This article originally appeared on 15 June, 2011 on www.policymic.com
Usually, a person cannot name the exact point when his life changed.
For me, it was 6 p.m. on June 15, 2004. The man who changed the way I see the world was an Arab in his early 30s whom I would never meet, learn his name, or know his story. He gave me only a brief, desperate look before driving his explosives-laden truck into my military vehicle. The blast peppered me with glass shrapnel and blew out both of my eardrums. I walked away with my life and a Purple Heart. But I still see his face, even when I do not want to.
Afterwards, I often reflected on what drives a man to become a suicide bomber and what can be done to stop it. It was the look I saw in his eyes: Desperation led him to terrorism. He was born into a harsh situation from which he saw no escape; Islamic extremists easily took advantage of this and gave him a target for his anger. Desperate conditions are fertile ground for terrorism. Therefore, the greatest tool we have in our arsenal to fight terror is international development and assistance.
Most Americans believe we are spending a good chunk of our budget on foreign assistance and should reduce what we spend; the truth is it makes up just 1% of our budget. We need to fully fund these aid programs and work to reform the system. Foreign development is not charity; it is an important component of our national security. It costs over half a million dollars to put a soldier in the Iraq or Afghanistan field for a year. Spending the same amount to build schools, water treatment plants, and local businesses will last longer than a soldier’s one year tour.
In 2006, I was part of a Military Transition (MiTT) Team tasked to advise and assess an Iraqi Army battalion in the Ameriyah district of Baghdad. We assessed progress by the number of shops open, the length of gas lines, the amount of electricity generated, the availability of water, and the effectiveness of sewage and trash removal. Improving the Iraqis’ situation helped us complete our job more than traditional military operations did. However, this is not a soldier’s job. My job was to find, fight, and eliminate the enemy. As a soldier, I should spend my time providing security, not trying to run a power plant. Sadly, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates likes to point out, there are more military band members than development experts at the State Department.
Foreign development is not simply giving money to regimes; it is providing funds for specific purposes and can be tracked by the U.S. government and taxpayers. Development programs help to support and stabilize countries with weak governments or that are in danger of failing, which often makes them havens for terror. Afghanistan and Pakistan are perfect examples. Ending stabilization programs in these countries would undoubtedly make them more dangerous to America, as they would foster an environment conducive to terrorism and crime.
The same applies in situations outside of war. Positive public opinion among Pakistanis doubled because of U.S. assistance following its devastating 2005 earthquake. In contrast, the West’s slow response to Pakistan’s severe flooding in 2010 had the opposite effect. Islamic groups stepped in and the U.S.’s goals and image suffered as a result. Terror groups have even begun to provide their own food aid in such situations.
The U.S. has a successful history with foreign development programs. Just look at the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild a Europe devastated by World War II, and the Berlin Airlift, which defied a Soviet land blockade. Germans remember these things and will tell you they owe their lives to America, my own German family members included. In terms of publicity, U.S. assistance even spreads to those who did not directly receive it; other countries know America is willing to help.
It took years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for us to learn that to defeat an indigenous Islamic insurgency, we must win the people’s hearts and minds. This is a lesson we should not quickly forget. Our commanders on the ground are asking for these programs because they know they work. Foreign development assistance is not a handout; it is a tactical tool our leaders need and is one of the most important components of our national security policy. We need to fully fund foreign development and assistance, as well as reform the system so it continues to work for America.