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Afghanistan aid and the Vietnam analogy

An article by The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung's on major increases in staffing of U.S. aid programs in Afghanistan leads Spencer Ackerman to applaud the effort "to roll back the insurgency's ability to outgovern the Kabul government".

DeYoung reports that:


Hundreds of additional U.S. diplomats and civilian officials would be deployed to Afghanistan as part of the new civil-military regional strategy that President Obama's top national security advisers plan to present for his signature next week, according to administration officials.


The program apparently envisions an extra 300 civilian State Department employees in Afghanistan.

The greater balance between civilian and military participation in these programs seems laudable — as of 2008, the "Provincial Reconstruction Teams" that formed the baseline of U.S. aid programs in Afghanistan's provinces had over 1,000 military members and just 49 civilians. But it's useful to note that U.S. government aid to Afghanistan is utterly dwarfed by what USAID did in South Vietnam. In 1967, USAID had over 2,000 civilian aid workers in South Vietnam with an annual budget of $550 million in 1967 dollars — over $3.4 billion in today's dollars. USAID's budget for Afghanistan in fiscal 2009 is $1.05 billion.

The staff numbers comparison isn't really apples-to-apples, because nowadays most development work is done by NGOs rather than directly by USAID staff, but the funding comparison is probably legit — most of those NGOs are funded at least in part by USAID grants. And of course in Afghanistan you have a lot of aid coming from other NATO countries (though there was a lot of European aid in South Vietnam too, especially medical aid).

The total of aid spent since 2001 in Afghanistan is reportedly over $60 billion, which is very substantial. But it's just worth noting that the idea of coordinating civilian aid efforts and military efforts as part of a unified pacification strategy is exactly Robert Komer's CORDS vision, which was implemented in South Vietnam from 1965-69, and while there are some who argue it produced results, it ultimately didn't produce popular legitimacy for the government of South Vietnam.