Crisis = Danger + Opportunity
- Chinese ideographs
Afghanistan is on the verge of blossoming into a modern nation. It is also on the verge of collapsing back into chaos. It is at a tipping point and can move in either direction. There is now an opportunity for the United States to help Afghans build a dynamic, prosperous country, an Afghan alternative to incessant warfare or Taliban despotism, and at a far lower cost than the current military effort.
Afghanistan's Importance to the United States:
In a newly globalized world, the United States can only prosper if everyone else also prospers. The nations of the world have to collectively face the dilemma of failed states and the challenge of global good governance, as well as reducing turmoil in the Muslim world. Promoting global stability is the core strategic challenge of the XXI Century. For better or worse, Afghanistan has become the test case of US leadership in addressing failed states, stabilizing restive areas, and building prosperity in backward countries. t It has also become an important test of US relations with the Muslim world.
Such positive global development requires strong global leadership; the United States is the only nation capable of providing this. China and Russia are focused on protecting their own autocratic systems and reject efforts to pressure other nations on domestic policies. Nations of the European Union share US values but have fragmented leadership and their own severe internal problems. Although often criticized as parochial, fundamental US values the worth of the individual, basic human rights, government accountability to the people in fact have wide global appeal and are the basis for good governance, the only solid foundation for a prosperous world. These core values sustain US leadership; results in Afghanistan will reflect on this negatively or positively. Promoting the latter is clearly in the US interest, as is reinforcing a reputation for supporting individuals who have taken risks to promote US efforts.
Although costs in Afghanistan have been high, there have also been significant achievements, largely ignored by the general US media. Student enrollment has gone from one million to seven million, with over 25,000 university students. Cell phone penetration has gone from zero to 50%, with internet broadly available. GDP has been growing at over 10% yearly. The position of women in society has been greatly improved. Nearly 85% of the population has access to basic health care. These achievements have been overshadowed by stories of mayhem, corruption and extremism. Yet, without a more balanced view, many (most?) Americans see Afghanistan as a black hole that only eats people and resources.
How to Stabilize Afghanistan:
The core principle is straightforward: help Afghans build their own society, on the model of how the United States helped South Koreans build their vibrant and independent country. Afghans have already developed a vision of sweeping economic development in their Afghanistan National Development Strategy, supplemented with Prioritization and Implementation Plans (Volume 1 and Volume 2) and a more recent National Business Agenda. These provide Afghan perspectives on what an independent Afghanistan would look like. Summarizing them into a compelling vision and translating them into visible efforts is the challenge.
Directing development assistance to the grass roots level in the quieter areas of the country is the immediate imperative. Turning provinces and districts with local good governance into showplaces can make them flourish, letting prosperity attract the more backward areas instead of trying to force them into modernization. This requires supporting programs that already have an immediate impact at the grass roots level, such as a microfinance facility (which has disbursed over $1 billion USD to over 400,000 Afghans), the highly regarded National Solidarity Program (now operating in some 28,000 villages and managed by local councils), an Afghanistan Vouchers for Increased Productive Agriculture (AVIPA) program focusing on rural family farm production, a successful Valued Sustainable Services effort demonstrating local village development in Nangarhar Province, and the creation of farm businesses by the Global Partnership for Afghanistan all provide examples.
This has to be supplemented by increased Foreign Direct Investment. The US Department of Commerce is sponsoring several programs encouraging US companies to make small initial investments to get in on the ground floor of future broad development. These efforts need to be significantly expanded, as with joint venture public-private partnerships. Both the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the World Bank's Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency provide risk insurance. A number of organizations provide financing to supplement investment, including the Asian Development Bank, USAID's Development Credit Authority and the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency. Another attractive model is the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) Act which promoted entrepreneurship in Poland and Hungary as they were transitioning to market economies. The SEED program provided significant assistance, yet was the first foreign assistance program in history to return a significant amount of money to the US Treasury.
Above all, there needs to be a development strategy that stresses short-term job creation, but provides assurance of long-term US support, giving Afghans confidence in their own ability to make their country flourish and incentives to protect their own future. As with any insurgency, the Taliban cannot operate without at least the acquiescence of the bulk of the local population. Security comes from everyday citizens working with local leaders to protect their own futures.
The Arab Spring has dramatically demonstrated the ability of everyday citizens to demand more accountable leadership. Current efforts in Afghanistan can help promote a similarly empowered citizenry actively protecting their own interests. In particular, a broad program of Connection Technologies will provide widespread access to an internet circuit around the country a backbone for commercial, agricultural, health care and educational efforts. It will also help force transparency and give everyday citizens a place to express their own interests and demand responsiveness from leaders at all levels.
From the beginning, the United States has not been alone in these efforts, but has led NATO involvement and supported efforts to integrate Afghanistan into regional trade and commercial networks. Afghanistan has joined a Cross-Border Transport Agreement with Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, while a new rail line between Uzbekistan and Mazar-e-Sharif is the first link integrating Afghanistan into the regional rail network. Kazakhstan has recently been providing development aid, and India has broadened its support. Although relations with Pakistan have been more problematic, recent efforts to improve Afghanistan-Pakistan trade could generate huge revenues for both countries, especially in agricultural and industrial sectors. Measures to invigorate the traditional Silk Road trade routes in the area could provide a significant boost to the Afghan economy, as well as integrating it better with regional efforts, such as expanding the Pakistani port at Gwadar. It would also be an ideal project for a proposed Afghan Development Corps. The nation has been developing a framework for governance of its vast mineral, oil and gas resources; contracts in this area need to require up front development of local infrastructure and human resources. An ambitious New Kabul City project will be home to an estimated 1.5 million people, with construction starting as early as next year. All these efforts include broad opportunities for commercial interests to get in on the ground floor of projected developments. Foreign investment and job creation have to underlie real development efforts.
2011: The High Water Mark for the Taliban?
A broader effort to discredit the Taliban can be integrated with military reductions, which intrinsically undercut Taliban propaganda on a long-term presence of foreign troops. A vision of a New Afghanistan tied with visible development can provide an attractive Afghan alternative to Taliban government. Taliban ideology is in fact alien to the traditional Afghan practice of Islam which was tolerant and not dogmatic. There was much popular antipathy at the brutal Taliban government whch suppressed the operation of traditional local councils and consensus politics. Now there is widespread revulsion at the routine murdering of civilians, often with suicide bombers and even using children. The Taliban have been historically repressive toward women, toward education, and toward economic development. Every time a factory or a commercial operation or a farm is put back into production, there is an opportunity to contrast development with Taliban destruction. Taliban repression also And their current promotion of opium production stands in stark contrast to their own professed ideals; a shift to medical use could be very positive.
Overall, the Taliban are vulnerable to being challenged on a wide range of topics. Their medieval outlook and the economic stagnation it produced can stand in stark contrast to vibrant development in quiet areas. Challenges to the Taliban have to be Afghan voices expressing Afghan ideas and Afghan sentiments, led by Afghans who see a new opportunity for their country to move into the modern world - but it must also be supported by the United States promoting development of an Afghan consensus on future developments, empowering the 95% of Afghans who reject Taliban control. It is Afghans who will determine when the Taliban reach their highwater mark and begin to recede into history.
A stable Afghanistan can be achieved at a far lower cost than the military effort has required. Shifting a modest share of savings from the military reductions into socio-economic expansion, particularly promoting jobs and grass roots development in the quieter areas of the country, could dramatically improve prospects. An essential element has to be a clear understanding that the United States is committed to real long-term development in Afghanistan.
In conjunction with this, there needs to be a broad effort to present a much more balanced picture to the Afghan public and to the American public, a picture that includes the thousands of positive steps being taken every day to move the country forward. This can be facilitated by posting positive information in key locations such as the Rally for Afghanistan web page, the Kabul-e-News, or Good Afghan News.