Originally posted December 2009

In 1988, following the decision by Soviet leaders to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) funded a study that produced a “Retrospective Review of US Assistance to Afghanistan: 1950-1979.”[1] The study’s purpose was to identify lessons from the large US bilateral aid program during the three decades prior to the Soviet invasion in order to inform the anticipated launch of a new USAID development program following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. Tragically, the Soviet withdrawal was followed not by a period of development, but by bloody internecine civil war and devastating levels of destruction.

Although the planned USAID program never materialized, many of the observations and findings in this fascinating review seem strikingly relevant and applicable to the current massive international development program launched more than two decades later. The report noted, for example, how a critical shortage of qualified personnel seriously undermined the utility of major investments in large-scale development projects, and that “US expectations of the time required to achieve effective project results in Afghanistan were generally unrealistic.” The report also noted that the results of sustained investments to strengthen public administration proved “highly disappointing,” as “the Afghan civil service did not change its basic orientation.” However, the following two conclusions from this study are perhaps the most relevant to current efforts to promote security and development in Afghanistan:

  1. The US generally had too much confidence in the applicability of technical solutions to complex social and economic development problems and of the appropriateness and transferability of US values and experience. This over confidence … meant that too little attention was paid to local circumstances and values in the preparation and execution of aid activities.
  2. The use of aid for short-term political objectives, in the competition with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, tended to distort sound economic rationale for development, and in the process to weaken the longer-term political interests of the United States. Aid as a tool of diplomacy has its limitations when politically motivated commitments are at much higher levels — and promise more — than can reasonably be delivered in economic returns.

These findings are a depressing reminder of how clearly identified development lessons from Afghanistan’s past clearly have not been learned. Particularly troubling is the continued unrealistic expectation that development assistance can not only effectively promote development objectives, but security objectives as well. Thus, development aid that in the 1960s and 1970s was expected to win hearts and minds in the Cold War battle with the Soviet Union is now being programmed specifically to win hearts and minds in the battle against the Taliban-led insurgency.

The use of reconstruction and development aid to separate the Afghan population from insurgents is a core component of the US and NATO/ISAF counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. A common explanation for the growth of the insurgency is that inadequate resources were invested in reconstruction. To help reverse this trend there have been massive increases in reconstruction and development funding through both civilian and military channels. For example, in 2010 the US government plans to nearly double (to $1.2 billion) the main fund available to military commanders in Afghanistan to support projects intended to “win the hearts and minds” of the local population. The primary purpose of these funds is to promote security rather than development objectives, so not surprisingly the lion’s share of US development assistance is directed towards insecure rather than secure areas of the country. For similar reasons, a growing percentage of US development assistance in Afghanistan is channeled through military or civil-military units such as the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) rather than more traditional humanitarian and development agencies.

Given the centrality to the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy of the assumption that aid is an important stabilization tool, and the billions of development dollars allocated based on this assumption, there is surprisingly limited evidence from Afghanistan that supports it. To begin with, there is little evidence that poverty or a lack of reconstruction are major causes of the insurgency in Afghanistan, so it is not at all clear how reconstruction projects can be effective in addressing the insurgency. As already noted, the assumption is also not supported by historical evidence. Indeed, a quick look back into Afghanistan’s history would show that national and international efforts to rapidly develop and modernize Afghan society have tended to fuel political instability rather than stability. Many scholars have attributed the downfall of King Amanullah (r. 1919–1929), for example, to resistance from the deeply conservative countryside to his Ataturk-inspired modernization and liberalization efforts. During the 1950s-1970s, Afghanistan was one of the largest per capita recipients of foreign aid due to the Cold War competition to gain influence. The new social forces that were unleashed during this period of relatively rapid modernization (at least in urban areas), most notably the Islamist and Communist movements at Kabul University, proved to be tremendously destabilizing. This is not to suggest that past development and modernization efforts have not had some very positive development benefits, but to highlight that it is unwise to assume that they will contribute to stability and security.

Research carried out over the last two years by Tufts University suggests that far from winning hearts and minds, current aid efforts are much more likely to be losing them.[2] The research highlighted this at a time when more development dollars are being spent in Afghanistan than ever before, and Afghan perceptions of aid and aid actors are overwhelmingly negative. There are a number of explanations for the negative impressions, including that post-2001 expectations of Afghans have been raised to unachievable levels. A common complaint was that nothing or not enough had been done, despite in some cases considerable evidence all around of many recently implemented projects. This of course raises the question that in one of the poorest countries of the world, how much reconstruction and development will be necessary to win “hearts and minds”?

There were also many complaints about the poor quality or inappropriate nature of projects. The zero-sum nature of Afghan society, where one group’s gain is often perceived as another’s loss, contributed to aid projects generating numerous complaints that “they got more than we did.” The practice of channeling most aid to insecure areas not surprisingly was also bitterly criticized by Afghans living in stable areas, who felt that they were being punished for their peacefulness. As one community member from a relatively secure district in the northern province of Faryab complained:

Why are Ghormach and Qaiser receiving so much aid … whereas our area hardly received anything? Help needs to go to secure areas so that people get trust in the government, but meanwhile we are left without assistance which makes us feel more distant from the government.

But the overriding criticism of aid efforts was the perception of massive corruption that is both fueled by, and undermines the impact of, aid programs. This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of too much money being pumped into an insecure environment with little planning, implementation, and oversight capacity. Not only was corruption contributing to aid projects losing hearts and minds, it was also fueling instability by eroding the legitimacy of government officials and institutions, not to mention the credibility of international actors. There is also evidence of aid projects having a destabilizing effect by consolidating the power of one tribe or faction at the expense of another. As one disgruntled Afghan government official stated in Urozgan province in the south:

The problem of foreign aid exacerbated the situation because Durranis [a major Pashtun tribe] not only got all the power in government, but some also controlled and benefited from all the aid programs.

Security is the number one priority of Afghans. If development assistance is clearly addressing the main causes of conflict, and contributing to significant improvements in security, it would make sense to program development resources to promote security objectives. But when there is extremely little evidence that development assistance is contributing to improved stability, and some evidence that it may at times be contributing to instability, then development should be valued as a good in and of itself, and development resources spent to promote development objectives. History suggests aid projects are not very effective at winning wars in Afghanistan. Policymakers should learn from the past, and stop setting up development programs to fail by expecting them to be effective weapons of war.


[1]. Maurice Williams, John Kean, and Joann Feldman, “Retrospective Review of US Assistance to Afghanistan: 1950-1979,” Devres, Inc., September 30, 1988.


[2]. For an overview of the research, see “‘Winning Hearts and Minds?’ Understanding the Relationship between Aid and Security,” https://wikis.uit.tufts.edu/confluence/pages/viewpage.action?pageId=192….


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