The Counterproductive US Strategy in Afghanistan

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction was established by Congress in 2008 “promote economy and efficiency of U.S.-funded reconstruction programs in Afghanistan.” Overseeing the billions of dollars the U.S. spends in Afghanistan each year keeps SIGAR busy.

The Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund, the subject of SIGAR’s latest audit report, is the perfect example of the kind of waste and mismanagement that keeps the government watchdog in business.

The Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund was created in fiscal year 2011. Before then long-term, large scale infrastructure projects were improperly funded through the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program, an account intended for small, short projects.

Congress appropriated $400 million for the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund (AIF) in 2011 and 2012, for a total of $800 million. The goal of the projects funded under AIF was to support the COIN strategy—that is, to win hearts and minds.

The SIGAR investigation into AIF found a number of significant problems. First, most of the infrastructure projects examined are 6 to 15 months behind schedule. Worse, SIGAR finds that “the scale of most projects means that these agencies will not achieve the planned contributions to the COIN strategy described in the fiscal year 2011 congressional notification for several years.”

The real damning conclusion, however, is this: “In some instances, these projects may result in adverse COIN effects because they create an expectations gap among the affected population or lack citizen support.” [emphasis added]

In other words, the massive amounts of aid the U.S. has sent to Afghanistan may actually be counterproductive.

The SIGAR report captures the fundamental problem with the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. That strategy is not informed by an understanding of Afghan culture, politics, or history. It’s not even informed by human nature.

For U.S. planners, winning hearts and minds meant spending billions on unsustainable aid projects. That didn’t win hearts and minds, but it did create a culture of entitlement.

Now, when it’s clear that the strategy isn’t working, international donors are pulling their dollars.  The aid bubble is about to burst. The culture of entitlement will give way to simple resentment.

It’s too late to get back the many years and billions of dollars the U.S. has wasted on an ill-conceived strategy in Afghanistan. But it’s not too late to craft a strategy for moving forward—a strategy that takes into account U.S. strategic interests in Afghanistan and makes limited aid dollars more effective.

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