The U.S. army’s “surge” in Afghanistan marked a new focus on development in addition to an increase in the number of combat troops. Development has not typically been part of the military’s purview. Yet, this new approach has much to recommend, especially in a country with endemic poverty and an anemic economy. Promoting economic growth and providing aid tends to make military missions more successful, asserts foreign policy expert Reuben Brigety. Having realized the utility of pairing military and development endeavors, the U.S. army is undertaking a host of new projects. But, asks the Economist in a recent article, to what avail?
The Economist questions both the sustainability and the suitability of the projects the army is implementing. These projects include improving telecommunications infrastructure, teaching Afghan farmers how to boost yields, installing generators to provide electricity and establishing markets to encourage trade.
Few people dispute that these projects have the potential to lift Afghans out of poverty, but many doubt their long-term viability. The Economist argues that the generators are “clearly unaffordable for the cash-strapped government that must one day take charge of [them].” Karl W. Eikenberry, current U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, agrees. He writes,"[p]roposals to buy generators and diesel fuel for Kandahar would be expensive [and] unsustainable," according to the Washington Post.
So why is the army adamant about undertaking this project? According to a U.S military official at the NATO headquarters in Kandahar, "[t]his [project] is not about development — it's about counterinsurgency." Development, in this context, is a tool to win the hearts and the minds of the Afghan people. By providing goods and services the Taliban cannot deliver, the military hopes to marginalize the insurgency’s influence.
The army’s ulterior motive for promoting development, can produce poorly designed development programs, points out the Economist. A 60 million dollar telecommunications project is just one example of the potential pitfalls of putting the army in charge of development.
The army favors this project because it will provide an alternative to current networks which local Taliban strongmen control. The Taliban's control of telecommunications is a problem according to the military, as they often restrict or shut down access at night to prevent U.S. informants from reporting Taliban movements. But it's uncertain if the addition of another network will directly affect the locals’ security, health or economic well-being. This uncertainty is further called into question by the fact that there are already four other operational networks in the region. Still, the army views it as part and parcel of its development campaign, illustrating how easily the army’s strategic interests can derail its mission to promote development.
The military’s track record in Afghanistan suggests that bringing development and combat operations under the same roof will be trickier than anticipated. Though there is still time for the military’s projects to bear fruit, their lack of success thus far should not be taken lightly. The trend of subsuming development projects under military command is growing worldwide, according to expert testimony given to the U.S. Senate. If this strategy is as ineffectual as Afghanistan may suggest, then we should take note and revisit the practice.