The Taliban have a vision for Afghanistan, and for the whole world - a vision of a medieval, ascetic society controlled by theocrats. Their vision includes a harsh and inflexible enforcement of religious prescriptions, including a number of prescriptions that are not actually required by Islam, particularly in regard to the status of women, but also in regard to music, beards, and prayers. Their vision has the advantage of being clear, straightforward and claiming a special relationship with pure Islam. It energizes their dedicated cadre and provides a rationale for more peripheral members - they know what they are fighting for.
Opinion surveys indicate the the overwhelming majority of Afghans reject such a monastic view of life, particularly after large sections of the country actually endured it during the Taliban regime. Afghan society and the wider Muslim world is distressed at the violence perpetrated by the Taliban, suicide bombings killing thousands, mostly Muslims, many women and children. But there is no alternative vision for Afghanistan, a vision of what Afghanistan could be, a vision of a prosperous Afghanistan with a society based on Islamic principles, but providing fulfilling lives for its citizens. What could this Afghanistan look like? What would it include? How could it be achieved?
The economic aspects of such an Afghanistan are clearly within reach -- other societies have shown the way. South Korea serves as a prime example. A society also ravaged by war, with a poorly educated population and even lacking in natural resources. Nevertheless in a few short decades it rose from a subsistence society to be one of the economic giants of Asia. Yes, there are certainly differences with Afghanistan - Korea has an ethnically homogeneous population without divisive religious and cultural factions. And once the war was suspended, internal security was strong. But Korea also did not have natural resources to help fuel its economic development; nor did it have the combined weight of the world's strongest democracies ready to buttress its development. A multilateral UN effort defended the nation from the threat from North Korea, but it was mainly the United States which supported its subsequent development. An autocratic government in the early post-war years helped to keep national programs focused, but the rule of law was generally enforced and corruption did not pervade the entire society.
Nevertheless, the experience shows what is possible in a backward country which focuses on development and pulls together to achieve it. A vision of such a transformation is sorely missing in Afghanistan and badly needs to be developed. It has to be developed by Afghans, and would almost surely involve variations from place to place. In some areas, systematic work towards implementing such a vision could begin immediately. In others, a longer view will be necessary. Some of the rural, fundamentalist areas of the country may not be ready to embrace any such vision until its attractiveness is demonstrated in other areas.
The vision can include - indeed, needs to include - the revitalization of traditional elements, such as the cultural flowering of Herat and revitalization of the silk road network of international trade. Of course, it needs to incorporate the stories of major historical figures and the contributions they made to Afghan, Islamic, and world development and culture.
A dynamic vision developed and supported by the central government could be a major achievement, but competing visions developed regionally could be even more important, reflecting a real sense of what Afghans actually want, tempered by reality, with an appreciation of local conditions and incorporating the wisdom of successful development actions in other corners of the world. But such visions could give what is critically lacking now for Afghans, a tangible sense of a better future for themselves and their children, a reason to roll up their sleeves, sweep aside the stifling medievalism of the Taliban, and work together for a common future. These visions need to focus on what people really want, education and a better life for their children, respect for human rights and the dignity of man, health care for their families, utility services supporting a comfortable life, the rule of law backed by good governance and responsible local officials. They also need to visibly embody lives lived in accordance with Islamic principles supported and validated by Islamic authorities. The visions have to show both how comfortable, productive lives can be developed and how they will resonate with the Islamic beliefs which underlie Afghan society.
So national parties; regional groups; respected political, social and religious figures; and local government leaders can all express their own views of where Afghan society should be heading, what sort of development they envision. Some of these visions will be incompatible with one another, or at least require mutual adjustments. None of them will be as clear and simplistic as the black and white vision of the Taliban because they will all represent real life with its contradictions and complexities, with its enjoyments and its opportunities, with its cultural development in the thousand-year traditions of Islamic achievements.
The United States can support this -- its basic ideals of democracy, equality, and the worth of the individual do have wide global appeal. More specifically, the United States can develop a concise statement of US objectives in Afghanistan: a stable and prosperous nation governed by the rule of law, a nation where a good education is available to everyone, where human rights are widely respected, and where good governance is demanded by the electorate. The United States can also promote Afghan debate on national objectives, freeing the country from the shackles of poverty, hunger, terrorism and disunity. this means promoting development which resonates with basic Afghan principles and traditional Afghan values and systems. For the overwhelming majority of Afghans, such a vision is needed to answer the question, what are we fighting for?