For years, the US State Department has been using economics to fight the war on terror.
In the Middle East and South Asia, economic aid from Washington has gone to both national militaries as well as to local economies. Conventional wisdom behind this policy says that poverty is a root cause behind young men turning toward violent extremism; bringing the poorest members of society into the middle-class is therefore an effective method to combating terrorism.
However, a new study concludes that this idea simply isn't true.
According to the report from the Mortara Center for International Studies at Georgetown University, the impoverished are actually less likely support terrorist groups than those who are more affluent.
These results go against the official policy of the United States.
The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, published by the CIA in 2003, explicitly states that underlying conditions such as poverty, corruption, religious conflict and ethnic strife create opportunities for terrorists to exploit....Terrorists use these conditions to justify their actions and expand their support.
In Pakistan -- which was the focus of the 6,000 person study -- one third of $20 billion in aid provided since 2001 has gone toward economic development.
There is a powerful draw to that [economic] narrative, said study co-author Carol Christine Fair. The West wants to believe there is a root cause of terrorism. If we could solve the problem, terrorism would eventually go away.
But the reality isn't simple.
The study found that in Pakistan there is actually a reverse correlation between income and support for militant groups. According to Fair, the county's lower class is 2-to-23 times less tolerant of militants than the middle-class. Additionally, lower-class individuals who live in urban areas are the least likely among all economic groups to support or sympathize with terrorist organizations.
This is because the poor, especially in a country like Pakistan which is both a perennial supporter and victim of terrorist activities, are more likely to be harmed by acts of violence than the rest of society.
It is not that the people are vulnerable to militants' appeals because they are poor and dissatisfied. Rather, it is the poor who suffer more from militants' violence and so most intensely dislike them, the study asserts.
How then should the State Department react to the results? Should the US reverse its aid policy? Economic aid is a complicated matter and there is no easy answer.
It's generally a good thing, Fair claims.
One US government proposal, for example, called for the United States to strengthen Pakistan's public education system, increase literacy, expand opportunities for vocational training, and help create an appropriate national curriculum for all schools in Pakistan.
But aid for fighting terrorism, according to the researcher, is aid for the wrong reason.