Thursday, November 19, 2009

Plans for Afghan development aid getting it exactly backwards

Aid is a vital part of counterinsurgency, right? Development projects help back up improvements in security and win over support from the local population for the counterinsurgent and the legitimate government, so goes the thinking. We ought not be surprised, then, with this:

The White House is developing “clear targets” for both the Afghan and Pakistani
governments, possibly with specific timelines, as a way to signal that the American military presence will not last indefinitely, American officials said. It is not yet clear what the administration is willing to do if the targets are not met.

Among other things, the officials said, the administration will insist that Afghanistan fight corruption, speed up troop training and retention, and funnel development assistance to areas the Taliban dominate.

Emphasis in the above is mine. Only problem with the latter bit is that it's precisely the opposite of what we ought to be doing to help stabilize and legitimize the Karzai government. (A case can be made, too, that rapid expansion of the ANSF is similarly counterproductive to this aim.)

So why is it wrong? Well, it's pretty simple: pouring money and development assistance into areas dominated by the Taliban means that 1) everything we do will be much more expensive, 2) the prospects of failure are much higher, imperiling the government's overall legitimacy and control over areas previously deemed "quiet" and "safe," and 3) the enemy will gain from our efforts to the extent that any of them are successful in delivering benefits to insurgent-controlled (or insurgent-influenced) areas.

Control comes before collaboration. The support of individuals and groups is contested by the insurgent and the counterinsurgent through the provision of services and the suggestion of legitimacy, sure, but that only happens after one party is able to largely prevent the other from contesting territory and/or a subject population through force and security. The Taliban doesn't run sharia courts for the local nationals who work at Bagram; why? Because it's senseless to spend resources pitching a guy who cannot plausibly shift his support to the group that's unable to access or protect him. Pouring money and bridges and wells and so on into places that coalition or government forces cannot consistently and safely access decouples those resources from the counterinsurgent's most important tool: presence.

Kilcullen's been on this point lately, too: why spend all our resources in "red areas" when we've got a lot of light green areas we could be shoring up with those efforts? Why contest the hardest spots first? (And further, why work on connecting more of the population to a government that as yet doesn't seem to be competent enough to reap any benefit in legitimacy or support from being more closely connected to more of its citizens?)

There's a whole lot more to say about this -- it speaks to the "ink spots strategy" issues that Bernard and Christian have recently highlighted, and to which I've yet to respond -- and I hope to cover a lot more ground in a comprehensive Afghanistan "path-forward" post in the coming days.


  1. "Control comes before collaboration."

    Quite true.
    Gulliver, are those your words or Dr. K?

  2. As far as I know, they're mine, but they've been said by many people before. It's basically a distillation of Stathis Kalyvas' book into a four-word phrase.

  3. Great post. This is what happens when you have policymakers that still don't seem to understand what pop-centric COIN requires and just care about generating convenient metrics that will look good in speeches and congressional hearings - trying to force COIN to be more science than art.

  4. I've condensed Stathis Kalyvas' book into a four-letter phrase.

    Care to hear it?


  5. You know I'm a sucker for a good SNLII-ism.

  6. Yeah, me, too. Also, it's nice to see SNLII commenting here, again. After all the fun I made of the poetry-comments, I now kind of miss them...

  7. I mean, me too. But, I did mean poetry-dash-comments....

  8. SNLII, don't keep us in suspense ;-)