Fighting the Taliban One Irrigation Project at a Time

Can Development Win a Counterinsurgency?
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 31 2011 6:52 PM

Fighting the Taliban One Irrigation Project at a Time

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KHOST, Afghanistan––When people hear about the U.S. military doing development work in Afghanistan, they think about "winning hearts and minds" through humanitarian aid or building schools. The idea is that if Americans do nice things for Afghans, they will be so grateful they will begin to support the counterinsurgency.

But these days, heart and minds is a phrase that will get you nothing but a lot of sighs from members of the military. "I'm sure someone meant well by that, but it's evolved into something that's dissonant with what we're trying to do here," said Capt. Steve Deal. "I think when you say you're winning hearts and minds, you're trying to win people over to your way of thinking. We're not going to change Pashtunwali [the Pashtun tribal legal system and moral code]. We're not going to change Afghan people and the way they live." Other cultures have come to Afghanistan throughout history and tried to win hearts and minds, explained Deal, but despite money, military might, and promises of modernization, they've always been rejected by Afghans.

Deal is a former speechwriter for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, and for the last nine months he has been the commander of one of the U.S. military's 27 Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan. Over the last eight years, these teams have spent billions of dollars building schools, clinics, power plants, dams, walls, and roads around the country. Despite Afghanistan's seemingly bottomless need for infrastructure and economic development, PRTs are often the only people doing development at the provincial and district level, braving IEDs and enemy fire on a daily basis as they conduct their operations.

Among PRT commanders, Deal stands out for his remarkable Pashto-language skills and his ability to discuss Afghan culture and history at length. "Eighty percent of my job is listening and learning and viewing life through the eyes of Afghans," he said. But when it comes to explaining the nature of his work in Khost province, Deal describes the job in terms of a battle offensive. "We are operating in very volatile and kinetic areas where the enemy is intimidating the public and trying to get them to choose sides and take them away from the government," he said. "Our job is to make small inroads, like ink spots, proving that the government can provide services to the people."

The first 5,000 troops are scheduled to be withdrawn from Afghanistan in July, with 2014 the proposed target for a full military withdrawal from the country. At the moment, the pressure on U.S. forces to "build capacity" in Afghanistan in anticipation of the drawdown is intense. The big question is whether Afghan security forces will be ready to take over the defense of their country. But another question looms: Have the U.S. military's astronomically expensive efforts to use development as a tool of the counterinsurgency worked? Have these efforts created sustainable development in one of the world's least-developed countries?

The first PRT in Afghanistan was established in 2003 in Paktiya province on the border with Pakistan. Since then, there have been 14 rotations of teams in the province. Like most PRTs, it is a hybrid of military and civilian components: a military commander and a security unit, as well as representatives from the Department of State, Department of Agriculture, Army Corps of Engineers, and USAID. The teams travel throughout the provinces in armored convoys or helicopters, checking on infrastructure projects, attending tribal councils, and meeting with contractors and government officials.

The Pakitya PRT is estimated by members of the current team to have spent as much as $500 million on development in the province since 2003. And yet, despite this incredible investment in the region, many expressed cynicism about the state of development. Corruption by local contractors and projects that were built but never maintained or even used were frequently cited reasons for frustration. The problem was "gross optimism," explained one team member, who did not want to be named. "We overestimated how difficult it was going to be to accomplish what we set out to do. But you're not supporting the mission if you're not doing development, if you're not spending money."

Others cited ill-conceived projects that have become sources of instability rather than the sources of stabilization the military intended them to be. "I've got schools that are used by insurgents. We call them 'Motel 6s' because that's where they spend the night [and] store caches [of weapons]," said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Conover, a civil affairs officer with the Paktiya PRT. "I've got a $320,000 water purification station sitting there, just finished last year. It's never been turned on, because nobody trained anybody on how to use it. $320,000 of taxpayer money just sitting there, turning to rubble." As another PRT member said, "The idea in COIN is: Secure. Hold. Build. Now we're building, trying to secure, and not holding a lot."

Evidence of mismanaged funds and unfinished projects are often used by insurgents in their own battles for the allegiance of local Afghans. As 2nd Lt. Benjamin Fradette of the Pakitya PRT explained, even though as much as 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas, up to 90 percent of development funds are funneled to district capitals. "It helps support the insurgency, because they say, 'Look, the government is not working for you. I don't see any bridges or roads in your area. I don't see any impact,' " said Fradette.

One example is USAID's Khost-Gardez road project, which extends from Khost to Paktiya province. The 64-mile stretch of pavement has become the most expensive in the history of the agency, with a price tag of $121 million. It is still unfinished after three years, and the sections that have been built are degrading quickly. The New York Times recently reported that some of the $43 million that was spent on security for construction is suspected to have made its way into the Haqqani Network, an insurgent group run by warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, the very people PRTs are trying to counteract through reconstruction projects. "I don't trust any government person in Afghanistan," said a tribal elder in the area after publicly chastising the governor of Paktiya, Juma Khan Hamdard, about the state of the project. "There's a lot of corruption and bribes."

Some military and security experts argue that aid to Afghanistan should be reduced immediately. Expensive, large-scale development projects can become detrimental to counterinsurgency, because they actually create opportunities for corruption and waste. "In the realm of development aid, stacks of excellent instruction manuals and mountains of cash will provide no benefit to a counterinsurgency unless the right leaders are in command," wrote Dr. Mark Moyar, director of research for Orbis Operations, a U.S.-based risk-management consulting firm, in a March 2011 report.

Moyar challenges a fundamental assumption: that if U.S. forces can solve Afghan problems—namely poverty and a need for basic services—Afghans will eventually support their government. On the contrary, research shows that support for government significantly increases when security improves and only a little when development of infrastructure or services gets better. If U.S. forces are going to win the counterinsurgency before a full withdrawal in 2014, they may need to shift their strategy from ambitious electricity plants and large hospitals to smaller development projects in individual villages where the allegiances of local elites can be co-opted. "The international community … must be disabused of the idea that eradicating inequality and poverty in Afghanistan lies within our reach, as well as the idea that such an outcome is required for the success of the counterinsurgency," wrote Moyar.

In the Zurmat district of Paktiya province, 1st Lt. Tristan Boddicker, a civil affairs officer with the PRT, is experimenting with development on a smaller scale. A former high-school history and geography teacher who joined the military at 30, Boddicker has been deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. In both places, Boddicker had bounties placed on his head by local insurgents who viewed him as a threat. Zurmat is a historically hostile region where criminal networks run by Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour and warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani run rampant. Boddicker complained that a lot of civil affairs officers in Afghanistan "think their job is to go around handing out Beanie Babies" in order to persuade people to be pro-government. "If you think you can go into Mansour and Haqqani territory and get people to be pro-government, you're smoking crack," he explained. Instead, Boddicker said he tries to implement projects with the humbler goal of "neutralizing" people's loyalties.

Toward this end, one of the best development projects Boddicker created in Zurmat was a simple 15-foot-by-20-foot prefabricated bridge in a volatile village that troops had never been able to access. By relying on relationships he established with community leaders over several months, even those considered "radioactive" by the military, the bridge construction happened in one day. They used local labor so that the villagers felt ownership of the final result, and it cost less than $5,000. Village elders, delighted at the prospect of having a bridge for the first time in their lives, came out to help, and months later, it still hadn't been targeted by insurgents. "Here we have found that some of the small, simple, quick projects result in the most impact," said Boddicker. "You have to empower [Afghans] to resolve their own issues."

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