All this amounts to what many fear is the "securitization" of aid, as more and more aid funding is being channeled through military forces or civil-military teams, such as the provincial reconstruction teams, rather than more traditional civilian humanitarian and development agencies.
Yet 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. The unquestioned faith in this assumption is particularly surprising given the considerable comparative research and historical evidence from Afghanistan highlighting exactly the opposite conclusion. The social forces that development and modernization often unleash, the literature notes, are often destabilizing. Many historians, for example, attribute the overthrow of King Amanullah from 10 years of rule in 1929 to the strong resistance to his Ataturk-style modernization efforts in the conservative rural hinterland. More recently, large-scale U.S. and Soviet foreign aid programs intended to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan during the Cold War did help promote development -- but they did little to promote stability. Indeed, a 1988 study conducted for USAID titled "Retrospective Review of US Assistance to Afghanistan: 1950-1979" damningly concluded: "The use of aid for short-term political objectives ... tended to ... weaken the longer-term political interests of the United States. Aid as a tool of diplomacy has its limitations when politically motivated commitments are at much higher levels -- and promise more -- than can reasonably be delivered in economic returns."
Our own research, conducted in 2008 and 2009 through the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, found the same -- that there was very little evidence of aid projects winning hearts and minds or promoting stability. This should not come as a surprise; after all, the major factors perceived to be fueling insecurity have little to do with a lack of social services or infrastructure. Instead, one of the main reasons given by the Afghans we interviewed for the growing insurgency was their corrupt and unjust government.
As one tribal elder in the southeastern province of Paktia put it, the very real "lack of clinics, schools, and roads are not the problem. The main problem is we don't have a good government." He continued, "There's a growing distance between the people and the government, and this is the main cause of the deteriorating security situation." Interviewees also cited the geopolitical ambitions of Pakistan, ethnic and tribal grievances, and the behavior of the international military forces as destabilizing factors. Unemployment came up as well, but the short-term "cash for work" jobs offered on road-building or other reconstruction projects were not having any significant or sustainable stabilizing effect. Although more and more resources are being directed toward building roads because of their perceived stabilizing benefits, our research highlights the overwhelming importance of context. In areas where insecurity remained chronic and governance structures broken, the road-building cash has tended to fuel corruption (both perceived and real), intercommunal strife, and competition between local warlords.
The findings go further. Not only are foreign aid projects unlikely to make either the Afghan government or its international backers more popular, but reconstruction assistance seems in fact to be losing -- rather than winning -- hearts and minds. 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. Common complaints included: too little or nothing accomplished (despite in some cases considerable evidence all around of many recently implemented projects), a perception that other communities received more aid, very poor quality workmanship, the wrong kinds of projects for the setting, and the list goes on. However, the single overriding criticism of aid was the strong belief that it was fueling massive corruption, which undermined some of the positive impacts it may have otherwise had. (A notable exception to this was the Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development's National Solidarity Program, which was viewed more positively for the greater role that local communities played in the planning, design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of the projects.)
Our research found that not only is aid not contributing to improved security, but in some cases it may actually be fueling the conflict. In the zero-sum nature of Afghan society and politics, where the gain of one individual, village, tribe, or ethnic group is often perceived as a loss for others, aid projects can often be destabilizing by creating perceived winners and losers. In the southern province of Uruzgan, for example, one government official complained, "The problem of foreign aid exacerbated the situation because Durranis [a major Pashtun tribe to which President Hamid Karzai belongs] not only got all the power in government, but some also controlled and benefited from all the aid programs."