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Afghans See Taliban as a Key to U.S. Aid Projects, Study Finds

New York Times


The United States spent $64,597 to build a wall around a school in Qala Nazir Baba, a village in Logar Province in Afghanistan. It spent an additional $41,792 to rehabilitate an irrigation system in Zoya, a village in Wardak Province.
Both projects were part of a “stabilization” program intended by the United States Agency for International Development to supplement military operations against the Taliban and to demonstrate to Afghans the benefits of supporting the government in Kabul. But according to an internal study evaluating the impact of American assistance in Afghanistan, the result was just the opposite. Villagers believed that the projects would not have been allowed to take place without the Taliban’s approval, and so their support for the Taliban, rather than for the United States or the Afghan government, actually increased because of the aid.
“Worryingly, stabilization programming actually had the perverse effect of increasing support for the Taliban in Taliban-controlled villages,” said the study, carried out for U.S.A.I.D. by Management Systems International, an agency contractor. Qala Nazir Bab and Zoya were among 13 villages where support for the Taliban increased, according to the study, which was released in April.
Senior officials from the aid agency, defending their projects, said the Afghan villages mentioned in the study represented a small proportion of those that have received American assistance.
“We worked in 5,000 villages over five years, and in the vast majority we saw an increased support for the government,” said Jason Foley, the deputy assistant to the administrator in the agency’s office of Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs.
The stabilization projects were part of an ambitious aid program started by President Obama in December 2009 as part of the “civilian surge” he announced along with an increase in American troop levels in Afghanistan. Two of the new stabilization aid programs were created by the aid agency, which spent $304 million through one, called Stability in Key Areas, and $113.9 million through another, the Community Cohesion Initiative, relying on contractors to set up the projects.
The programs provide a case study of the kind of problems that have plagued the effort to aid Afghanistan in what is now America’s longest war. Since the United States’ invasion of the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it has spent nearly $110 billion on assistance programs there, for military training and equipment for the Afghan Army as well as for other security services and civilian aid projects like the construction of schools, hospitals and highways, according to a recent report by John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
Critics say that the United States has poured so much money into Afghanistan with so little supervision that the assistance programs have distorted the Afghan economy and have had unintended consequences. Corruption has been rampant.
“We spent too much money too fast in too small a country with too little oversight,” said Mr. Sopko, who has issued a series of scathing reports about waste, fraud and abuse in aid projects.
Like many other aid programs in Afghanistan, the stabilization programs suffered from basic problems. Many current and former aid officials and contractors had examples of those problems, but agreed to describe them only if they could remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak about them.
For instance, several said, U.S.A.I.D. officials, who could not visit the project sites for security reasons, sometimes did not know whether the projects had even been completed.
“U.S.A.I.D. came to us and said, ‘We can’t find our projects,’” said one person involved with the study evaluating the two stabilization programs. “And they asked us to help find them. We realized that there was a lot of ghosting in the data. We would go through the data they would give us on the location of a project and try to find where there really was a project, whether it was in a nearby village. And sometimes we couldn’t find anything.”
Another American official who was involved with the evaluation of the aid agency’s programs said, “Oversight is really tough when you can’t get out to the project sites.”
The official added: “The money is going out, but it’s hard to track. A lot of projects got captured by Afghans who steered aid to where they wanted it to go, to their villages.”
Management of the stabilization programs has sometimes been so loose, said one former official at the aid agency, that local Taliban leaders have been able to submit requests, through local Afghan intermediaries, for American aid projects for Taliban-controlled villages, and have had their requests approved.
In order to reduce the waste and corruption that had tainted previous Afghan aid programs, the agency funded the stabilization projects directly, without going through the Afghan government. Some Afghan government officials were angry that they were cut out, and they sometimes forced delays in the projects, according to several current and former United States officials and Afghans who were involved in the program.
“The Afghan government did not want this program,” another official said. “They would often not cooperate with us in getting basic services for villagers.”
But even the critics acknowledge that when the U.S.A.I.D.-funded projects were concentrated in the same place, they had some success, current and former officials said. “I do believe that we were able to accomplish some degree of stabilization in certain areas where we took a clustered approach, and where we had a sustained presence,” said W. Douglas Smith, a former official with the agency in Afghanistan.
More often, however, the stabilization projects have been thinly scattered among villages still contested by the Taliban. Development projects should be concentrated in relatively secure areas where they can gain permanence and solidify support for the government over the long term, critics charge.
“We got confused,” said Andrew Wilder, an analyst at the United States Institute for Peace, who has conducted studies of the effectiveness of reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. “We fooled ourselves into thinking that money could stabilize the situation, rather than create instability.”
“Trying to redirect a lot of development assistance to achieve security objectives instead of development objectives was a major cause of waste,” Mr. Wilder added.
Far from providing security, stabilization aid projects in villages that were not under Taliban control often led to increased violence from the Taliban, the study found.
In the face of the internal evaluation and a chorus of outside criticism, the future of the stabilization aid program is in doubt. Even as top administration officials continue to publicly defend it, the aid agency, according to sources who did not want to be identified, plans on redirecting funds to development projects in more secure areas of Afghanistan.
“U.S.A.I.D. has gradually shifted away from a focus on stabilization towards long-term capacity building,” said Ben Edwards, a spokesman for the agency. “Throughout the course of U.S.A.I.D.’s stabilization programs in Afghanistan,” he added, “we monitored our programs regularly and conducted midterm evaluations which led to changes in programming and improved our impact.”

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