U.S. Marines have pumped millions of dollars into the Marja agricultural district in southern Afghanistan, either as compensation for damages or to pay off military-aged males so they don’t join the Taliban. But as The New York Times detailed in an article earlier this month, the strategy is riddled with problems and unproven assumptions. Locals who take the money in good faith are often beaten by Taliban forces, the article states, while others use the funds to purchase automatic rifles for insurgents.
Not that this comes as a surprise to many experts within the U.S. national security community.
“There’s an enormous moral hazard. What you’ve basically done is created a class of rent seekers,” lining up for free money from Washington, said C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s security studies program and former political officer to the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan in Kabul. “You’re trading off some presumed level of security today for less security tomorrow.”
Defense Department officials say the practice, which has been employed for several years, is not a security trade-off but rather a way of building long-term stability. But they have yet to answer a fundamental question posed by many counterinsurgency experts: what happens when the United States leaves and the money stops flowing?
The goal in the Afghanistan theater still is to produce some system of governance that keeps militant radicals out of Kabul without a potentially antagonizing public show of American troop support – a near impossibility given the country’s history, some experts said.
The best-case scenario would be to create a government seat in Kabul, the Afghan capital, but also have urban areas with loose agreements with provincial leaders, said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan policy expert for the Rand Corporation. Jones, the author of “In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan,’’ has led numerous projects on stability operations and counterterrorism for the Department of Defense, FBI and the U.S. intelligence community.
“The question becomes how to deal with local actors,” said Jones. He added that development projects have proven successful in the past, but that they need to be done by local leaders such as Hajji Abdul Zahir, Marja’s newNATO-backed governor.
As the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan nears the 10-year mark, Washington continues to struggle with identifying any successful, or even promising, alternatives. Military brass have repeatedly stated that any long-term strategy will be based in local support and cooperation, but there is no indication that U.S. troops have gained the kind of widespread credibility on the ground that they need to achieve that.
In addition, there needs to be accountability built into the Pentagon strategy—especially given all of the U.S. taxpayer money being spent, Georgetown’s Fair said.
“These guys are never held responsible for conducting an evaluation of this program,” she said. “Just because they’re taking money from you, doesn’t mean they’re not taking money from the Taliban.”