters of programs to build grass-roots institutions say some of the fruit of that work may not be immediately apparent. They note that democratization and the development of a strong civil society are important to bringing stability to a country where weak governance allowed al-Qaida to establish bases and launch the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. It also can secure a long-term American ally in a region made precarious by Islamic extremism, a potentially nuclear-powered Iran and another fragile state in Pakistan.
Aid efforts face numerous challenges in Afghanistan, such as insecurity and rampant corruption among Afghan officials. Aid efforts haven't always been helped by a U.S. strategy that until recently gave precedence to fighting over economic development and promoting good governance, even as European allies have tended to see Afghanistan as a long-term charity case more than a war.
The Kajaki dam illustrates some problems that beset aid efforts. Repairs were delayed repeatedly by fighting and the difficulty in securing roads long enough to deliver supplies, and the Taliban has exacted taxes on farmers who use the electricity and cut lines in areas where people support the government. Fuel shortages are common, while costs have ballooned. And to meet an ambitious time frame, the U.S. awarded a no-bid $266 million contract for work on the dam and other projects to an American contractor with a record of cost overruns and missed deadlines, The Associated Press has reported.
Moyar's report comes during contentious congressional deliberations over the budget and calls by some Republicans for sharp funding cuts for overseas aid programs. He has distributed it so far to key officials of the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, the Defense Department, the State Department and the Agency for International Development. The report represents Moyar's independent research and was not commissioned by the military or the government.
It urges a complete overhaul of the approach championed by Gen. David Petraeus and others whom Moyar has advised, which links aid to counterinsurgency efforts on the basis of addressing Afghan grievances. Bringing schools, clinics and other services to Afghans can help people economically and promote peace and stability, this thinking goes, but Moyar describes this as fantasy talk during an armed insurrection. The goals should be far more limited and focus primarily on security, he says.
"We can do all the vaccinations we want, but it doesn't really change people's behavior," he said. "And the Taliban can take credit for our work."
Still, his call for buying support and channeling efforts through existing power structures is not without its own pitfalls. Nowhere is this probably truer than in Afghanistan, which ranks among the worst countries in the world for public corruption, a scourge that is pervasive from Karzai's senior government officials all the way down to local levels. And it's unclear how committed local figures will be to the American and Afghan government cause if the money dries up.
"The corruption issue is indeed tricky," Moyar said in an interview. He said he was part of an internal U.S. government debate last year over whether to battle or tolerate Afghan corruption. A softer approach seems to have won out, he said. His paper argues that the U.S. should only combat corruption that hampers counterinsurgency efforts – such as kidnapping for ransom or shaking people down at checkpoints – and not economic practices that may be tolerable to many Afghans, however egregious they are to Westerners.
Directing development aid to certain leaders in exchange for counterterrorism support could feed corruption, Moyar concedes, but he insists it wouldn't lead to the type of predatory practices that drive people to joining the insurgency. Most leaders can be bought because they are not ideological diehards, though it is important to co-opt good leaders who can do the most to help the fight against the Taliban.
In Afghanistan, these individuals may be in short supply. The drawdown in U.S. forces expected later this year will test the strength of U.S. alliances at the local level and development programs designed to bring stability and a better quality of life to Afghans. Many questions remain unanswered over the lasting effects that billions of dollars in American aid will have, especially as areas of the country are transferred to the control of Afghanistan's government and it takes the lead in the battle for supremacy with the Taliban.