All war-torn countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, share a common characteristic — the absence or destruction of economic infrastructure. The lack of opportunity fuels frustration and unrest, giving violent actors an opening to destabilize fragile institutions.
The frustration in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other fragile states, exists despite Washington having spent billions of dollars in military and non-military aid to boost their economic development during the past decade. The lack of progress has fed a growing sense that U.S. foreign aid programs cannot establish economically viable systems.
I know this firsthand. As Deputy Under Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011, I led a team of private-sector business leaders, agriculture experts, geologists and engineers in an effort to restore or create economic opportunity in war-torn communities. Our work focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, but it later expanded to Pakistan, Sudan and Rwanda.
Since leaving government, I have continued talking with government officials and outside experts about how to reverse this failure of our foreign assistance programs. These discussions usually address ways to improve capabilities within the existing organizational and statutory framework. Yet this very framework is what can make progress difficult — if not impossible — to achieve.
America’s inability to provide even symbolic access to economic opportunity is crippling our image abroad. The mistaken belief that the United States is the great rebuilder of postwar countries — a belief that stems from the U.S.-funded aid to the postwar economic expansions in Japan, Germany and South Korea — has fostered expectations that our diplomatic and foreign aid institutions cannot fulfill.