Dangerous Aid

Does paying countries to fight terrorism always backfire?

Hasham Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images
Hasham Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images
Hasham Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images

Since 2001, the U.S. Congress has allocated more than $20 billion in aid and reimbursements to Pakistan in the name of fighting global terrorism. And yet, when asked not long ago to rate Pakistan's counterterrorism cooperation on a scale of 1 to 10, CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell gave it a 3. Until recently, the head of al Qaeda was living just a stone's throw from a Pakistani military installation, and elements of the country's security apparatus are widely suspected of aiding militant groups. So why doesn't the money produce results? And, more importantly, is it time to begin cutting off Pakistan, as Sen. Carl Levin and others have advocated?

Maybe so. Navin Bapat, a professor of international relations at the University of North Carolina, has used game theory to create models of state behavior that suggest counterterrorism aid acts as a perverse incentive. By his logic, a government receiving aid to fight terrorist groups is less likely ever to win that fight because the funds would dry up without terrorist groups. Bapat found empirical backing for his theory: Data on almost 200 terrorist groups worldwide between 1997 and 2006 show that U.S. military assistance correlates with a 67 percent increase in the duration of terrorist campaigns in the country receiving the aid.

Which is not to say that the money isn't worth it. Bapat's model also shows that, while governments receiving aid have little incentive to defeat terrorist groups, they're also less likely to negotiate with them. In other words, Afghan President Hamid Karzai needs a certain level of Taliban activity if he is to continue receiving U.S. cash, but he can't allow the militants to become so powerful that Washington cuts him off entirely. Bapat thinks there's probably no way to escape from this expensive and frustrating limbo, at least in the immediate future, given the risk of chaos in countries like Yemen and Pakistan. "I would argue that this is the best the U.S. can do," he says.

Since 2001, the U.S. Congress has allocated more than $20 billion in aid and reimbursements to Pakistan in the name of fighting global terrorism. And yet, when asked not long ago to rate Pakistan’s counterterrorism cooperation on a scale of 1 to 10, CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell gave it a 3. Until recently, the head of al Qaeda was living just a stone’s throw from a Pakistani military installation, and elements of the country’s security apparatus are widely suspected of aiding militant groups. So why doesn’t the money produce results? And, more importantly, is it time to begin cutting off Pakistan, as Sen. Carl Levin and others have advocated?

Maybe so. Navin Bapat, a professor of international relations at the University of North Carolina, has used game theory to create models of state behavior that suggest counterterrorism aid acts as a perverse incentive. By his logic, a government receiving aid to fight terrorist groups is less likely ever to win that fight because the funds would dry up without terrorist groups. Bapat found empirical backing for his theory: Data on almost 200 terrorist groups worldwide between 1997 and 2006 show that U.S. military assistance correlates with a 67 percent increase in the duration of terrorist campaigns in the country receiving the aid.

Which is not to say that the money isn’t worth it. Bapat’s model also shows that, while governments receiving aid have little incentive to defeat terrorist groups, they’re also less likely to negotiate with them. In other words, Afghan President Hamid Karzai needs a certain level of Taliban activity if he is to continue receiving U.S. cash, but he can’t allow the militants to become so powerful that Washington cuts him off entirely. Bapat thinks there’s probably no way to escape from this expensive and frustrating limbo, at least in the immediate future, given the risk of chaos in countries like Yemen and Pakistan. "I would argue that this is the best the U.S. can do," he says.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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