This commentary builds on an earlier one that also set Afghanistan in the context of promoting global stability, the need for a credible strategy, and a focus on development to counter radical Islam. Now there continues to be widespread skepticism among the American public on support operations in Afghanistan. In a recent commentary at the US Institute of Peace, Senator Carl Levin stressed that this skepticism could dampen the willingness of Congress to continue supporting Afghanistans development. Afghanistan remains at a tipping point and can either blossom into a modern nation and amaze the world or descend into chaos. Continuing US support is important both for strategic and practical reasons.
STRATEGIC: The United States can only prosper if our interconnected world is stable. A steady increase in radical groups threatens this stability. The current challenge by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) starkly illustrates both the need for US leadership and the potential for chaos. Military action is necessary in the short run. But, as The Economist argues, the US bombing campaign may be creating more problems than it is solving. At a deeper level, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, sees the ISIS ideology of rage and hate skillfully promoted on an international jihadist network. The response has to start by countering malignant ideas with enlightened thinking, open minds, and an attitude of tolerance and acceptance. This response has to deprive the ISIS ideology of the power to attract people left vulnerable by an environment of hopelessness and desperation. The region is home to more than 200 million young people. We have the opportunity to inspire them with hope and to direct their energies toward improving their lives and the lives of those around them.
This is where America is failing. Over the last fifty years, American ideals have been tarnished by support for dictators, by continuing domestic racial violence and divisive politics, by a feckless response to immigration and refugee challenges, and by a reliance on military solutions to socio-economic crises. For millions, American is no longer a Beacon of Freedom, but rather American rhetoric is just a verbal facade protecting a global plutocracy. Global stability requires re-energizing American ideals, helping to build more prosperous societies to undermine the appeal of radicals. Sustainable development is the only real answer to terrorism. The destruction of terrorist groups is not enough to bring lasting peace. Peace requires creating stable governments that can deliver real services, addressing the critical need for long-term projects and initiatives to eliminate poverty, improve education and health, build infrastructure, and create economic opportunities.
So Afghanistan is not a sideshow to countering ISIS, it is the critical alternative that can replace the emptiness of ISIS ideology with a vision of peace and prosperity. This is more than a local challenge, it is global. See, for example, a commentary from the other side of the world, The Capitalist Cure for Terrorism: "military might alone won't defeat Islamic State and its ilk. The U.S. needs to promote economic empowerment." Afghanistan shows a way out. Now for the second time, we are turning our back on building in Afghanistan so we can go fight in Iraq. But the reason we have to fight again in Iraq, the reason that ISIS ideology has taken hold so strongly, is precisely because we have been failing in Afghanistan, failing to show how the United States can help bring a downtrodden nation into the modern world. It may be necessary to blast in Iraq for the short term, but for the long term we need to build in Afghanistan, to demonstrate the enlightened thinking and attitudes of tolerance and acceptance that Sheikh bin Rashid calls for.
For our own good, the United States has to support the transition of failing countries into stable and prosperous states, as was done with South Korea a half century ago. Afghanistan has become a demonstration of our current ability to do this. Failure to achieve this would not only embolden radicals, but would undermine stability efforts globally. For better or worse, Afghan development stands at the forefront of US efforts to protect our own position by helping to build a better world.
PRACTICAL: It is important to protect the gains we have helped achieve. There is also a moral dimension to this, demonstrating the US commitment to its ideals and validating the sacrifices made by US and Afghan troops and civilians. A central challenge to this justification is that many Americans do not see any gains to protect, but view Afghanistan rather as a black hole that eats people and resources; additional expenditures would simply be throwing good money after bad.
So it is important to publicize the significant gains since the ouster of the Taliban government. From less than a million school kids, almost all boys, there are now about ten million school children, including some 40% girls. Women in general are moving beyond the medieval restrictions of the Taliban and many now play active roles in society, commerce, and politics. Literacy is growing steadily. Telephone penetration went from essentially zero to over 12 million mobile phones today, supporting not only commerce but also a growing social media network which promotes transparency and insists on good governance. Life expectancy has risen by 15 years, while infant mortality has dropped by nearly three quarters and now some 60% of the population is within walking distance of a clinic. Broad infrastructure improvements are illustrated by the Ring Road - two-thirds of the population is now within 30 miles of a major highway.
Of course, economic development still has a long way to go, but a bright future is within reach of the new government, the essential elements of prosperity are all at hand. Mineral resources have the potential to catapult the country into a new era of development -- two trillion dollars of exploitable minerals have been widely reported. Some modest industries already exist, as with marble production and small-scale gem mining and finishing. Major mining operations can take a number of years to set up, but contracts can also require up-front investment in infrastructure and in human resource development, so have an immediate economic impact. It is critical that major contracts be negotiated transparently and that local officials be involved in setting up-front requirements.
A vigorous agrarian sector will simply be a renewal of traditional activities, incorporating new possibilities created by modern farming developments. Afghan agriculture can revive this vibrant past. Much of the necessary infrastructure is already in place, changing the face of the nation. Requirements are straight forward: reviving irrigation networks and the previously extensive agricultural extension service; restoring Agricultural Banks; establishing cold storage facilities; introducing new varieties and types of crops. Industry provides another ready avenue for significant economic development, particularly with more extensive processing or use of agricultural products, such as light industrial facilities to process wheat into flour, fruits into dried varieties, oilseed into cooking oil, cotton into textiles. A program to set up farming cooperatives on government land could also be very helpful, especially if paired with a program to purchase the produce and pay the farmers on the spot. Along with leather works, shoe factories, and meat packing plants, new packaging facilities could help revitalize agriculture. Energy supply shows further possibilities - distributed power production, using solar or wind equipment or microhydro installations, is already in strong demand. And a short-term focus on building infrastructure on the lines of an Afghan Development Corps could both provide badly needed jobs and help jump start the economy, while continued expansion of health facilities can both create jobs and improve lives. In addition, Afghanistan has a long history of handicraft production, including silk weaving and rug production; modern processing facilities could make them major elements of a revitalized trade network.
In fact, regional economic integration has its own broad possibilities, including revitalization of traditional Silk Road trade routes. A number of regional electric grids are operating and construction of a regional rail network has begun. Any significant exploitation of Afghanistan's mineral resources will require rail support and port access, so a project to upgrade Pakistan's rail link to Gwadar and tie it with a new Afghan link would be an attractive cooperative project for both countries. Such efforts could culminate in the creation of a common market system embracing the six Islamic Nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Afghanistan could become a Free Trade Zone, once again an economic gateway between the East and West. All of its neighbors would benefit from the resulting trade traffic, while Afghanistan would have attendant construction and operating requirements for a wide variety of logistic and trade facilities.
Overall, Afghanistan has an impressive array of economic opportunities that can be exploited in the immediate future to dynamically propel it into the ranks of peaceful and prosperous nations. The transformation has already begun with ten million young people now in school, building the human capital necessary for vigorous social and economic development. Meeting this challenge can transform not only Afghanistan but the entire region.
BOTTOM LINE: Afghanistan does indeed have an important place in US National Strategy, responding to the core challenge of the Twenty-first Century: leading efforts to build the better world that is essential not only for global prosperity, but for US prosperity.