Critics of U.S. involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan often make two mutually exclusive points. The first is that the wars have been tremendously costly, and the second is that the means to win security is through development.
Had the Iraq war ended soon after Saddam’s ouster—and had the Bush administration not abandoned its initial plans to withdraw after 90 days—then the cost of that war would have been tremendously reduced both in terms of blood and treasure. Iraq has made great strides in the decade since Saddam’s ouster, but most of the development in both southern and northern Iraq has more to do with the fact that Saddam is gone than with American investment. The billions spent on development (including the cost of providing those aid workers with security) have produced little if anything.
Nevertheless, soft power or peace through development remains the mantra of too many in the U.S. aid community or for that matter, among our European partners. The problem is that there’s no evidence that investment in development is worth it. What caught my eye was this report, from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). In short, two USAID-funded hospitals seem unsustainable, and several others likely won’t be able to function at true capacity. In recent months, SIGAR has released a number of damning reports allegedly leading to efforts by some in the administration to muzzle it.
USAID has spent billions of dollars in conflict zones. The U.S. aid community maintains a dashboard that purports to demonstrate bang for the buck. Alas, it never achieves that goal. Take this explanation of USAID investment in Iraq, for example. Stating that money will be applied toward a certain goal does not equate with wise investment. Nor is there evidence that flooding a country with cash improves security. Indeed, Afghanistan proves quite the opposite: USAID might brag about building roads and bridges, but Afghan villagers often beg to be left off the network so as to avoid the resulting land grabs by corrupt government, security and Afghan National Army officials. As a second order effect, local villagers sometimes seek protection in the Taliban, as the very Afghans who are supposed to guard USAID bridges and roads are the ones who seek to confiscate land and livelihood. Terrorism might be a tragedy for a handful of families when bombs kill or maim loved ones, but corruption is a cancer that impacts millions and too often USAID fuels that corruption.
As the Afghanistan conflict winds down and joins the Iraq campaign in something distinctly different from nation-building, some serious introspection is long past due about what benefits if any are derived from aid as it is currently managed. This is not a reason to dispense with aid entirely. But the idea that a multi-billion dollar, bureaucracy-bloated organization is the best way to promote development is questionable at best. Nor should the conventional wisdom that aid contributes to security be accepted as fact. It is long past time for USAID to prove that its investments are worth their cost. Perhaps the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan should not be that the cost of regime change is too high to bear, but rather than the development welfare that accompanies it is the problem. Perhaps it’s time to rebuild the infrastructure of U.S. foreign assistance from scratch.