Posted by: Jeff | December 3, 2009

Afghanistan, Counterinsurgency, and the Obama Speech

(updated below)

I’ve read a lot of reaction to the Obama speech on Tuesday night thus far, and while the proposed increase of 30,000 troops starting in January has grabbed most of the press, there are some substantive issues that also deserve attention.  For one, Obama continually used language to describe a renewed emphasis on local leaders and police forces to maintain community security.  I think this is a good step.  I’d love to see this flushed out more fully, however.

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Since September 11th, the role of the American military abroad has changed in multiple ways.  American troops now serve as peace-keepers, counter-insurgents, and members of the development community.  As beleaguered World Bank technocrats can probably explain, development is a tricky business.  Even when one has good intentions, development policy may actually make human security, equality, or standard of living within a society worse.  Subtlety, imagination, and nuance are requisite skills for the field.

Why then, is the military, a notoriously blunt object, taking the lead on development assistance in Afghanistan?

A recent Foreign Policy article explored the relevance of military concerns in influencing development policy in Afghanistan, and found that an increasing objective of international assistance is militarized:

[N]ever has aid so explicitly been viewed as a weapons system — a fact that is having a major impact on the development assistance policies and priorities of the United States and indeed of many other Western donors. Most notable, perhaps, has been the dramatic increase in U.S. official development assistance since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. According to former Brookings Institution scholar Lael Brainard’s book, Security by Other Means, the post-9/11 period has seen U.S. foreign assistance funding increase at a faster rate “than at any point since the onset of the Cold War.” Marketing aid as a strategic “weapons system” is clearly a more effective way to convince Congress to appropriate funds than calling to alleviate human suffering and poverty in far-flung corners of the developing world.

The primary objective of U.S. aid to countries such as Afghanistan is also shifting — from development for its own sake to the promotion of security. The result is that funding for insecure areas takes priority over secure areas. The main NGO coordinating body in Afghanistan reported that in 2007 more than half of USAID’s large assistance program was spent in only four insurgency-affected provinces in the south, with the remainder split among 30 others. The leaked assessment of Gen. Stanley McChrystal calls for an even greater prioritization of resources “to those areas where the population is threatened.” USAID’s “new approach” in Afghanistan explicitly acknowledges that its development program is part of a broader counterinsurgency strategy and that its “essential initiatives” where it “will target areas” in conjunction with military forces and the Afghan government will therefore be in the perilous east and south. This prioritization of insecure over secure areas is not surprisingly being bitterly criticized by Afghans living in more stable areas, who feel they are being penalized for being peaceful.

This isn’t a phenomenon isolated to Afghanistan, but it does speak to a fundamental problem with strategy there.  In supporting human security and political stability, the satisfaction of basic human needs is paramount.   This means education, food, employment, the rule of law and, increasingly, viable political options that are accountable to local communities.  The militarization of American assistance makes these outcomes problematic – for starters there is an inherent distrust of an organization that inadvertently also causes human suffering, but there is also a problem with the military guiding who gets access to aid.

One of the greatest criticisms of USAID’s work in Afghanistan thus far is that it focuses to a great extent on areas of the country in which instability is most entrenched, ignoring many regions that have nominal stability and can experience the greatest returns on development investment.  By promoting stability in the rest of the country, residents in regions of difficulty like Kandahar will have viable alternatives to look to.

In any case, I viewed the Obama speech as a mixed bag of good and bad.  I’m skeptical that additional troops will solve the counter-insurgency issues, and I’m skeptical that it will do anything to win the hearts and minds of Afghans who are already tired of eight years of military operations.  But I like the renewed emphasis on decentralization, despite the critiques that do exist.  And I hope that this decentralization of security efforts is coupled with a demilitarization of development efforts.  A new paradigm for Afghanistan is needed, and Obama has made a feint in that direction.  Here’s hoping he commits to it.

Update: There’s this gem from a 1988 USAID report that gets to the heart of the debate on militarized development aid in Afghanistan:

“The use of aid for short-term political objectives … tended to … weaken the longer-term political interests of the United States. Aid as a tool of diplomacy has its limitations when politically motivated commitments are at much higher levels — and promise more — than can reasonably be delivered in economic returns.”

This given in the context of Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1980’s – how poorly we interpret history.

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