Afghanistan is about to blossom into a vibrant, modern nation; unfortunately the ongoing turmoil and the relentlessly negative media coverage obscure this underlying dynamic. A new Afghanistan is unfolding unseen before our very eyes. USAID's recent report, Partnership, Progress, Perseverance, provides an overview of the significant progress that has been made in health and education, while developing infrastructure and human capital. But it does not begin to address the staggering growth of telecom connectivity that is taking place: not only has cell phone usage gone from zero to over 50%, but a fiber optic ring and the introduction of 3G service is expanding internet access countrywide. This is creating an entirely new dimension to progress.
Victory in Afghanistan is impossible, impossible to even define. Success in Afghanistan, on the other hand, is within reach - within reach of Afghans, who are the ones who must define what this success can be. It is clear that Afghans want neither Taliban nor NATO; the third alternative is success. Afghans need to define just what that success can be, to develop an inspiring concept of how the positive pieces of Afghanistan (mineral wealth, location on trade routes, its young and energetic population) can be fitted together into a new Afghanistan, a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan that is solidly based on centuries of Afghan culture and incorporates the traditional tolerant views of Islam. South Korea can be our model, another faraway, culturally distinct and war-torn nation. It was also an agrarian country with widespread illiteracy; in 1966 its main road (Seoul-Pusan) was a two-lane dirt road - look at it now! Even though it had nowhere near the development attention now given to Afghanistan and lacked the mineral deposits that could power economic expansion, US assistance helped transform it into a vibrant economic and democratic powerhouse. The same could happen with Afghanistan.
The Taliban are losing ground and they know it. They claim time is on their side - "you have the watches, we have the time" - but time runs against them. Even as they hold on tenaciously for when parts of Afghanistan could fall into their hands, Afghanistan is changing all around them. They well know that they need to seize as much influence as possible before modernization sweeps them into the dustbin of history. They make every effort they can to stem this tide, suppressing schools and destroying cell towers, for examples. But modernization inexorably moves forward, and internet connectivity is now shifting this into high gear.
The Taliban need to be confronted, not militarily on the battlefields of Afghanistan but ideologically in the battle for legitimacy. Yes, it is a battle for hearts and minds, but not a battle for NATO to win but for Afghans to win, speaking for their own hearts and minds. The Taliban are as alien to Afghan traditions as are troops of NATO soldiers. They are widely recognized as religious thugs, killing fellow Muslims (often indiscriminately and in large numbers), promoting the opium trade, suppressing traditional councils, destroying economic development, opposing education and rejecting traditional Afghan tolerance. They fight not to free Afghanistan but to subjugate it. What is necessary is to promote and re-affirm traditional principles, publicizing the ideals that the best figures of Afghan history stood for,
Reform of Afghan's corrupt central government will not come from outside, pushed from the top down. Rather, it will come from the grass roots up. Rising popular consciousness spawned the Arab Spring; what would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago has suddenly become reality. And now it begins in Afghanistan. Cell phone penetration and internet connectivity are creating a new playing field. Instant messaging, Twitter feeds and crowd sourcing are the new players on this field. An impressive agriculture crowdsourcing effort in Nangarhar province represents the thin edge of this wedge, a wedge that will separate corrupt government from any mass support. New collaboration technologies will aggregate grass roots insistence on good local governance, insisting on transparency, openness, and responsiveness to local needs, including security. Insurgents cannot survive without at least the begrudging support of the populace they live among. The wedge will also separate them from this support, allowing the local population to aggregate resistance. The Taliban are well aware of this and do what they can to disrupt telecom networks.
International support cannot force change from the top, but it can assist change from below by putting priority emphasis on such critical matters as open and transparent elections. It is also critical to promote discussion of competing visions of a New Afghanistan so that displacing present corrupt government structures does not leave an intellectual vacuum promoting continuing turmoil. Rather, tangible prospects of an attractive future need to encourage all groups of Afghans to work together to make it happen.
So a vision of a new prosperity has to underlie the coming transition, a vision in stark contrast to the economic destruction experienced under the Taliban and in sharp contrast as well to the corrupting and socially alienating contract economy fostered by NATO military operations. It is essential that all ethnic groups see how working together can bring a new life to them all, how a blossoming of agriculture and associated light industries, a broad expansion of regional trade routes, the application of mineral wealth to support extensive socio-economic development, and the growth of small business and civil society can transform the nation.
The key to success is to get Afghans to define it, to envision it, to work for it. Outsiders can help with two general approaches: broad support to grass roots development and international pressure on national-level actions critical for social and economic development. Afghanistan is at a tipping point. Good policies can indeed lead to a vibrant, modern nation. Poor policies will not lead to a new Taliban government, but to a fragmented society fighting itself. The shift away from the battlefield is already in progress; a shift into grass roots development can make success a reality.