Last week, ten aid workers were massacred by the Taliban in Badakhshan, one of the most remote and destitute regions of Afghanistan (see the World Food Program profile of Badakhshan here). The slayings of six Americans, one Briton, one German, and two Afghans has raised new concerns about the deterioration of security in Afghanistan following President Obama’s renewed commitment to the war effort since last year. While the Taliban claimed that the aid workers were spies and Christian missionaries, by all reports the team was a diverse group of dentists, optometrists, surgeons, and translators employed by the International Assistance Mission to deliver free medical care in northern Afghanistan. Secretary Clinton and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke delivered remarks to the press yesterday condemning the atrocities.
The event serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of delivering aid in war zones. That said, humanitarian assistance forms a cornerstone of the American counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan, which raises the question: can aid actually win over the hearts and minds of Afghans?
Considering that this fiscal year’s expenditures for the Afghan war this year are predicted to exceed $100 billion (FYI: Afghan GDP is slightly below $25 billion), such questions are highly warranted. Indeed, the premise that aid is an effective weapon in COIN (counter-insurgency) operations has come under increased scrutiny recently in academia, the blogosphere, and even Congress. A recent Christian Science Monitor story lambasted USAID for its half-hearted yet exorbitant approach to development projects throughout the country. (A CRS report released last month details the full spectrum of U.S. assistance to Afghanistan as well as the status of FY2011 requests for aid to the country.)
Furthermore, Afghanistan represents only half of the Obama administration’s strategy in combating extremism in South Asia; indeed, by some accounts, Pakistan is the bulk of the reason why American troops are securing Afghanistan in the first place. Yet U.S. humanitarian initiatives in Pakistan in the past have not exactly engendered a surge in pro-American sentiment there either. Given the recent flurry of activity in Washington designed to bring relief to Pakistanis in the midst of Zardari’s Katrina, it is no wonder that many have begun to question the effectiveness of our aid to the region.