Money as a Weapons System

In the war in Afghanistan, money, the good ol’ American greenback, is used as a primary tool in the U.S. arsenal — a means to winning the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan and buying our frenemies’ “loyalty”. This practice is laid out in “Money as a Weapon System – Afghanistan,” a handbook for U.S. aid projects in Afghanistan.

Money hasn’t been a particularly effective weapon system, but the aid flow hasn’t slowed either. Over the past ten years U.S. aid to Afghanistan has topped $30 billion, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction ($22.3 billion for governance and development, $6 billion for counter-narcotics, and $2.3 billion for humanitarian aid).

The billion-dollar attempt to buy stability has yet to yield results. Violence in Afghanistan continues, and the ability of the Afghan forces to take over for U.S. and allied troops in 2014 remains uncertain. On the development side, Afghanistan remains dependent on the international community, with 97% of its GDP coming from foreign aid and military spending.

Condolence payments are a particularly interesting piece of the Afghan aid puzzle. “The Money as a Weapons System” guidance caps condolence payments — payments to individual civilians for the death or physical injury resulting from specific U.S., coalition, or supporting military operations — at $5,000. The U.S. spent close to $700,000 in condolence payments in 2011, according to the Pentagon.

From 2007, the first year the U.N. began tracking Afghan civilian casualties, to the end of 2011 close to 12,000 civilians were killed in the Afghanistan conflict. (A new CRS report has more on casualties of the war in Afghanistan). At that level, it’s hard to see that U.S. aid dollars, even in the millions, could repair the damage.

Condolence payments are just one example of the flawed U.S. strategy in Afghanistan — a strategy based on the idea that we can buy our way to victory. But hearts and minds can’t be bought. Pouring money into the Afghan economy hasn’t won us many friends, but it has created an aid bubble that will burst as international donors realize the current path of Afghan aid is unsustainable.

Worse, the war in Afghanistan has siphoned off funds that would have been better spent on domestic programs. Now, the U.S. is in the midst of a fiscal crisis. Spending is out of control, but some members of Congress are looking at raising taxes rather than getting defense spending under control. They should start by ending the war in Afghanistan — a war that is still costing us $2 billion per week.

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