The struggle in Afghanistan has turned into a clash of cultures different from what had generally been expected. Both the NATO effort and the Taliban opposition have changed significantly in the course of the last nine years, resulting in a much changed situation.
NATO forces moved into Afghanistan to crush the Taliban and oust al Qaeda from its strongholds and training camps. These forces quickly took control of the country, but strongly rejected any suggestion of "nation building," though NATO was instrumental in setting up democratic political institutions. But the results were a big disappointment to the Afghan population, to the Muslim World, and, indeed, to the NATO governments. NATO effectively empowered a corrupt, ineffective government that was widely despised by the population and served as a focal point for a resurgent Taliban. NATO has come to realize that Afghan stability does in fact demand nation building, or at least something like it. The threat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan has long ago faded into insignificance. The task has shifted into an effort to bring Afghanistan into the modern world, setting an example of Western support for Muslim development.
The Taliban have also changed significantly. Initially they were a medieval theocracy, reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition, ruthless and uncompromising defenders of ascetic, medieval religious tenets. The widespread disappointment with the NATO transformation provided an opening for their resurgence. In the process, the Taliban have shifted from a claim of authority based on religious purity to authority based on force and intimidation. They live off opium production which they once sternly suppressed. They extensively employ suicide tactics alien to mainstream Muslim beliefs and to Afghan traditions. They have carried out widespread killings of respected community leaders and often innocent bystanders. They have turned into religious thugs opposing the movement of society into the modern world. Their reliance on terror tactics provides a vivid demonstration that their religious tenets have been rejected by the overwhelming majority of Afghans.
Afghanistan has become a focal point of the interaction between the West and the Muslim World. It is the embodiment of the Clash of Civilizations foreseen by Samuel Huntington. But the clash has turned out to be different from what was envisioned. It is not a clash between religious cultures. Rather, Afghanistan starkly demonstrates that it has become a clash between medieval fundamentalism and modern civilization.
Afghanistan provides an opportunity for the West to demonstrate real support to the Muslim World, to help build prosperity based on mutual respect for human values. This effort embodies core US values of the worth of the individual, of governments based on consent of the governed, of respect for basic human rights. Championing these values as universal has been the central reason that the United States has been held in high esteem by much of the world. These are not religious principles, though they are questioned and even attacked by religious fundamentalists worldwide, even domestically, as well as rejected by tyrants globally. The current NATO effort focuses on helping Afghanistan put such principles into practice, providing a partnership that can help it blossom into a prosperous Muslim nation. NATO can help Afghanistan become an example not only for the Muslim World, but for dozens of Third World nations struggling to come into the modern world. Or the NATO effort can collapse and allow violent extremists to drag a large portion of humanity back into medieval totalitarianism, in the process destabilizing the entire global community. Indeed, this is a stated objective of Islamic fundamentalists.
The center of gravity in the struggle in Afghanistan has shifted from a military challenge and a quest for victory into development challenge and a quest for modernization. In the process it has become a focal point of efforts to promote and develop a prosperous world. Globalization is eliminating the possibility of industrialized nations, including the United States, to remain prosperous in an economically stratified world. Afghanistan has become a test case in how to meet this challenge.
The NATO effort has been too slow to appreciate the depths of this transformation. It is still heavily focused on military efforts even though the center of gravity has shifted to modernization efforts. It is true that "nation building" is no longer derided and that there has been a significant increase in developmental efforts. The US "civilian surge" is a concrete expression of this shift, but the numbers clearly show where the emphasis lies. The civilian surge involves perhaps 1,000 individuals, while the parallel military surge involves some 30,000. Development efforts now have major funding, perhaps $10 billion a year, but the military funding is more like $100 billion.
The military effort is focused on the most backward, fundamentalist areas of the country, where opinion surveys have consistently shown widespread skepticism and even direct hostility to military efforts. The costs in blood and resources remains very high, with contract support distorting the local economy and feeding the corruption that stimulates the very insurgency that the efforts are fighting. More disturbingly, the costs drain resources from other pressing global and domestic needs, undermining a comprehensive effort to address the strategic challenges in which Afghanistan the effort is set. The military efforts also inevitably result in civilian casualties and cultural transgressions.
There are constant reminders of how these military efforts reinforce the cultural hostilities shown in the opinion polls. One recent article focused on a battalion locked in what the commander concluded was an endless war for an irrelevant valley. Recent bitter fighting there killed seven US troops and more than 60 "Taliban" fighters. The loss of seven US lives is obviously distressing. But the 60 "Taliban" dead are also distressing. Sixty men who gave their lives fighting in their view to protect their own homes, 60 dead who leave behind families and colleagues embittered at the foreign presence, 60 men who will never have an opportunity to see modernization come to their land. The US commander's conclusion was that, "The best thing we can do is to pull back, and let the Afghans figure this place out."
NATO has failed to shift its focus to the new center of gravity. What will vanquish the Taliban is not military operations but development, moving Afghanistan into the modern world. Although the Taliban like to stress that they will remain long after NATO is gone, time is not on their side. But modernization will not happen all at once, nor uniformly across the country. NATO must focus its efforts where it can do the most good, working where the local population wants us, building on achievements. Instead of military operations in the most fundamentalist and backward part of the country, NATO needs to build on its successes. Strategically, the increased development efforts are both welcome and inadequate.
There is already much positive movement, obscured by the media focus on bombs, blasts, bullets and bodies, on mayhem of one sort or another, while neglecting steady and widespread improvements. Real GDP averaged 15 percent annual growth from 2001 to 2006, making Afghanistan one of the fastest-growing economies in the world (it was still averaging 13.5 percent through 2009, after a drought in 2008). Between 2001 and 2009, almost every indicator of human development showed measurable improvement. By late 2008, 80 percent of the population had access to basic health services, up from eight percent in 2001. The infant mortality rate fell by a third, life expectancy inched upward and school enrollment skyrocketed from 1.1 million students in 2001 to 5.7 million students in 2008 -- a third of whom were girls.
Infrastructure has also greatly improved. In total, almost 33 percent of all roads in the country were paved by 2008, up from 13.3 percent in 2001. By 2008, the cell-phone industry, nonexistent before 2001, had nearly eight million subscribers. The number of Afghans with access to water more than doubled. The impressive growth and improvement since 2001 demonstrate that progress is achievable with robust resources and international attention. Aid dependency and a poorly diversified economy threaten Afghanistan's long-term economic stability, but the greater risk is that the country's recent progress will unravel unless security is greatly improved.
One of the major failings of the military emphasis in the south is the failure to protect other areas where significant improvements are possible; indeed, where they are actually taking place. NATO efforts need to focus not on victory, but on growth, building prosperity in Afghanistan province by province. One of the encouraging aspects of the situation is a systematic program to push locals into the police and into village and district government. Now a new Afghan Local Police force draws recruits from local communities. Local development is the critical factor. Stable areas with good local government will take responsibility for their own security. It is unfriendly territory for the Taliban if local residents report outsiders and can depend on local forces to respond. Foreign forces can help, but it is the local forces that are critical to suppress any clandestine Taliban presence.
There needs to be a shift not only in operations, but in reporting and publicity, a new focus on spreading the word of development, of getting individual Afghans enthused about their own economic potential. There needs to be much more publicity on the economic struggle and its successes, demonstrating that NATO forces are actively support Afghan development in accordance with local priorities. The central government can and is supporting this development in a number of ways. This includes:
The National Solidarity Program is widely recognized as efficient and effective. Since 2003, it has worked to promote good local governance, involve rural communities in making the decisions which affect their own lives , and support many of the poorest and vulnerable people.
A newly established Agricultural Development Fund provides loans throughout the agricultural value chain, including farms, stores, leasing companies, and food processors.
A program for development of Distributed Essential Services in Afghanistan working with local officials to set priorities for and implement municipal development projects. A pilot program in Nangarhar Province has resulted in a range of individual efforts, such as local microhydro electrification projects, and demonstrated the potential for broad application in the country.
Widespread recognition of mineral wealth which could support significant economic development. Although an initial effort in this development resulted in a large contract for a copper mine development at Aynak going to a Chinese company, apparently with the payment of a large bribe, much more transparent systems are being put in place. Open contracting is essential to insure that everyday Afghans benefit from this potential wealth.
A proposal for an Afghanistan Development Corps modeled on the US Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930's, a large scale effort to provide jobs while teaching skills and developing infrastructure. While it could eventually cover the entire nation, such an effort could certainly be initiated rapidly in more supportive areas of the country.
Overall, the most pressing need is to accelerate the shift of resources from military to development efforts where visible local economic improvements can energize the local population to work at building new lives. This is the future of Afghanistan. Flourishing areas set an example and show the possibilities of real economic development. It is important to make clear that such development and benefits are open to all groups who want to work for the improvement of their own lives, to invite and encourage all ethnic and cultural groups to take part in bringing Afghanistan into the modern world.