Small Wars Journal

Is Spending the Strategy?

Wed, 05/04/2011 - 10:22am
Is Spending the Strategy?

by Scott Dempsey

Download the Full Article: Is Spending the Strategy?

American foreign assistance has long been misunderstood if not ridiculed by detractors as a frivolous expense that does not serve American interests. In an attempt to reassert the relevance of aid on the battlefield, Congress and the Obama administration have allocated unprecedented resources -- via USAID and the Commanders Emergency Reconstruction Program (CERP) -- with the thought that money, when paired with military force, can stabilize even the most violent hotspots around the globe. This belief is so widely held that during President Obama's 2009 West Point speech announcing a troop surge in Afghanistan, he called for a corresponding "civilian surge that reinforces positive action."

Download the Full Article: Is Spending the Strategy?

Until February 2011, Scott Dempsey was a USAID Foreign Service Officer, most recently with the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs in Washington. From July 2009 - August 2010, he served as a development officer in Helmand Province. He also previously deployed as a Marine on a civil affairs team in Fallujah in 2005.

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Thu, 03/23/2023 - 1:35pm

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TD Baker (not verified)

Wed, 05/04/2011 - 7:18pm

The use of money to quell violence, develop infrastructure, and influence people in Afghanistan's history is not lost on the people's perspective of their history. World powers and their efforts, such as what Britain, Russia, and the United States had done in the past, largely with money, they are doing today.

The results of using money as a means in a strategy then, as well as the results measured today, don't look too different. In the early 19th century, Britain and Russia engaged many Afghan leader types with pensions, arms, and their own military forces to stabilize the region to meet Russian and British end designs. Because the money and other kinds of support was largely showered on one person and meant to 'trickle down' to influence and stablize the larger population, relying on one point or person did not work to accomplish their end state. With the exception a few brief periods of peaceful existence throughout the Afghan's history, the nation then looks much like it did in the 19th century -- harsh living and brutal co-existence with its neighbors.

The United States took a turn to develop infrastructure in Afghanistan in the mid 20th century by working through contractors as implementers. Morris and Knudson, a onetime large international general contractor, became the instrument of U.S. policy to help the Afghan people. What remains of the U.S. successes today are some of the irrigation infrastructure built back then. Truly, the conditions of the Afghan people, government, and infrastructure, post U.S. efforts of spending money for a particular end, has not changed.

If spending the public dime as strategy is to continue as the modus operandi as one piece of the Afghan strategy, then a clear picture of Afghan history of such endeavors would be prudent to examine. There are some very similar and near same efforts being used by the U.S. and NATO today that had been tried before. The same efforts of spending as strategy could produce the same results.

The author provides some interesting insights on USAID's challenges. USAID knows how to do development, but in high profile cases like Afghanistan where AID is employed like a weapon to suppress enemy fires it is bound to be less effective (if not out right fail) than following a well thought out development strategy that doesn't chase the Taliban's latest operational areas.

The author implied that AID was successful in some locations in pacifying the insurgency, but I suspect others there would offer different assessments. They may claim that the military's counterguerrilla operations "temporarily" pacified the areas, or that it was a combination of military operations and development money that was a form of paying off certain insurgents not to fight as long as they were receiving money, etc. As the author undoubtly knows it is not simple to determine cause and effect (one of the reasons EBO was eventually unmasked as a false promise) in an ecosystem where there are tens of variables influencing human behavior.

To offer a couple of potential counterarguments for discussion, I think the Afghanistan insurgencys root cause has little to do with lack of economic development, and much more to do with the presence of occupation forces in their country and their associated puppet government in the eyes of many Afghans. Admittedly, insurgency is an overly simplistic term for Afghanistan because the conflict there isnt limited to insurgency, but being Americans we tend to see only the main character in a story and miss the context. The point is that even if we were successful with development, why do we think it would pacify the insurgency? I think it is part of our legacy doctrine from the Cold War where communism offered a different economic model, so the nature of the conflict was largely defined by who could offer the best economic model. I dont think that is the case in Afghanistan.

Our AID money and that of other countries (like the Chinese paying protection money so they can gain access to natural resources) changes the character of the conflict to some degree by funding various insurgent and criminal groups, and motivating some elements to migrate to locations where they can get more aid money through corruption or levying taxes.

In sum, I think it is critical we look at our AID/development projects more objectively to assess what is working, and what is actually contributing to aiding the insurgents and other malcontents. USAID are development professionals, and they do fantastic work to the left of conflict (but it takes years for the results to be tangible, and it doesnt cost billions of dollars). Using development to suppress an insurgency as part of the combined arms team does not appear to be working, and may in fact make the insurgency stronger. I also think this is another reason to reconsider our approach in Afghanistan, and instead of diluting our efforts across the entire country, actually implement an oil spot strategy (surge in the urban areas first and then gradually push into the rural areas like a slow moving tsunami that will gain momentum over time if we actually demonstrate success within the oil spot because the word will spread), while using SOF and some infantry forces to continue deep strikes and disruption efforts throughout the country to keep the insurgents and criminal elements off guard. Right now were trying to stuff a whole pie in our mouths at once, and we wonder why we cant swallow it.


Wed, 05/04/2011 - 10:53am

Good article. When the society is already unbalanced and power is skewed, fast money only skews it more. The emphasis on speed makes for unsavory partnerships when a longer view is considered. Furthermore, each unit is running their own sprint for glory within the overall sprint to show quick progress. This is only worsened in the frequent case that rotating units don't trust each other and are determined to do it their own way, making for frequent course changes. How to make it better? I think with even a more long-term commitment and outlook, these problems would still manifest themselves. There's just no easy way for a people with our perceptions and notions to intuitively know how a people built on a very different and localized set of priorities is going to operate. Individuals learn the lessons, but collectively we keep forgetting.