We’re conducting a grand experiment in the Middle East – using money to reshape their societies

Summary:  We are conducting one of the largest experiments in history, attempting to change the pattern of foreign people’s societies by the use of money — without force.  The brief and smaller-scale project in Iraq has drawn to a close.  The end of the far larger and longer project in Afghanistan lies in the near future.  Will these people turn to the West politically or socially?  Or will they turn away, perhaps to some form of traditional Islam?  Much depends on the result.

One of the West’s greatest (and most deeply hidden) fears is that the world has passed us by.  With an apathetic population no longer believing in our foundational faith, our population cresting, and fertility in what looks like an irreversible decline (awaiting only the invention of a male contraceptive pill for the next step down), we view with alarm the vigorous and sometimes violent resurgence of Islam.

The recent history of the Middle East shows secular (conceptually western) regimes falling or embattled — Ba’athist Iraq and Syria, socialist Afghanistan, western puppet Egypt, leftist Libya — being replaced by regimes friendly or dominated by Islam.  But we have one card, which we consider trump:  money.   Borrowing massive sums from OPEC and China, we hope to reshape these societies in our image:  secular, capitalistic, democratic, founded on human rights (a concept alien to the Koran).

Soon we’ll see the results in Iraq.  This excerpt looks at Afghanistan, with the project entering its second decade.  The use of money to “develop” Afghanistan may be the key front in the war, but one mostly ignored by the news media.

Money as Weapon“, Christopher de Bellaigue, London Review of Books, 14 April 2011 — The full article is for subscribers only.  I recommend subscribing to LRB; this is one of the few publications that goes to the top of my reading pile.  Excerpt (red emphasis added):

The Americans and their Nato allies entered Afghanistan in order to prevent al-Qaida using it to launch another 9/11-style attack, and in this they have been successful, reducing the enemy’s presence in the country to a few individuals. But the occupiers had a second and much more ambitious goal: to turn Afghanistan into a place where there would be fair elections, free enterprise and women’s rights. The transformation would be financed by the US and other donor governments, while their foreign and local helpers oversaw its implementation. Using these channels, the US and its allies have spent more than $50 billion on aid in Afghanistan since 2002.

… Financial aid intended to lift this desperately poor country to prosperity has instead become a symbol of much that has gone wrong. Vast sums have been lost to corruption and inefficiency. … The economic boom in Kabul – the swish apartment blocks and jewellery shops and imported SUVs – has been funded by land-grabs, protection rackets and the drugs trade. All of the financial capital that supports the boom has been injected into the country since the occupation, much of it in the form of aid that has found its way into the pockets of warlords, politicians and businessmen.

… Oversight is minimal. ‘The ministries are unable to give a province-wide, let alone a district-wide, breakdown of their spending,’ she adds. But this has not discouraged donors, whose approach, Olofsson says, is simply to ‘throw the aid and see who catches it’.

… Kabul has the world’s biggest congregation of aid workers and they are competing for the biggest influx of aid money in history. … In 1997, two years after the Taliban took Kabul, aid to Afghanistan came to $56 million. That is a quarter of the amount Petraeus received last summer for generators and diesel in Kandahar alone. Under what is effectively an American colonial mandate, Afghanistan is undergoing by far the best funded of the various modernisation drives the country has known since the early 20th century. As in the past, the process is being approached in a tearing hurry – on the assumption, common to modernisers, that it is only by throwing up schools and bridges that the hordes will be kept from the gates.

In spite of all that has gone wrong, many Afghans support the mission civilisatrice and want it to succeed.

… Sitting cross-legged in a meeting room in his house, a genial villager called Abdul Malek Sohbat talked the international language of development. … Sohbat casually reeled off sums which, a decade ago, would have seemed hallucinatory: $200 million (the projected cost of a military base in the provincial capital, Charikar, to be handed over to the Afghan government in three years’ time, containing a hospital, a prison and a new governor’s office); $1.1 million (20 km of asphalt that will loop around nearby Bagram Airport). But he also drew attention to smaller projects, costing mere tens of thousands of dollars, which have helped inhabitants of the dirt-poor villages, without mains water and unconnected to the national electricity supply. ‘We have increased the provision of drinking water,’ he said, ‘sunk wells and distributed generators. If it wasn’t for us, the asphalt road that brought you here would still be a dirt track.’

… In a few years’ time, Petraeus’s valedictory spurt of money and firepower will have ended and American interest in the country will assume more conventional proportions. Everyone in Kabul anxiously anticipates the day when aid levels drop dramatically and foreign contractors melt away, while US forces monitor the global jihadists from behind massive fortifications and try to preserve whatever political balance has come into being. Only then will it be possible to assess the success and longevity of Afghanistan’s latest, sclerotic leap to modernity.

About the author

Christopher de Bellaigue’s is the Tehran correspondent for The Economist and is a frequent contributor to other publications.  He has worked as a journalist in the Middle East and South Asia since 1994.  See his Wikipedia entry for details.


  • In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran (2005)
  • The Struggle for Iran (2007)
  • Rebel Land: Among Turkey’s Forgotten People (2009)
  • Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup – to be released in early 2012

For more information

Recent Posts about Afghanistan:

  1. On Strategy (specifically in Afghanistan, 15 September 2010
  2. Uncle Screwtape explains how to build support for the Af-Pak War, 16 September 2010
  3. More experts pan our Af-Pak war. When will this show close?, 18 September 2010
  4. A book explaining the secrets behind the Obama surge into Afghanistan, 8 October 2010
  5. Kubler-Ross gives us a good perspective on the evolution of the Afghanistan War, 19 October 2010
  6. About our operations in Kandahar – all that’s old is new again, 20 October 2010
  7. Killing the leaders of our enemy. Is this the fast track to victory – or disaster?, 25 October 2010
  8. Will the Taliban Give us a Taste of Armageddon?, 26 October 2010
  9. Every day brings new advocacy for war. That’s our America., 1 November 2010
  10. Second thoughts by 2 major boosters of the Af-Pak War (better late than never), 10 December 2010

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