Chronic instability, beginning before the Soviet invasion, helped destroy Afghanistan’s already underdeveloped economy. After 9/11, the United States dedicated billions of dollars and significant human effort in the eastern part of the country and elsewhere in the form of aid, infrastructure projects, agriculture development, and investment in education. A number of agencies — including the Department of State, Department of Defense, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) — worked in tandem with one another and international organizations to improve Afghanistan’s economic situation.
Improving Afghanistan’s economy was but one of the U.S.’s three-pillar approach in their counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts, along with governance and security. In the excerpt from his book Counterinsurgency in Eastern Afghanistan 2004-2008: A Civilian Perspective published in 2014 as part of the ADST Memoirs and Occasional Papers Series, active-duty Foreign Service Officer Robert Kemp discusses the range of projects implemented, both from civilian agencies and the military, and how progress was frequently stymied by conflict. He also notes the mixed success of large-scale projects like road-building in COIN efforts and concludes that “the international community will need to be involved in Afghanistan for years, and probably decades, more.”
The Pluses and Minuses of Development and Reconstruction Efforts
KEMP: Afghanistan was and is one of the poorest countries in the world — the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP’s) 2004 report on Human Development Index noted that “Afghanistan’s  HDI value of 0.346 falls at the bottom of the list of low human development countries, just above Burundi, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Sierra Leone.”
Life expectancy in 2002 was just over 44 years, and national literacy rate was just above 28% (but only 14.1 percent for females), one of the lowest among developing countries. Adjusted per-capita GDP was only $822.
Particularly in the rural areas of RC-East [Regional Command], the general lack of basic services and the meager gains from subsistence farming could be shocking to outsiders from developed countries. While these numbers improved by 2008, clearly this very low baseline was a challenge for development workers and counterinsurgency efforts.
Much of the population in RC-East is rural, subsisting on irrigated crops and livestock, while the towns support small shopkeepers and limited light industry. Overall, poverty is endemic, and even the most well-off towns are far from wealthy….
The large infusion of development funds into RC-East during the period 2004–2008 clearly supported COIN efforts at the tactical level. At a strategic level the correlation between COIN and projects was less clear. The option of spending heavily on development was an asymmetric advantage that the Taliban and other insurgent groups could not match. It also provided a degree of acceptance for an international presence among a more traditional and, at times, suspicious, population that was mostly Pashtun. Many of these development programs, including the military Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), showed some degree of success.
However, various structural problems during this time hindered progress – including the lack of Afghan Government capacity, shortfalls USG interagency cooperation, the imbalance between civilian and military staff, the differing timelines between various players, and the inherent difficulty of rebuilding a very poor country in the middle of an insurgency that gained momentum during this period.
The most active ministries in RC-East during this time were the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL); Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD); Ministry of Education; and Ministry of Public Health. Both the Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs were underfunded and understaffed, and the latter encountered some opposition in culturally conservative Pashtun areas.
After its creation in 2007, the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) was increasingly active, and organized local government to formulate development plans, while also trying to expand its authority into spending development funds, including CERP. One of the more successful development schemes was the community-based National Solidarity Program, under the MRRD, and the Basic Package of Health Services, established in 2003 under the Ministry of Public Health.
At the national and international levels, the Interim-Afghanistan National Development Strategy (I-ANDS, eventually the ANDS, and the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund) provided overarching frameworks. However, these plans were just beginning to be implemented, and local Afghan officials, as well as coalition officers were often not well-informed about them.
Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) — The military as key development player
As noted in the CERP Handbook produced by the Center for Army Lessons Learned, “CERP funds provide tactical commanders a means to conduct multiple stability tasks that have traditionally been performed by U.S., foreign, or indigenous professional civilian personnel or agencies. These tasks include but are not limited to the reconstruction of infrastructure, support to governance, restoration of public services, and support to economic development.” CERP funds could also be used for repairs due to combat damage, and condolence payments.
In RC-East during this period, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) were the primary conduits of CERP funds, although maneuver battalions and, in some instances, brigade commands used them as well. The greatest advantage of CERP funds was the flexibility and speed with which they could be used (in contrast to many USAID projects, which were subject to significantly more mandatory oversight and reviews). This allowed the PRTs to provide funding for projects immediately after combat operations, and also quickly seize opportunities where communities or tribes were open to aligning themselves with Coalition forces and the Afghan government.
During the earlier years of this period, most CERP projects were relatively small, including building or refurbishing of schools, health clinics, markets, irrigation systems, and the upgrading of existing roads. By 2007, large amounts of funding were being channeled through CERP, with some PRTs handling tens of millions of dollars — a major shift in COIN efforts.
The U.S. general Accounting Office (GAO) noted in one report, “Since 2004, DOD [Department of Defense] has reported total obligations of about $1 billion for CERP in Afghanistan, growing from $40 million in FY 2004 to $486 million in FY 2008. As of April 2009, Congress allocated… $683 million to fund CERP projects in Afghanistan.
While some of these CERP funds also went to other RCs, it clearly altered the military’s role in RC-East, from doing more “tactical” projects to being a major development player. For example, major road projects were begun through mountainous areas in Kunar and Nuristan that required long timelines and considerable engineering.
While this increased funding made a positive impact in many places (particularly some road projects) it also strained the capacity of the civil affairs units and PRTs in terms of engineering, quality assurance/quality control (QAQC), and planning, despite the best efforts of those on the ground.
The GAO report notes: “The (CERP) program has evolved over time in terms of the cost and complexity of projects…” and “In a July 2008 memorandum to CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command], the CJTF [Combined Joint Task Force] commanding general noted that, in some provinces, units have repositioned or are unable to do quality-assurance and quality-control checks due to competing missions and security risks.”
Particularly after the expansion of its budgets in 2007 and afterwards, the augmented CERP program pushed the military into areas that many view as falling in the domain of AID [U.S. Agency for International Development], international donors, and NGOs.
To some extent, this was intentional — military officers, from captains to generals, remarked to the author that more traditional development programs were moving too slowly to support the military’s COIN strategy and tactics, or were not present in areas the military considered as priorities. As one U.S. Army officer noted: “While the U.S. Army is uniquely trained, manned, and equipped to operate in unstable regions, it lacks the development capacity and expertise of its civilian partners in conducting these tasks. However, civilian diplomatic and development agencies are often challenged to address such tasks in unstable areas with their traditional delivery systems.”
USAID – The challenges of security and lack of transportation
According to a report of the GAO, “USAID initially focused on humanitarian and short-term assistance [in 2002 and 2003], such as assistance to displaced persons and food assistance. In 2004, USAID expanded assistance to include quick impact projects, such as infrastructure projects.”
By the end of the period, USAID was following an integrated strategy—intended to “create economic growth, effective and representative governance, and the human capital base needed to eliminate the conditions that breed extremism.”
Programs included road construction and rehabilitation (including farm-to-market roads), development of electrical networks, credit and microcredit programs, and assistance in the privatization of state-owned enterprises. There was also an agricultural component—including irrigation and alternative livelihoods (aimed at diminishing poppy cultivation)—governance, health, as well as a large education program.
AID was providing considerable funds to Afghanistan; a 2008 AID report noted that “With over $3.4 billion spent on development programs in Afghanistan since 2002, USAID provides the largest bilateral civilian assistance program to Afghanistan.
In RC-East during this period, most AID field personnel were based out of PRTs, with some posted to brigade commands. Many were contractors on one-year assignments. At the same time, AID was awarding large-scale contracts for development projects to contractors such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Development Alternatives Inc (DAI).
As a Senate report notes, “From FY 2007 to FY 2009, USAID obligated about $3.8 billion to 283 contractors and other entities,” and that “Two contractors — Louis Berger International and Development Alternatives Inc. — accounted for about $1 billion. AID officers in RC-East often faced hurdles in monitoring the contracts, due to security challenges and lack of transportation. At the same time, contracting organizations (including the IOM) were slow to carry out some contracts due to security concerns.
Much of the population of RC-East, which included practically everyone in rural areas, was involved in agriculture in one form or another. This fact made it necessary to focus on agriculture, especially given the more rural nature of the insurgency in some areas. Improvement and reconstruction of irrigation systems, as well as farm-to-market roads, were early efforts.
However, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officers were present only in some PRTs, and then had very limited (if any) funding at their disposal. Beginning in 2008, the U.S. military began deploying “Agribusiness Development Teams” (ADTs)—National Guard units whose soldiers brought agricultural, animal husbandry, and agribusiness skills. The first ADT deployed to Nangarhar in 2008, followed by a Texas unit in Ghazni.
Education – A bright spot
Education is a key to the democratic future of Afghanistan — it will be difficult to maintain a viable democracy without it. At the same time, a more educated workforce will be needed to form a civil service cadre to govern the country, to provide a workforce for businesses, and to counter the Taliban’s propaganda aimed against the Afghan government and coalition forces. Hence, this is an important COIN aspect as well.
During the early years of the 2004-2008 period, the Ministry of Education was still extending its reach into parts of RC-East, and suffered from scarce resources, including teachers. While the PRTs built schools, the Ministry did not necessarily have the means to use them, and teacher salaries were very low.
Education in madrassas (educational institutions, either secular or religious), both locally and across the border in Pakistan, was an option that many parents took. In conversations with the author and in surveys, Afghan parents put a priority on education for their children (including daughters in many cases).
USAID invested heavily in education across Afghanistan. By 2011, their programs had printed more than 97 million textbooks for grades 1 through 12, trained more than 53,000 teachers (including radio-based teacher training), and built or refurbished 680 schools. AID also supported programs for adult literacy and vocational training. NATO numbers further suggest very strong improvements in RC-East.
Although there is still much to be done, education seems to have been a bright spot among development efforts. The World Bank notes that by 2011, across Afghanistan 6.2 million Afghan students were attending grades 1 through 12, of whom 2.2 million are females.
However, the World Bank notes that there remains “an acute shortage of teachers — many teachers do not receive their salaries on time, and have little or no training.” At the same time, schools were easy targets for insurgent attacks in some areas.
The Performance-Based Governor’s Fund, intended to provide governors with administrative funds to run their offices and maintain a staff, through the transfer of roughly $25,000 per month, was put in place at the end of this period. According to the IDLG, (which oversaw the program, although it was administered by the Asia Foundation) it was intended “to provide interim financial assistance to Governors so they are better able to meet operational and community outreach needs, enhance their relationships with citizens and improve their overall management capacity.”
The State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) had its own “Good Performers Initiative” (GPI), launched in 2007, to reward provinces that eliminated or sharply reduced (by 10% or more) their poppy cultivation. This money was granted for development projects, in coordination with the governors and provincial development councils. Both of these programs were much smaller than the CERP and AID programs, but held considerable potential to improve provincial governance and development programs by tailoring programs to local conditions to attain specific policy goals.
Cooperation among development actors
Coordination between the various development and reconstruction players in RC-East during this period was, unsurprisingly, a major challenge. Different goals, organizational cultures, the inherent difficulties of operating in a country as unstable as Afghanistan, rapid turnover of foreign staff, and the need to adhere to guidelines passed down from Washington (or Kabul, Brussels or New York) made this hard. Interestingly, personalities and personal connections often made the difference, allowing obstacles to be overcome.
Coordination between development actors during the earlier years of this period was often ad hoc, with field officers working together to try to resolve program conflicts at their level. Within the USG in 2004, the challenge of forming an overall, interagency strategy, coupled with insufficient information exchanges and considerable differences between the USAID, State, and Army bureaucracies led to coordination challenges in RC-East. Other players in the USG included the embassy-based Afghanistan Reconstruction Group (ARG) charged with advising embassy and Afghan officials on commercial and economic policy and attracting corporations to Afghanistan.
By 2008, USG efforts were more efficient and logical. The Integrated Civil-Military Action Group (ICMAG), established in 2008 within the U.S. embassy, pulled together senior State, AID, and military officers with roles in development for regular meetings, and fed into a higher-level Executive Working Group. State’s S/CRS (the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization) provided officers to do interagency planning at both the embassy, brigade, and PRT levels. Brigade commands served as the nexus in the field for coordinating projects across several provinces, and PRTs did the same for individual provinces.
Towards the end of this period, the Afghan government at the national and — in some cases, provincial levels — had begun to take a more active role in development coordination; by 2007 Provincial Development Plans (PDPs) had been produced for all provinces. At a higher level, the GOA and UN chaired the Joint Coordination Monitoring Board (established in 2006), to implement the Afghanistan Compact (agreed in 2006), including development activities under the I-ANDS.
Challenges: Development Gaps, Quality Assessment, Database Incompatibility
During this period there were considerable challenges to reconstruction and development programs. The possibility of attacks by insurgents after the Taliban and other groups began to extend their operations in the spring of 2005 restricted (or in some cases completely stopped) efforts by various development players. It also added considerable overhead to pay for security, and made the actual implementation of projects that much harder.
The lack of Afghan capacity, in terms of trained development workers and government officials, slowed efforts. Rapid turnover of officers—military, State, AID (or United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan [UNAMA]) often deployed on 12-month tours—led to a lack of continuity. Corruption on the part of GOA officials, or the perception of endemic corruption by Afghan citizens, hindered project implementation and their public relations benefits.
There was considerable debate — and acrimony — over the “humanitarian space,” roughly defined as the provision of emergency relief, development and reconstruction assistance to the civilian population. Many NGOs believed—by virtue of experience, neutrality, and mandate—that they should set the terms and strategies for development assistance in these areas.
At the same time, the lack of civilian security prevented NGOs from operating in many parts of RC-East during this time. Inevitably, this led to tensions with the military, as they filled what they perceived as a gap in development work that was an important pillar of their strategy (and despite the fact that the military often did not want the role). While UNAMA theoretically could help resolve problems and coordinate among players, in practice its limited numbers on the ground—and general lack of funding—reduced its influence. In the field, UNAMA could suggest, but not dictate.
Quality assurance also presented challenges, particularly in areas with security problems. While the military could visit projects if convoys were available (dependent on military priorities), it was much more difficult for AID workers to move around—they often had to rely on military patrols that might or might not go to all the places they needed to visit. NGOs also tended to avoid moving with the military in order to maintain their status as neutral players. Long-term maintenance of projects was also a challenge; with very limited budgets, the Afghan government (particularly at the local level) did not necessarily have the means to maintain large projects such as roads.
The “metrics” of development and reconstruction projects—quantifying the number of projects underway or completed—was somewhat straightforward for the military, which had in place systems to collect and present this information. Metrics became more complex, however, when they were intended to assess the quality of projects… how much it advanced coalition goals, including COIN. The difference in metrics between the military, USAID, and other donors—in terms of methodology and what goals were being evaluated—added another layer of complexity.
A related challenge was the incompatibility of databases; U.S. military was using its system, AID another, and the GOA was relying on a third. By 2008, an effort was launched within the U.S. Embassy to resolve this issue, but merging separate databases was challenging.
In some cases, there was not a central repository of data previously collected — it resided on hard drives, thumb drives and servers, of different units and officers who had long since departed Afghanistan. The mundane problem of different e-mail systems between State, AID, ISAF, the US Military and the Afghan government made information sharing harder than it needed to be, as did the military’s tendency to put much data on the classified Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) system.
What did the Afghans in RC-East think about these development efforts?
The answer seemed to change over time. In 2004 the mood was one of hope, with the expectation that the international community would bring the resources and capabilities to improve people’s lives. By 2008, the overall mood changed, as these expectations were often not met.
One factor was that, while Afghans heard of large international donations arriving in Kabul, they often didn’t see immediate returns and came to the conclusion the money was feeding corruption or funding comfortable lifestyles among foreign aid workers in Kabul. This depended on location; while rural areas remained poor, some towns such as Jalalabad, Khost, and Ghazni saw relative progress. Some districts received significant (by local standards) flows of money, and areas where large road projects emerged received direct benefits….
At the local level, Afghans themselves were sometimes divided about what they wanted, with different parts of a community or different tribes having different priorities. Considerable effort was put into prioritizing projects with coalition officers doing numerous, sometimes repetitive, surveys.
These were often coupled with shura sessions [public assemblies], which allowed a community to debate and (sometimes) concur on proposed projects. Some requests, such as grid electricity, were difficult to provide over a short or medium time-frame, while basic services— health and education were a priority in most areas—required time to build up a functioning system.
Particularly along the insecure border areas with Pakistan, and increasingly after the insurgency gained momentum in 2005, security was the priority for many Afghans. Beyond that, many Afghans in RC-East, especially in rural areas, live at a subsistence level. As a result, jobs that augmented income from small-scale farming were the priority. This was a critical COIN issue as well—offering young men more than insurgent groups might pay to carry a gun or set off IEDs [improvised explosive devices] was a strong rationale for creating jobs.
The Positive and Less Positive of COIN Development Programs – “Security ends where the road ends”
Development assistance in RC-East during the period 2004–2008 clearly contributed to improving the lives of many people in eastern Afghanistan and supported COIN efforts. In a broader sense, it increased tolerance of U.S. forces operating in an area traditionally hostile to outsiders where the population weighed the direct benefits of U.S. assistance against any perceived need to force foreigners out.…
Development programs provided something the insurgents couldn’t match, and therefore gave COIN an “asymmetric” advantage. Some jobs programs probably held down poppy production by providing alternative livelihoods, which in turn helped prevent a large-scale narcotics problem that would have made COIN even more complex in RC-East.
Field officers and current studies come to a variety of conclusions regarding any positive correlation between development programs and effective COIN….The Afghans saw the roads as having direct practical benefits — by providing access to markets, as well as a source of construction employment — which the insurgents could not match.
Roads also [made] it easier for government officials to reach the population and … shuras … in mountainous terrain. CERP served the military in “economy of force” situations, where projects provided a presence and an impact in areas where patrols were infrequent due to limited numbers of soldiers. On the other hand… very few large development projects were achieving their goals.
David Kilcullen, in his excellent study of road-building projects during this period in Kunar, notes an additional benefit: the road building project “seems to be succeeding because people have used the process of the roads’ construction, especially the close engagement with district and tribal leaders this entails, as a framework around which to organize a full-spectrum strategy … to separate insurgents from the people, win local allies, connect the population to the government, build local governance capacity, modify and improve governance capacity, (and) swing tribes that had supported the insurgency into the government side … seiz[ing] the opportunity to generate security, economic, governance and political benefits.”
A common saying among military officers at this time was that “security ends where the road ends,” underscoring the importance of these projects for security forces as well.
Dr. Carter Malkasian and Dr. Gerald Meyerle [team leaders in advising PRTs in Afghanistan] make a positive connection between development projects and COIN effects during research carried out in RC-East during 2007 and 2008. They note that “in Khost an aggressive project ‘blitz’ corresponded with fewer attacks and the emergence of a real partnership between tribes and the government. In Kunar, road projects in two major river valleys led to a rise in local community political participation and local resistance to insurgent activity. In Ghazni, PRT projects appear to have helped counter rising violence and … improved governance.”
“Too much aid money spent quickly with little oversight can be de-legitimizing and destabilizing”
However, a 2010 Wilton Park Conference (pictured) that brought together military, government officials, and development workers to examine the effectiveness of development on COIN in Afghanistan came to some less positive conclusions. Among other views, the conference concluded that when development assistance often provided stabilization benefits at a tactical level, the longer-term strategic benefits were less clear.
The conference also noted that “Too much aid money spent quickly with little oversight can be de-legitimizing and destabilizing in many ways, including by: fueling corruption; creating destabilizing winner-loser dynamics in ethnically and tribally divided societies; supporting a lucrative war/aid economy that benefits insurgents, corrupt government officials, and other malign actors; and creating perverse incentives among key actors to maintain the status quo of insecurity and bad governance.”
Andrew Wilder [director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs of the United States Institution of Peace in 2010] … makes a similar argument, saying “despite counterinsurgency doctrine’s heavy reliance on the assumption that aid ‘wins hearts and minds’, not to mention the billions of dollars being spent on it, there is remarkably limited evidence from Afghanistan supporting a link between aid and stability.”
Wilder makes the case that “As the conflict has proceeded, Afghans’ perceptions of U.S. and international aid, as well as those who deliver it (be they military forces, the government, aid contractors, or NGOs) have grown overwhelmingly negative.”
Will the clear COIN benefits remain after the eventual hand-off to the Afghan government?
Perhaps the best conclusion at this time is that development projects clearly provided tactical benefits for COIN. Strategic gains may well be mixed, but it will take years for this to be clear. Separately, the infusion of large amounts of assistance funding almost certainly fueled corruption, and there is a danger of establishing a culture of dependency on foreign assistance as well.
It is also worth considering how much these projects will benefit the Afghan government and security forces in the future as U.S. forces draw down…. Will the clear COIN benefits from the construction of roads remain after the eventual hand-off to the Afghan government, or will entirely new projects be needed to maintain any counterinsurgency momentum?
The large infusion of development funds into RC-East supported COIN efforts, provided an asymmetrical advantage — projects that improved people’s lives, and improves prospects for their children’s future — that the Taliban and other insurgent groups could not match. It also provided … a degree of acceptance for an international presence among a traditional, at times suspicious, population that was mostly Pashtun.
Otherwise, the local population would most likely have met this presence — particularly a military presence — with considerably more hostility, given the experiences of previous foreign militaries.
Given the very low standard of living, particularly in rural areas, small and less expensive projects could often make a positive impact on people’s lives in the short term. For example, improvements to existing irrigation systems, community projects to pave roads with stones, improvement of market areas, refurbishment or construction of school buildings, or assistance with crop or livestock production often had a very good cost/benefit ratio.
Clashing “Clocks” and Cultures Hinder Development Efforts
Many different “clocks” were in play on development issues during this period, coupled with differing cultures.
The U.S. military wanted (and at times was able) to move quickly, and get results. This reflected a “can-do” culture, tours of less than 15 months (which spurred officers to get projects accomplished in this time frame), and the reality that development was a key to COIN—and to saving soldiers’ lives.
USAID was often more deliberate, using years of experience in what works best in development — while at the same time being more restrained by regulations and oversight relative to CERP.
Big international donors such as the Asian Development Bank moved slowly, in part due to the size of their programs.
Afghan society, particularly in rural areas, often moved to the slow rhythm of an agricultural, consensus-based society.
These three very different speeds led to inevitable, and considerable friction, which was not always managed well and hindered coordination.
While not a development player (except perhaps in the justice sector, where they delivered a rough form of justice in some areas), the Taliban and other insurgent groups had yet another “clock” — the perception that from their sanctuaries in Pakistan they could outwait the international community….
Afghan society is complex at all levels — national, provincial, and local — and this complexity had a direct impact on development projects. A detailed knowledge of the local dynamics was crucial to planning and implementing successful projects. This was never simple, and presented coalition officers with the continual possibility of making mistakes.
For example, rivalries between tribes or communities often went back decades, and lack of awareness of this could result in officers inadvertently backing one group over another through project planning and implementation—possibly leading to anti-coalition feelings, and/or failed projects. A related complication were the risks communities and their leaders sometimes ran in accepting projects… insurgents at times targeted those who cooperated with counter-insurgents or the Afghan government.
A related issue… was the rapid rotation of units and officers through Afghanistan…. [and] the imbalance of civilian to military personnel on the ground in RC-East. With each PRT often having only two or three civilians from State, AID, and USDA (and often less in 2004-2005), and similar numbers in brigade commands, there were simply not enough civilians to manage development issues, and military officers therefore were pressed into service in these areas.
While the military did have civil-military affairs units on the ground, they were themselves insufficient to cover the range of activities and the increasing flows of CERP funds by 2007, so that military officers in other specialties at times covered development issues.
Emphasis on Short-Term Infrastructure Goals Threatens Sustainability
Development projects and programs during this period, particularly CERP, seemed strongly oriented towards infrastructure with less emphasis on the development of human resources and government institutions. In particular, the development of a larger, more adept civil service cadre was lacking. The lack of progress in building civil institutions relative to some of the security-related institutions was a weakness in the COIN strategy. The rapid rotation of military and civilian officers may have been a factor, in that building a civil service cadre in Afghanistan will require extended effort over many years—and is not something that can be achieved over a short tour.
The sustainability of projects––such as the maintenance of road—presented serious long-term challenges in Afghanistan. While smaller, low-tech projects that had community buy-in could succeed without much GOA support, more complex projects—especially those that require a steady stream of maintenance funds and technological/engineering capabilities—were challenging. The pressure to get projects completed during relatively short rotations almost certainly hindered sustainability, as the number of projects completed took precedence over putting in place the means to sustain them.
Devolution of Governance Fosters Benefits — The Specter of Corruption and Dependency
As CERP evolved in Afghanistan, one of its greatest advantages was the devolution of decision-making to lower levels. Although oversight was in place for review of project packets by the military chain of command, considerable responsibility was given to lieutenants, captains and majors in the field. These officers often had the best visibility into the needs of communities, and which projects might have the greatest COIN payoffs.
Afghanistan is subject to various natural disasters, including earthquakes, floods and outbreaks of disease. USAID and the military were often able to provide disaster relief, thanks to logistical capabilities, experience, manpower, and ready funding. These efforts often built good will among the population. Similarly, Band-Aid efforts such as “medcaps” and “vetcaps” that delivered immediate medical or veterinary assistance to rural areas or villages often yielded local goodwill….
There has been a lively debate, both within governments and in the academic press, over how much international development funds have fueled corruption in the Afghan government, and by extension Afghan society. While this is difficult to quantify, it is hard not to conclude that the large amounts of money — coupled with at times loose oversight, weak legal structures, and a mentality among some Afghans that it is best to grab what is available now as insurance against future instability — have not caused more corruption.
Similarly, there are concerns over how much dependency the massive aid flows, relative to Afghan GDP, are causing. Again, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, given GOA fiscal realities and cultural tendencies, some degree of dependency has been formed….
The Long-Term Perspective
From a long-term perspective, the improvement in the educational system — in terms of quality, quantity, and access — will form the underpinnings of any sustainable democracy. This may be easier than it appears — Afghan parents seem to put a priority on learning. Large-scale projects such as electricity generation and transmission, while fundamental to the economic development of RC-East, were clearly beyond the scope of PRTs and to some extent AID efforts in RC-East during this time. Fortunately, later projects, particularly those bringing electricity from Central Asia, may help resolve this fundamental challenge.
One long-term result of the amounts of money invested, the projects completed, (as well as the foreign military and civilian presence) is the partial transformation of Pashtun society. Roads that opened up previously isolated valleys, the improved education system, and the provision of electricity, among others, changed this part of the world. Commercially driven changes such as the rapid expansion of cell phone coverage have done the same. This rapid social transformation may have fueled some parts of the insurgency, as a violent reaction to modernization….
During the period 2004–2008, the USG deployed to RC-East a cadre of talented, dedicated military and civilian officers, who made a considerable positive impact, despite risks and hardships. Given how damaged and underdeveloped much of this area was in 2001, the difficulty of reconstructing a nation in the middle of an active insurgency, and the challenges of getting programs and projects “right,” the international community will need to be involved in Afghanistan for years, and probably decades, more.