Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, now ground down by 40 years of warfare with broad areas dominated by brutal Islamic fundamentalists. The traditional power structures are inadequate to meet the challenge, especially with so many killed, including by Taliban assassinations. In the past and apparently still to some extent, the Taliban have received support from a Pakistani intelligence service paranoid about Indian threats.
After the initial US invasion routed the Taliban, there was an opportunity to invigorate the nation, to showcase its development. But at that stage, there was no forward thinking and the United States was avoiding "nation building." There were vague notions of establishing a functioning democracy, despite the fact that this was a fragmented tribal society whose prior royal government had never really controlled the country, but rather acted as a central moderator between factions. So some basic democratic institutions were supported, but then there were more important fish to fry in Iraq. Afghanistan was put on the back burner.
The price of this neglect has been the resurgence of the Taliban. The reaction has been a significant military effort, even though every one concedes that there cannot be a military solution to the challenge of stabilizing the country. But there has been no readily visible alternative, especially after years of avoiding nation building. The military effort is outrageously expensive, particularly because of a long logistic tail which not only disrupts and corrupts Afghan society, but greatly complicates US relations with surrounding nations. Costs are now on the order of a million dollars a year per soldier. Nevertheless, the military effort is ineffectual. Just recently, after some 40 deaths, US forces pulled out of the Korengal Valley, apparently defeated not by Taliban but by villagers who simply did not want Americans around. After a much publicized battle, Marines took control of Marjah in the south, but "control" is pretty loosely used - the Taliban still operate with impunity in many ways. Now US forces are poised to repeat this effort in Kandahar, where 1,500 tribal leaders and elders at a recent tribal council bluntly told President Karzai that they were not in favor of the upcoming offensive. The local leaders in Marjah and Kandahar know the Americans will soon leave - they always have and this time they have even said they would. So the United States is now in the anomalous position of supporting the chair of the provincial council -- President Karzai's half brother - who has a broad reputation for corruption and drug trafficking.
Nevertheless, the US objective remains the development of a stable, democratic government. Another National Council (Loya Jirga) is being called, elections are scheduled, talks are going on a various levels with Taliban elements. But no one can see how a unified, stable nation can emerge from the disparate elements now contending for control, how some sort of power sharing could be arranged between Hamid Karzai and Mullah Omar. The real objective now seems to be to establish some kind of momentary stability which would allow the United States to declare its mission accomplished and remove its forces.
Indeed, the United States is well known for its short-term focus and a tendency to address complex situations in black and white terms. The nation is frustrated, sees high costs and has no end in sight. The return on perhaps a trillion dollars and hundreds of US deaths has been an intensification of radical Muslim appeals, an increase in the terror threat, and a destabilization of neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan. So there are strong pressures to simply get out, to cut losses and leave.
This raises two major issues:
- The United States owes Afghanistan. It has twice helped to destroy a functioning government and promoted warfare which has killed tens of thousands of Afghans. First it built up the Islamic radicals which forced the Soviets to leave the country, now it is fighting those same Islamic radicals to reduce the threat of global terror. Its efforts have been well meaning and now are in response to the 9/11 attacks which had been supported by a brutal Afghan government rejected by the vast majority of the population. Nevertheless, the effort has been destructive of Afghan society and the United States has an obligation to help develop a stable Afghan government. This is also important to demonstrate US support to the Muslim world.
- From its very inception, the United States has promoted freedom, democracy and human rights not as American values but as universal ideals. Although other nations often saw American exceptionalism or even arrogance, it was US leadership which brought two World Wars and a subsequent Cold War to an end and helped turn Germany and Japan in to well functioning and prosperous democracies. Although along the way the United States often supported smaller repressive regimes -- and still does -- the underlying commitment to freedom was recognized globally. President Kennedy's stirring words, "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty" embodied these sentiments. But more recently, taking these words too literally has embroiled the United States in ill considered operations in Iraq and the current morass in Afghanistan and has undermined global confidence in the nation. Nevertheless, these ideals are indeed universal ideals and implementing them is critical for stability in the XXI Century. US leadership is crucial for this and Afghanistan has become the test case.
So what is the answer?
The answer is, there is no answer, no concise response that will resolve the situation, no clear path forward that simply has to be pointed out. The best that can be done is a general concept that helps move in the right direction and is constantly adjusted to the actual situation. There is a jumble of criteria - equality, freedom, prosperity, democracy, security, education, and many others - that need to be applied and no way to collapse them into some kind of Status Index and prove things are getting better, or worse. And it is mainly up to the Afghan people to decide whether the mix is better or not.
One obvious observation is that clear improvements will take time, much time. The United States has supported Germany and Japan, and South Korea, for sixty years and still has a presence. Any meaningful commitment has to be long term, very long term. But it does not have to be an active fighting commitment - if fighting remains as the core of the commitment, we are doing something wrong. The long term commitment has to be a commitment to be a partner in development. This is not nation building - nations cannot simply be built, particularly from the outside. This is nation growing, like helping a child develop, it takes years and in the end there are independent nations standing on their own - as Germany, Japan and South Korea do now.
Nation growing is what we need to do, to support Afghans building their own society, their own nation. Security is important but cannot be imposed as vividly shown by Korengal and even Marjah. The United States has to work with what it has, most important to support local efforts and local security, to take the lessons learned in quiet areas and extend them to other areas. Good local governance is more important than good national governance - local government efforts are what everyday citizens see. But it is the national government that has to give cohesion and continuity to these efforts, so there has to be an emphasis on those national programs which work well, such as the National Solidarity Program which has demonstrated a capacity to immediately provide employment on a wide scale. Indeed, the core of counterinsurgency doctrine has been this "ink blot" strategy, stabilize and expand, not try to do everything at once.
That is fostered by the other characteristic American trait, impatience. Yes, the United States want to promote democracy - NOW! That was a core problem in Iraq, when the absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction forced a refashioning of the objective into "building democracy" in a fragmented country with no history and few values conducive to this. The immediate trappings of elections were arranged and now there is a government clearly beyond US control and a nation that may yet descend into internecine turmoil. This same impatience is readily visible with Afghanistan because expectations were built way too high, a democracy in the making, an elected central government, a peace that will somehow be hammered out with a foe unalterably dedicated to religious domination. The military approach is not only not working, it is running against an inexorable deadline: show results or get out.
The results can be, indeed have to be, in quiet areas, focusing not on the least secure areas but the most secure, the priority districts that Shahmahmood Miakhel has called centers of gravity. Such results can demonstrate what can be done to improve lives, to build an economy with the infrastructure of roads, businesses, municipal services that are needed. Most importantly to build people, to give them the education and skills needed for a better life. The United States has to help build an attractive alternative to the medieval asceticism and intolerance of the Taliban, an alternative attractive to the Afghan people, to the Pakistani and Central Asian neighbors watching closely, to the whole Muslim world and beyond. This is the real challenge and it will not be achieved in a short year or two.
The strategy needs to shift, not overnight but steadily, from a military one to a nation growing one focused on the economic imperative noted by Fick and Lockhart as being a core element of Afghan stability. This has to provide a steady increase in visible development efforts at the local level, visible not only to Afghans but to the Americans at home who have to support this effort to build freedom in a faraway place, who have to see results, who have to believe in their own ideals, who have to help protect a vulnerable population from a brutal menace which the United States helped to create.
There are hundreds of examples of positive developments in Afghanistan that are overwhelmed by the uniformly negative news from the military and higher government levels. We need to shift the focus to what is already working well and how it can be expanded. There must be a concerted effort to raise the visibility of these daily improvements in the lives of everyday Afghans. That is the real battlefield.