“We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” said General Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, of plans for holding the hard-won town of Marja in February. As Lieutenant General Mohammed Karimi, the deputy chief of staff of the Afghan army, explained, “We want to show people that we can deliver police, and services, and development. We want to convince the Afghans that the government is for them.”
Only a few years ago, the strategy for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq focused on targeting insurgents. The strategy failed; critics now call it “mowing the grass,” since soldiers would repeatedly clear areas of insurgents only to see them reappear afterward. In the face of steadily increasing violence in Iraq from 2003 through 2006, the approach was abandoned. Today the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy centers on protecting the population, with a special emphasis on political and economic development.
The objective is often termed “winning the hearts and minds” of the population, and its logic is simple. Insurgents cannot operate without civilians learning something about their location and identities: recruiting, raising funds, and preparing weapons and explosives all entail observable actions. The more effective the government is at providing services to civilians, the more likely it is that they will prefer the government over the insurgents. In turn, the population will provide the government with a steady stream of tactically useful information -- calls to anonymous tip lines about the location of weapons caches, for example -- that the government can use not only to defeat the insurgents but also to prevent their reappearance.
But does that development-based strategy work? The assumption that development helps governments defeat insurgents is testable: one can check if supplying government services is associated with lower levels of violence. In a study we conducted using data on reconstruction spending and violence in Iraq, we found that the provision of certain government services does lead to a reduction in violence...