The United States has spent some $2.3 billion on projects specifically designed to stabilize Afghanistan that have shown scant evidence of doing so or have actually undermined stability, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in a report on Friday. What makes this report even more pathetic is that it comes as no surprise, given the well-documented failure of aid projects as a result of American hubris, incompetence and avarice, including projects that have directly benefited and strengthened the insurgency.
Undermining the dubious notion that development projects are the key to stability in Afghanistan, the U.S. military reports, according to SIGAR, that as of November 27, 2015 nearly 30% of the country’s districts are under Taliban control or influence. In other words, despite spending more than $113 billion on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, the Taliban now control more territory “than at any time since 2001.”
Last month, ProPublica tallied the amount of “questionable” spending identified by the U.S. inspector general at roughly $17 billion, including $8.4 billion spent on “counter-narcotics programs that were so ineffective that Afghanistan has produced record levels of heroin – more than it did before the war started.” In addition, some analysts claim U.S. misguided efforts to crackdown on the drug trade have alienated Afghans, triggering a backlash that has only bolstered insurgent groups.
The SIGAR report notes that stabilizing the country remains central to U.S. goals for a secure and unified Afghanistan to “prevent the emergence of future threats.” However, there is little evidence, according to the report, that the projects achieved any of their primary objectives, including improving government support and legitimacy among the local populace and enhancing security.
SIGAR cited a USAID-funded analysis conducted by a third party that found implementation of stabilization programming in Taliban-controlled villages “had the perverse effect of increasing popular support for the Taliban among locals” and decreasing support for the Afghan government. The survey claimed it discovered no evidence of “direct payments to the Taliban” but conceded that insurgent groups “target villages where stabilization interventions take place.”
However, it is hard to believe the Taliban did not benefit financially from these projects, however indirectly, based on the record of insurgent ingenuity that has led to hundreds of millions – if not billions – of U.S. taxpayer dollars to flow into the coffers of the Taliban and its affiliates since 2001.
Ill-conceived development projects began emerging in droves not long after the U.S. occupied Afghanistan when free market acolytes under George W. Bush attempted to “liberalize” Afghanistan’s economy, even though one hardly existed after decades of incessant war. As behemoth defense contractors fattened their wallets development analysts reported that only a pittance of aid was actually reaching the intended recipients, primarily due to fraud, poor oversight and the aforementioned entrepreneurial spirit of the Taliban.
Journalist Douglas Wissing in his troubling book, Funding the Enemy, provides eye-opening accounts of how the Taliban profited from extortion rackets, often in league with corrupt Afghan government officials, prompting Special Envoy Peter Galbraith to declare Afghanistan a “mafia state.” Even more alarming, several U.S. officials conceded to Wissing that the Taliban were getting anywhere from 10 to 20% of development deals simply for allowing contractors to finish projects.
There were even reports of a shadow Taliban office in Kabul where NGOs went to submit contracts for approval and give the insurgents their cut of program spending. In 2009, The Nation’s Aram Roston wrote: “It is an accepted fact of the military logistics operation in Afghanistan that the U.S. government funds the very forces American troops are fighting.” It does not take a development aid or counterinsurgency expert to understand how funding both sides of the war might be destabilizing, not to mention utterly self-defeating.
Pentagon officials also embraced the gospel that with aid comes stability, yet they intertwined development goals with short-term tactical outcomes as opposed to seeing it in humanitarian terms, thereby “militarizing” aid which, ironically, has also fueled the insurgency. Not only was aid destabilizing because it strengthened the enemy but it disproportionately awarded warlords, who were to supposedly protect the peace, which further exacerbated tribal infighting.
It might be jumping the gun to conclude in absolute terms that aid is destabilizing in a war zone based on case studies in Afghanistan given the extent to which U.S. development projects have been ill-suited, poorly conceived and mismanaged. If projects were available to analyze that had proper oversight, were designed with the actual needs of Afghan communities in mind, included local buy-in and ownership and were not simply seen as a means to an end, one could perhaps better judge if development could yield stability. Until that happens, development projects will continue to help actually prolong the war in Afghanistan, considering insurgents have little incentive to end a conflict from which they so profit.