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War by other means, part 1: Aid as a weapon

Special report: Economic aid in Afghanistan is a weapon but it can backfire.

Afghanistan soldier
An Afghan National Army soldier keeps watch as people wait to receive food aid in Kabul, May 5, 2010. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)

KABUL, Afghanistan — To recast the 19th-century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s enduring axiom of war, economic aid has become “the continuation of war by other means.”

Nowhere is this more obvious than in “The Commander’s Guide to Money as a Weapons System,” released by the U.S. Army in early 2009.

It is a handbook for using assistance as a tool of war.  

“Warfighters at brigade, battalion, and company level in a counterinsurgency (COIN) environment employ money as a weapons system to win the hearts and minds of the indigenous population to facilitate defeating the insurgents,” says the handbook.

It continues, “Money is one of the primary weapons used by war fighters to achieve successful mission results in COIN and humanitarian operations.”

With the U.S. military escalating troops in Kandahar this summer, a development offensive is part of the strategy.  In fact, the “civilian surge,” as it is being called, is already well under way.

But civilian-military relations have taken a beating over the past few weeks, which is sure to have an impact on the efficacy of aid delivery.

It is a famous axiom of military strategy that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." This GlobalPost special report looks at how economic aid  in Afghanistan has become "war by other means." It reveals how the "civilian surge" is struggling to succeed and in some places actually creating instability and inadvertently benefiting the Taliban.

Part 2: Arming the militias

Part 3: Guardians of Wardak 

Part 4: The law of unintended consequences

The resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, in the wake of remarks he and his aides made to Rolling Stone magazine, exposed profound fault lines between the Pentagon and the rest of the administration’s Afghanistan team.

There seems to be mistrust and at times even contempt on the khaki, or military side, for their civilian counterparts, and a feeling the civilian side doesn't understand the reality of war. The civilian crowd often see the military as a machine that needs to be controlled or it can end up working against the goals of rebuilding Afghanistan.

In a June 24 meeting with reporters in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who also served two tours in the country including one as a lieutenant general heading up the Combined Forces Command, was at some pains to downplay any possible rift between the civilian side and the military.

“Civil-military integration, cooperation, collaboration — it doesn’t mean the absence of debates,” said Eikenberry, whose career path has placed him squarely in the middle of this civilian-military divide and who was the target of criticism by McChrystal and his aides in the Rolling Stone piece. “It doesn’t mean that everyone’s perspectives are identical … . So, sure, with any kind of civilian-military team there is going to be — if it’s a good team, an active team — there’s going to be, behind closed doors … vigorous discussions, vigorous debates.”

Resolving the tensions that lie behind these comments and the dramatic resignation of McChrystal will be a profound challenge for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in the months ahead, and Gen. David Petraeus will need all of his diplomatic skills to heal the divide.

In addition to the 30,000 troops that are being put in place in Afghanistan this summer, more than $20 billion in additional aid to the country is also being funneled into Afghanistan. It is part of a greatly enhanced development budget that will carry through until the end of 2011, when President Barack Obama has set his sights on beginning a drawdown of troops.

This highly promoted  “civilian surge” from USAID and the State Department includes several development and training programs designed to boost the figures of the Afghan National Security Forces in record time.

Many welcome the increased focus on building stability in this war-ravaged nation, where the under-30 generation — who constitute more than 70 percent of the population — cannot remember a time of peace.

But those who have followed the uneven progress of Afghanistan’s development over the past eight and a half years are wary of the new enthusiasm. Rushed and poorly conceived initiatives that promise quick results have all too often led to disasters in the past — squandered money, wasted effort and ruined lives.

In some cases, well-intentioned aid can backfire and inflame already volatile situations. Development projects can end up pitting tribes against each other and stirring old rivalries among warlords who often end up controlling the funds.

For any aid program to work there are two necessary conditions on the ground: stability and a strong central government. Afghanistan has neither. This is why so many development experts are extremely concerned about the coming months.

“Many of the problems that the international community faces in Afghanistan arise from their own hastily-made decisions and short-term planning, driven by political expediency,” writes the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, in a report released in April.

Afghanistan and the international community are preparing for the Kabul Conference this summer, which will provide a forum in which to assess the progress that Afghanistan has made toward stability and prosperity, as well as an opportunity to rethink strategies that may not have yielded the desired results. In the run-up to the event, many are taking a new look at the programs that — for good or ill — have brought Afghanistan and its international partners to their current state.

In many respects, the picture is less than promising.

A thriving insurgency shows little sign of buckling under the U.S. troop surge: a disappointing offensive in Helmand province in February ended in little more than stalemate.

Billed as “a turning point in the war,” Operation Moshtarak, in Marjah district of Helmand Province, was designed to clear the Taliban out of a small, poppy-rich, insurgent-plagued area.