In this 2005 photo, U.S. military operational commander in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, right, poses with Afghan workers and a U.S. soldier for a photo in a U.S. military-funded road through Urgun town in Paktika province, eastern Afghanistan.

In this 2005 photo, U.S. military operational commander in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, right, poses with Afghan workers and a U.S. soldier for a photo in a U.S. military-funded road through Urgun town in Paktika province, eastern Afghanistan. AP Photo/Daniel Cooney, File

It’s Really Hard to Buy Peace in Afghanistan

Western leaders looking to replace troops with targeted aid may find it counterproductive.

As the U.S. considers a troop drawdown in Afghanistan, many in NATO are looking for other ways to stabilize the country – whether or not there is some sort of peace deal. Could extra international assistance be the answer? Eighteen years since Operational Enduring Freedom first ousted the Taliban, there is now valuable research which brings into focus exactly how spending funds can quell – or, in some cases, exacerbate – an insurgency. The summary is: it depends…

First of all, it’s clear that flooding a relatively poor society with cash will rarely buy long-term loyalty or stability; it’s more likely to do the opposite. This is because impoverished local economies can’t absorb the money, leading to malign inflationary effects and myopic investment decisions. Important functions, in schools and clinics, become depleted as talent seeks out a share of the windfall. Leaders with visas will squirrel their new wealth abroad. Throwing money at an insurgency may create a sugar high, but it will send vital public services into a long-term coma

Targeted development assistance is more promising, especially for a country like Afghanistan, which has the lowest GDP per head outside Africa. For many years, a leading theory in counter-insurgency work has been that boosting public services – education, roads and hospitals – makes a state more legitimate, therefore mollifying those who might be inspired to rebel. It is an approach which has led western donors to subsidize state-delivered services wherever we have boots on the ground. But does improved service delivery by the state actually generate legitimacy?

It’s a tough hypothesis to research. Double-blind randomized control trials, of the sort used to test potential medicines, are rarely practical in a dynamic conflict environment. Even the datasets which track how much development assistance has been allocated to different districts in Afghanistan are misleading because there are too many contingent factors: state-delivered services might be boosted for a range of reasons, making it what social scientists call a dependent variable, not an independent one. (More money spent where there was, say, a military base, means a correlation between counter-insurgency objectives and better services simply shows that soldiers bring security). 

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But now a groundbreaking initiative, run by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium over eight years in eight countries, including Afghanistan, has applied a sophisticated blend of research methods to establish the complicated truth about how support to state-delivered services affects perceptions of state legitimacy. 

Their first conclusion is that “the state” is perceived in different ways. Citizens, and groups of citizens, come up with very diverse notions when asked to describe what the state is. Some of them envision the national government, often in a distant capital city; others will see their local mayor or strong man; others still will see a dominant faction, which might be tied to a sector of the economy, control the militia, or have dynastic power. 

This has important implications for anyone trying to constrain the Taliban: they need to know exactly which vision of the state or government the insurgents are fighting. Supporting government services may have no bearing at all on the things which motivate the rebels.

Second, just as the state turns out to be a complicated concept, so too with the people. Ethnic divisions, entrenched elites, and ‘insider-outsider’ dynamics often means that state services don’t reach the most disaffected communities. There is even some evidence that in the most polarized societies, increasing state delivery of services exacerbates tension, because all the rival factions assume others are getting more of the extra goods than they are. This is especially true in Afghanistan, where divisions run deep and have been intensified by decades of bloodletting.

Which leads on to the third conclusion: fairness matters. Fairness isn’t just about the outcome (fair shares), it’s also about how things are done (fair process). And fairness itself is an idea which varies from culture to culture. Just as beliefs about what is fair differ radically across the political spectrum in Western democracies, there are similarly diverse views about fairness in Afghanistan. This means that even the most well-meaning intervention, determined to allocate state services in what seems like a “fair” way when viewed from the capital, may seem very different in a neglected, faraway province. Only by understanding what fairness means to the local population – especially the vital demographic whose support is sought by both insurgents and counter-insurgents – can the puzzle be unlocked.

Which takes us to the most important conclusion of all: context is vital. If a Kabul-based institution is thought to favor one ethnic group, then an effort to boost service delivery through that it is almost certain to incite animosity in the estranged community. If people are rebelling because they think a local leader is corrupt, then putting more money through his or her hands will make things worse. If an insurgency is fueled by a sense of injustice, then trying to buy people off with better services will just confirm their cynicism.

The only ironclad rule when it comes to insurgencies is that there are none. Research shows that, like people, all societies are complicated, especially societies like Afghanistan, which have experienced near-perpetual conflict for many years. There are trends and tendencies: involving people in public decisions usually increases their confidence in whatever is decided; local views of fairness matter; people have enduring needs, including for security and a basic livelihood, and will strive to achieve them. But it is both dangerous and simplistic to assume that even these general trends will always apply, especially in a place like Afghanistan. 

So NATO cannot rely on boosting the services provided by the Kabul government to foster stability in the wake of a troop drawdown. More services may help contain the Taliban, but the new strategy must be bespoke: tailored to tackle the particular circumstances in different parts of Afghanistan which still inspire militants.