Speaking of money leads me to my meeting the next day, Wednesday, August 18, with US AID Mission Director Earl W. Gast, America’s senior man on the Afghan economy.
Gast was refreshingly candid. Also relatively new to his job, he was proud of what he was doing. His favorite program, he said, was the “Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Program,” which is described as “the largest development program in Afghanistan and a flagship program of the Afghan government.” It was begun in 2003 and claims to have financed over 50,000 projects in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. In the words of its MIT-led evaluation, the program “is structured around two major village-level interventions: (1) the creation of a gender-balanced Community Development Council (CDC) through a secret-ballot, universal suffrage election; and (2) the disbursement of grants, up to a village maximum of $60,000, to support the implementation of projects selected, designed, and managed by the CDC in consultation with the village community. NSP thus seeks to both improve the access of rural villagers to critical services and to create a structure for village governance on democratic process and the participation of women.”
Nation building in high gear! But as a jaded old hand in reading government handouts, I asked Gast if it really made any difference. By way of a reply he gave me the report of a study group sponsored by MIT under contract to AID. The contractors did a random survey in 250 areas and gave a mixed report. Their report was, indeed, the opposite of what I would have expected: they found a strong impact on selected aspects of village “governance” but none on economic activity. Reading closely both what they said and what they did not say, however, I doubted that the program had much impact on anything except on our feeling that we were doing something.
Doing something, Gast said, was his major problem. He is under intense pressure from Washington to show actions of almost any sort. Before he arrived, he said, one of the big efforts at doing something was down in the newly conquered province of Marja. The US military had run the Taliban out -- or so they thought -- and General McChrystal was bringing in a “government in a box.” Perhaps the most important piece “in the box” was to be the creation of jobs. So AID set up a program to hire 10,000 workers – virtually all the adults in a local population of about 35,000 people – but only about 1,000 took up the offer. Why? The answer was simple: the local people knew more about guerrilla warfare than the American army did. From years of experience, they knew that the guerrillas had done what guerrillas are supposed to do, fade away when confronted with overwhelming force and come back when the time is right. They are back. And, as other insurgents have done in all the insurgencies I studied in my Violent Politics, they have punished those they regarded as traitors. The 9,000 Afghans who turned down the AID offer were what we would call “street smart.”