Image courtesy of Flikr user The U.S. Army. Image courtesy of Flikr user The U.S. Army.

Friday’s Last Word – Pull Pin, Throw Grenade, Run Away: A provocative thought to kick off the weekend…

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

In Iraq and Afghanistan, one commonly heard phrase was to “employ money as a weapon system.”  The idea was a simple one in Iraq – if you can get what you want with a dinar or dollar as opposed to a bullet – that is clearly preferable.  This tracks with common sense.  My Dad used to tell me that if you’ve got a problem and a check that can cover that problem – then you don’t have a problem.  Supporting military counterinsurgency techniques with financial resources designed to connect the people to their established government makes sense.

So how did we (the U.S. and the rest of the International Security Assistance Force) screw it up so badly in Afghanistan?  Simply put, we nuked the Afghan economy – we drowned the baby in bathwater.  To say that we overdid aid would be a massive understatement.  Consider that we’ve provided $100 billion of non-military aid to Afghanistan, “more than the U.S. has ever spent to rebuild a country.”  Or, one could look at aid as a percentage of GDP, as Fareed Zakaria did in his Time column, “Karzai’s Not-So-Crazy Endgame,” from February 17, 2014,

“Consider these facts from a highly intelligent forthcoming book, War Front to Store Front, by Paul Brinkley: In 2009, Afghanistan had a nominal GDP of $10 billion. Of that number, 60% was foreign aid. The cultivation of poppy and the production and export of raw heroin – all of which is informal and underground – accounted for 30%. That leaves 10%, or $1 billion, of self-sustaining, legitimate economic activity. During the same year, the U.S. military spent $4 billion per month to protect a country with a  real annual economic output of $1 billion.”

Our aid has put gas on a fire in terms of corruption – Afghanistan is third from the bottom on Transparenty International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index.”  As former ambassador Karl Eikenberry says, “We know we have created a distorted, wartime economy.”  The goal of international aid and development is to improve an economy to health; instead, our aid in Afghanistan has (broadly) taken a bad economy and made it into a worse, nearly non-functional economy.  Our “money as a weapon system” worked like an economic nuclear weapon in Afghanistan.

Even worse: what happens when the international community moves on? When the spigot runs nearly dry?  Most likely, whatever it is, it won’t be very pretty.