Small Wars Journal

On the Use of Aid and Development to Induce Political Conversion: Lessons from a Failed State

Wed, 09/05/2012 - 5:30am


In late 2010 and early 2011, this author managed a Canadian aid program operating in rural villages of Dand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. A total of eleven villages were targeted by this program, though initially, only four were thought to be safe enough to approach. Two of these eleven villages, we were to discover, were hard Taliban communities, actively opposed to GIRoA and taking orders from Quetta, Pakistan. Ordinarily, aid programs stay far away from such communities. We succeeded in persuading these two to break with Quetta and formally align themselves with GIRoA—where they remain to this day.

This stands in contrast to the conventional wisdom. More than a decade after NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan, the West has learned to stop getting its hopes up. Critics up and down the political spectrum seem to agree that Kabul will never be the Paris of Central Asia, and that there is not much hope of bringing substantial improvement to Afghanistan. Indeed, billions of dollars in aid money have been spent on Afghanistan, and there is virtually nothing to show for it. Afghanistan’s economy has languished, and violence has increased, rather than decreased, year after year.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to believe that things are hopeless. Afghanistan’s economy could thrive, and the Taliban could be soundly defeated, even at this late date. Political reforms are needed for this, though those will not be addressed in this paper: the other and less obvious needed change is a reform in how aid and development programs are implemented. It will be argued that the conventional approach taken by most aid programs has been a counterproductive disaster, and it will be shown that a better implementation strategy is capable of wresting whole communities from Taliban control.

Conversion of Two Taliban villages

At the outset, we had no communication with the two villages. The Dand District Support Team (Dand DST) had them listed as possessing no official village governance and the villages never sent representation to the weekly shura meeting at the district governor’s office. We had miscellaneous reports that they were responsible for various attacks against GIRoA. In late 2010, most of Dand District was evolving into a success story, but these two villages were among the remaining centers of resistance. We came to learn that these particular villages were aligned with the Quetta Taliban, and had been for years. But they also happened to be on the list of communities that the Canadian government had asked us to engage with—if possible. Not wanting to disappoint, we set out to convince the villages to switch sides.

We accomplished this by means of quiet, low-profile negotiations that proceeded for months before reaching an agreement. In the larger of the two villages, each of the three previous maleks (the elder responsible for overall village governance) had died violently. Without an obvious leader to turn to, we met discreetly with the leading families of these villages. The first three such meetings were purely social in nature; as many readers will be aware, Pashtun culture places personal relationships before business relationships. (These meetings took place in the villages, and without military support.) Only after a certain level personal trust was established did our side broach the topics of development and politics.

We were in a position to substantially improve the economic standing of these villages. Our program was a successful one; in the nine surrounding villages our activities had already spurred the growth of new businesses, new jobs, and prosperity that, in one way or another, touched every last resident. Maleks were raving about our program, and we had requests from villages throughout the district asking for our help. (Our success was due to a novel implementation strategy, discussed below.) On the strength of our record, we persuaded the families of these two villages that they had a moral obligation to do the right thing for their people. To one of the families, we also made the case that they would gain prestige by bringing such prosperity to their village.

Before we could work with them, however, we needed something in return. The implementation strategy our program employed hinged on negotiations between our organization and village maleks. We depended on local maleks to select and manage construction projects in their communities that we funded. Without a malek to negotiate with, our program had no way to get started. (And it went without saying that we could not do work in a village that self-identified as Taliban.) Before we could work with the villages, we needed them to each select a malek, for the Dand District Governor to accept and recognize these maleks in writing, and for those maleks to attend the weekly district shura meetings at the governor’s office.

Realistically, we recognized that these maleks might be nothing more than Taliban puppets, but if they went through the steps of gaining the Governor’s approval and attending the shura, then they would nominally be on the side of GIRoA. Also, if the Taliban and the District Governor were communicating via puppets then they would not be shooting at each other, and this would be a step forward. We discussed the possibility of this outcome with the Dand battlespace commander, and he too considered it an improvement.

In the event, things did not turn out that way. The villages liked what we had to offer, and sought permission from Quetta to cooperate with us. Quetta flatly refused. The bonds with Quetta were not just ideological, but familial; the family patriarch lived in Quetta, along with most of the family that held the majority of power in the villages. He was adamant that they were not to work with us because we were Westerners and we were GIRoA. The villages asked Quetta what it would do in our place to help their economy. The answer was nothing; the Quetta branch of the family was too poor to implement an aid program. These negotiations went on for some time, but in the end, the villages abandoned Quetta, and the family broke; the Dand branch of the family and the Quetta branch have gone their separate ways.

The villages nominated a pair of maleks, who met with the District Governor. Again, personal relationships needed to be established, and the governor met privately with the maleks a few times before he was ready to recognize them publicly. In the end he did approve them, and I have letters of introduction from the maleks that have been stamped and signed by the District Governor. We took two villages from the Taliban, and we did it by patiently and persuasively talking them into it. Those villages remain on GIRoA’s side to this day, and the maleks continue to attend the district shura every week.

The patience was easy to come by: the entire negotiation process took a matter of months, and did not interfere with other program activities. But we were persuasive only because our program, in the surrounding communities, had been very successful. This is atypical for an aid program in southern Afghanistan; most are ground to a halt by corruption and violence, and end in disappointment. If our experiences in Dand District are to be replicated, it will be necessary to scrutinize our methods.


Superficially, our activities were no different from other aid programs: we were to build light infrastructure in target communities, distribute livestock to community residents, and provide vocational training. What we did was nothing unusual; how we did it was very unusual. We started by rejecting the idea that Afghans are poor, and therefore we refused to give anything away for free. That basic policy shaped all our subsequent decisions.

The Afghans were not poor, so long as they had something we wanted; we wanted their political allegiance and we wanted them to turn away the Taliban. The political center of a Pashtun village—in the absence of severe distortions—is the malek. He is responsible for the safety and well-being of all village residents, regardless of tribal affiliation. Occasionally, a village has a khan. A khan is the chief elder of his entire tribe, and due to this high position, he will have to assume the duties of the malek within his village of residence. (Sometimes the khan delegates malek duties to his son.) Each village, ordinarily, has a mullah responsible for the spiritual well-being of the village. Traditionally, the malek and khan both outrank the mullah. The Taliban turned the old order on its head, vaulting mullahs to positions of supreme authority and throwing Pashtun society into chaos. We focused our efforts on the maleks.

When our aid program engaged with a village, we began by meeting privately with the malek. We introduced ourselves, discussed what we were able to do, and asked him what projects he would like us to undertake in his village. The malek was to be more than a rubber stamp, however. The project he chose would employ village residents as labor, and the malek would be responsible for assigning work duties and distributing pay; it would be his project. The only compensation he would receive for this was political capital, so it behooved him to choose carefully. But we were willing to fund whatever project he identified as a priority, and so he had a good opportunity to help his own village.

Construction of irrigation control structures consistently turned up as the highest priority item in each target village. We let the maleks identify exactly which structures they wanted built. This method is somewhat controversial; civil engineers can design a more efficient irrigation system than can a malek, but a malek can weigh local political factors to which an engineer is blind. For example, perhaps a certain culvert is not critical to the system from an engineering standpoint. But if that culvert will help win the support of a prominent village resident, it may be worth the expense. A malek is positioned to weigh such factors. Also, because the malek is the one directing work and distributing pay, the village will hold him responsible for the project’s results. The political capital he gains draws its legitimacy, as it should, from the wisdom of the planning decisions he makes.

We folded the livestock distribution into the infrastructure construction by paying laborers in sheep. Under a typical livestock distribution scheme, animals are given for free to the poorest segment of the target population. Doing so depresses local livestock prices, creates animosity amongst those who received no livestock, and reduces people to beggary. (It is also worth pointing out that to give to people according to their needs, with the expectation that this will help them to produce in accordance with their abilities, is Marxism. For an aid program to do it is central planning. A command economy has served southern Afghanistan no better than it served Eastern Europe.) Eschewing the typical approach, we made livestock available to all, rich and poor, on the condition that they do some work to earn it. We paid maleks a certain number of sheep for each structure completed, and the maleks passed the animals on to their laborers accordingly. The more work a person chose to do, the more sheep he could earn. This approach eliminated all the problems attendant with a giveaway, and residents quickly found ways to work in shifts and share in sheep in order to get the maximum number of animals for the minimum disruption to their lives. This approach is called Aid-for-Labor.

Construction proceeded rapidly and maleks had little choice but to distribute sheep honestly; livestock is difficult to embezzle. They also had to make the work available to all, because our company’s field workers ensured that residents throughout the village knew that there was a work program being run by their malek. The voluntary and transparent structure of the program ensured that resources were pushed to those best able to make use of them, and prosperity followed. Village shops that had previously stocked only motor oil and beans began selling a wide variety of goods, including children’s toys—a sign of disposable income. Villagers soon had so many sheep on their hands that they pooled their resources to hire one person as a shepherd. These shepherds now take the flocks out for a week at a time, ranging deep into the desert in order to conserve vegetation throughout the area.

Of the eleven villages, we initially began only in four, and we extracted promises from the maleks that they would guarantee our physical safety whenever we were in their territory. Their projects were conditional on this safety; if we were attacked (which, thanks to their guarantees, we never were), we would immediately cease all activities within a village: no more infrastructure construction, no more livestock distribution, no more vocational training. If they wanted these things, they had to give us security in return.

Activities proceeded smoothly in these first four villages, and when we were ready to contact the next five villages, we asked the maleks of the first four to make introductions for us. This they were happy to do, and our dealings with the next five villages proceeded in much the same way as had the first four villages. (The last two villages required special negotiations, as described above.) Thus, in return for our aid efforts, we received not only project management services from the maleks, but security and cooperation as well. In the end, we successfully completed 100% of all construction, livestock distribution, and training initiatives in all eleven villages.


Security and cooperation, ultimately, are our goals for all of Afghanistan. These can be induced not through giveaways, but through negotiated exchange. All parties to our program—the maleks, the village residents, our own company—had to contribute something in exchange for things they received.  The efficacy of an Aid-for-Labor implementation strategy is evidenced by the peaceful, voluntary conversion of two villages from the Quetta Taliban to GIRoA. This conversion was achieved without a bribe paid, a shot fired, or a life lost. It should be possible to replicate such results throughout most of the country.

About the Author(s)

G. Scott Alamanach Mikalauskis is a civilian contractor with three years of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has undergraduate degrees in Humanities (BA) and Mechanical Engineering (BS) from Barat College (IL) and the University of Illinois at Chicago, respectively. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Southeast Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.


Dr Gundy

Mon, 01/21/2013 - 6:06pm

Excellent work in your identification of why most USAID/foreign aid programs do not work. The giant giveaways the US usually engages in only tend to depress local markets, to allow local politicians/village leaders to engage in wholesale corruption, and to end once oversight is no longer in place. DO we really care about conversion? No. By engaging peoples in a market economy, rather than giveaways, they become tied to regional and state economies, and ultimately the global economy. Take a look at why Africans are critical of aid programs such as ones U2's Bono advocates and engages.


Thu, 09/20/2012 - 11:15am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Bob-- Thanks for the response. Ordinarily I'd be a lot more skeptical of such a conversion too. At the time, the best I'd hoped for from the villages was a pair of Taliban puppets. That still would have entailed a creating a line of communication between GIRoA and the villages, and so it would have been worthwhile, but we'd be whistling Dixie (as it were) if we'd thought that it was anything deeply meaningful.

But that's not what happened. We broke the family, which is an action on their part more permanent and more significant than merely playing along for a little while with the other side. Personally, that was a lot more than I expected to see, and I was surprised by it. What's more, it has stuck. Our program was only about six months long, but more than a year after it ended those villages are still working with GIRoA. It the words of one of my Afghan field workers, we have tied the villages to the government with a 10-ton chain.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 09/08/2012 - 11:18am

First off, nice job. This is a difficult, dangerous mission, and by your account it appears to me that you all did an admirable job.

I would, however, caution about being too certain that your efforts "converted" anyone. Yes, they agreed to engage with the district governor ( a district of our own creation, by the way, for those not familiar with Kandahar province. Much like the Marjah district.), and allowed you all to safely perform your duties. I believe it is a bit premature to claim conversion.

I am reminded of the river ferry scene in the American classic "The Outlaw Josey Wales," where the operator sang Dixie going one way, the the Battle Hymn of the Republic going back. He, like so much of the populace in places like Kandahar or Helmand, was caught in the middle. Smile and sing and stay alive is common, but it is not conversion.