"Contrary to the opportunity-cost theory," a recent academic study argues, "the data emphatically reject a positive correlation between unemployment and attacks against government and allied forces." Insurgencies are not economic phenomena: they always publicly state political goals for their violence (for an Iraq-specific example, see Ahmed S. Hashim's 2006 book, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq). Furthermore, scholarship suggests that higher incomes and more jobs might actually make insurgencies more likely, since it raises the stakes in the political system being contested. Lastly, during the earlier days of the insurgency, international financial institutions could not determine what effect the fighting had on the economy -- if it had much effect at all. It doesn't make sense to base a $150 million program on a concept on such a tenuous foundation.
Unfortunately, the Task Force has been reluctant to discuss these criticisms. I've been trying to get them to either send me data about their operations, or even to sit down for an interview, since April -- and my emails have gone ignored, my phone calls have been bounced around without resolution, and in general they've tried to avoid any critical discussion of their operations. Instead, puff pieces like Mark Perry's exit interview with Paul Brinkley are all that exist in media accounts of what this Task Force does and how it operates.
This is a real loss. While development activities have their own value, and should exist outside any sort of military objectives, I think there is a strong role for an organization like the TFBSO to play in future conflicts. While business development activities don't seem to affect insurgencies much, they can and do play a substantial role in reducing the systemic failures in a society that lead to unrest and protest, and thus have very definite security value. Keeping military-run development separate from USAID carries other benefits as well, keeping USAID's civilian employees separate from the discomfort many locals feel at having their businesses supported and run by guys wearing uniforms.
However, without a strategic and political framework to guide the activities of a group like the TFBSO, it will fall prey to the exact same problems that have befallen USAID: activities driven by good intentions but ultimately divorced from any long-term plan for sustainability after the American largess stops flowing so freely. The GAO has recently pinged the TFBSO for its non-transparency and unwillingness to coordinate with other U.S. development efforts; this is a real shame, as a comprehensive framework for guiding the TFBSO's unique programmatic activities could, potentially, make it both more effective and more accountable.
Sadly, U.S. development efforts lack strategy and long-term outlook. When the military saw a need for better and more proactive development activities in Iraq, it didn't reach out to USAID to administer them, it did what it always did and replicated a function the government already provided. Such redundancy doesn't make us function better, it makes us function worse; until programs like the TFBSO and USAID are incorporated into a comprehensive aid and development framework (the QDDR is a sick joke in this context) we'll keep getting little more than puffery and wasted millions. What a shame.