Afghanistan appears to be on the brink of profound changes. Recent talks with the Taliban represent the best hope for peace in years. But many remain anxious about the role the Taliban would play in a post-war Afghanistan, especially as these talks have, until recently, excluded the Afghan government. Certainly, the announcement of the annual spring offensive by the Taliban belies any notion that peace will come easily.
That the United States is negotiating with an adversary it once vowed to destroy is a sign of flagging political will to continue its nearly two-decade long intervention. Indeed, the U.S. has given hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid to Afghanistan, with seemingly little to show for it. So, why hasn’t it worked?
Rather than supporting development, we have attempted to buy peace. Aid has been disproportionately distributed to the regions with the most conflict, leaving the most secure provinces also the poorest and least developed. The instinct to try to “win hearts and minds” in areas with a strong Taliban presence is understandable, but it has had disastrous consequences.
More than 80% of aid has gone toward short-term projects designed to bolster local security, such as walls around schools or repairs to local irrigation infrastructure. Consequently, long-term economic development and institution building have been neglected. The result: When NATO troops began to pull out in 2011, economic growth plummeted from well over 10% to just 2%, and the poverty rate increased from 36% to 39%. Rather than fostering development, our aid has created reliance.
It’s not clear that this aid improved security even in the short term. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) published an internal review of its security ‘stabilization’ program in 2014. It found that in Taliban-controlled villages receiving aid, opinion of the Taliban, rather than the U.S. or the Afghan government, improved. Locals generally believed that the projects must have been approved by the local Taliban militia. The program had the opposite of the desired effect.
There’s a certain catch-22 in the way the U.S. provides aid to Afghanistan. USAID had been reluctant to provide aid through an Afghan government in which corruption is endemic. However, the lack of funding means that the government has lacked the resources to combat corruption and build local institutions. Until recently, 90% of all aid was given outside Kabul’s budget. American aid is frequently funneled through international corporations and multiple layers of subcontractors. This has led to inefficiency and higher overhead costs. In 2012, just 30 cents of every dollar that USAID gave went to aid — half the norm for other aid groups like the World Bank.
In 2014, the U.S. pledged to provide 50% of its aid directly to the Afghan government. This was never achieved, however. With the security situation deteriorating and the U.S. gearing up to lessen its footprint in the country, the window to build a stronger Afghan state may have passed. And with it, perhaps the change to build lasting peace.