Can Economic Assistance Shape Combatant Support in Wartime? Experimental Evidence from Afghanistan

Can Economic Assistance Shape Combatant Support in Wartime? Experimental Evidence from Afghanistan

By Jason LyallDartmouth College, Yang-Yang Zhou, University of British Columbia and Kosuke Imai, Harvard University

Governments, militaries, and aid organizations all rely on economic interventions to shape civilian attitudes toward combatants during wartime. We have, however, little individual-level evidence that these “hearts and minds” programs actually influence combatant support. We address this problem by conducting a factorial randomized control trial of two common interventions—vocational training and cash transfers—on combatant support among 2,597 at-risk youth in Kandahar, Afghanistan. We find that training only improved economic livelihoods modestly and had little effect on combatant support. Cash failed to lift incomes, producing a boom-and-bust dynamic in which pro-government sentiment initially spiked and then quickly reversed itself, leaving a residue of increased Taliban support. Conditional on training, cash failed to improve beneficiaries’ livelihoods but did increase support for the Afghan government for at least eight months after the intervention. These findings suggest that aid affects attitudes by providing information about government resolve and competence rather than by improving economic livelihoods.

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