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Afghanistan: No Exit

What we need in Afghanistan is not an exit, but a transformation. It has become a key area in the long war - actually not a war, but part of the never ending struggle for human development. Talking of exit is a throwback to the XIX Century when the United States was protected in isolation by two great oceans. This was before the events of the XX Century thrust the nation into the role of global leadership. And it was before the globalization of the XXI Century integrated the world community into a web of mutual dependence. It is possible to physically withdraw from Afghanistan, but we cannot withdraw from the struggle for human development.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil
is for good men to do nothing
-Edmund Burke

The appropriate model is not Haiti or Somalia or Lebanon. It is rather Germany or Japan, and then South Korea. It is the decades long struggle with totalitarian communism, now continuing in the ongoing struggle against autocracy and repression and for good governance and development. Afghanistan represents both the necessity and the opportunity to reinvigorate US relations with the Muslim world. In the short term, the struggle is denying al Qaeda and radical jihadists a base of operations against the West. But it has become a crucial battlefield in the larger struggle to integrate the Muslim world into a global development effort.

Talking of exit invigorates Islamic radicals and discourages allies, friends, and a Muslim world which is highly skeptical of US intentions but still wants development and modernization. Afghans are concerned that the United States is a capricious partner, as it has been for neighboring Pakistan. Douglas Macgregor has it right when he notes this is not a Clash of Civilizations, but a clash of modernity versus antiquity. This is true for the Muslim world, where radical fundamentalists advocate a return to the VII Century. And it is true for the United States where isolationists advocate a return to the XIX Century, that we just take our boys and go home.

The immediate requirement is to help Afghanistan move into the XXI Century, opposing the fundamentalists who want to drag it backward in time. The irony is that a high percentage of Afghans reject the Taliban fundamentalism, they want to integrate their religion with the benefits of development; to see their society prosper, their children learn, and Islamic culture once again flourish.

So why is there a problem?

  • There is a problem first of all because of Taliban intimidation. Like the Mafia running a protection scheme, or a serial killer terrorizing a city, or a brutal regime terrorizing its own citizens, a relative handful of fanatic Taliban can dominate an entire region. They intimidate religiously by claiming to know the Word of Allah, providing a superficial sheen of legitimacy to their barbarity. More moderate or traditional religious leaders hesitate to denounce this because then their own lives would be at risk. Local civil and social leaders also hesitate to speak out, well aware of the brutal assassinations the fundamentalists have regularly inflicted on the population, more recently targeting aid workers, the Afghan police and government officials, thereby undermining attempts to establish state control.

  • And there is a problem because of widespread skepticism of the West. The Taliban provide constant reminders - real, embellished and fabricated -- of innocent civilians killed, homes desecrated, and people humiliated by insensitive foreigners. Despite being rooted in antiquity and propounding medieval principles, the Taliban present themselves as the wave of the future. They are, after all, local and will be there long after the foreigners are gone. They firmly believe the West is on a crusade against Islam and claim the allegiance of all true Muslims.

Opposing such primal ignorance is not a 2 year challenge, or even a 22 year or a 222 year challenge. It is a permanent challenge that mankind faces. The United States does not always respond well to such long-term challenges and has a reputation, especially in the region, as a fickle and unreliable partner. Exit strategies and remote engagements compound this reputation, not only locally but regionally as fundamentalist movements gain strength in Pakistan and Central Asia. The India-Pakistan confrontation has destabilized the region for decades. There are more than 100 million not so happy Muslims in India, the largest minority population anywhere in the world; radicalization of this distressed minority would throw the entire region into turmoil.

The challenge of radical Islam is indeed global. Afghanistan is not the only field of engagement. The current effort to provide large numbers of additional troops and solve the problem in short order is misguided for a number of reasons:

  • Costs (including casualties) drain resources from other fields of engagement. They also drain the support of the American public, still maintained to some extent by a will-o-the-wisp, the illusion that the goal is in sight. One last push will somehow resolve everything and then we can go home. But even a superpower has to expend its resources wisely.

  • Large numbers of foreign troops only validate the Taliban claim of occupation and will inevitably result in more incidents inflaming local sensitivities and supporting fundamentalist recruitment. This is what underlies the reputation of Afghanistan as the Graveyard of Empires. Afghans do not suffer armed foreigners well. We can stay as partners but not occupiers.

  • It is possible to temporarily surge more troops, but it is not possible to surge development behind them, particularly with the weak central government. Even now the assets to promote development in relatively peaceful areas are woefully inadequate. Unable to provide significant economic, social and political improvements, additional troops will have no long term impact. As they leave, areas will return to their prior state, with an added sense that the Americans have been defeated, further invigorating the Taliban and confirming the transient nature of American support.

  • The core struggle is not a military one, but a socio-economic one. Military efforts are often self-defeating because they alienate locals and energize Taliban recruiting. It is most important to show the Taliban as a medieval throwback and the United states as a partner in human development. We need to have faith that the ideals our nation was founded on are indeed universal ideals of mankind and contrast to the brutal and inhumane principles of al Qaeda and it associates.

The United States and NATO have to be seen as committed for the long term, determined to strengthening the economic, social and political situation of its Afghan partners. Determined most of all to demonstrate that radical Islamist concepts are deeply flawed, that the West does indeed support the development of vibrant Muslim societies and seeks to integrate them into a prosperous global system. That is the fundamental objective of our struggles in Afghanistan. We must disabuse the Taliban of any misconceptions that we will soon leave the country to them.

But resource constraints and inhospitable populations in many areas inevitably mean that this cannot all be done at once, that resources have to be concentrated where they can do the most good. The good news is that, despite the dismal overall picture, there are a large number of bright spots which get easily overlooked with the focus on military operations. The biggest bright spot has already been mentioned: that the vast majority of Afghans in most areas strongly reject the Taliban philosophy. Many of them are hard at work building better lives for themselves and their own local areas. We need to re-focus on a limited number of objectives achievable in the short term. We have to show staying power and real development in the areas we do control particularly in the north and major cities. Specific efforts aimed at Afghan development include:

  • The Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce advocates a free and open market economy in Afghanistan and endeavors to strengthen U.S.-Afghan economic relations. In recent Congressional testimony, the chamber has emphasized the importance of the private sector in creating jobs and spurring economic growth.
  • The Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industryworks to promote economic environment for business, encourage investment and advocate responsive government, quality education, and transparent business dealings.
  • Jobs for Afghans seeks to have a percentage of the amount appropriated for military operations in Afghanistan used to fund simple day labor jobs, paid in cash at the end of each day, to benefit ordinary Afghans. Such programs have already been implemented on a small scale in Jawzjan, Uruzgan, and Balkh Provinces. They address a root cause of the insurgency: 40% unemployment and desperate poverty.
  • The New World Strategies Coalition Inc. has been developing a range of nonmilitary programs for Afghanistan in conjunction with US and Afghan-American businesses, including technology training, local police development, and mine removal programs. Their efforts are aimed at the local and tribal level.
  • The National Coalition For Dialogue With The Tribes Of Afghanistan is an independent organization working to forge a unified Islamic nation with a shared objective. It has carried out a number of large scale assistance projects, including food supply and education.
  • Afghan Alive is a voluntary organization which publishes a weekly Kabul-e-News electronic magazine presenting the positive aspects of Afghanistan in areas of education, business, construction, housing, community services and culture.
  • The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program constitute a joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center. The Center is independent and privately funded and works to encourage Americans and Europeans to enter into an active and multi-faceted engagement with the region. It has recently been working on a project to make Afghanistan a hub of continental trade and transport.
  • Sister Cities International actively works to promote ties with the Islamic world. Two U.S. communities currently have sister city relationships in Afghanistan, San Diego with Jalalabad and Scottsbluff and Gering, NB, with Bamiyan.
  • A tender has been awarded to a Chinese firm for exploitation of a major copper deposit at Aynak. Although the tender award has been controversial, the project could provide a major underpinning for the Afghan economy.

These are efforts already in progress. There are a number of others which could easily be envisioned, particularly:

  • Investors. Investing requires balancing the assessed risk with the potential profits from being the first in an area, being in on the ground floor. A clear indication that the United States is in Afghanistan to stay would significantly reduce the risk and make investments much more attractive.

  • Veterans groups. Thousands of soldiers have served in Afghanistan, helping to stabilize the country and build its institutions. Many of them are deeply interested in seeing that their prior efforts do no go to waste.

The focus in Afghanistan has to shift from military confrontation to socio-economic competition. The Taliban cannot win in this arena because what they have to offer is soundly rejected by most Afghans. Such competition does require substantial troop levels in relatively peaceful areas protecting real development work. Good governance is critical so efforts must be focused where local governments work for their people; people who want support much pressure their own local governments to be responsive. Improving government can begin at the local level and can provide concerted pressures on the central government to live up to is commitments.

Building local security forces is central to this effort. The Taliban can motivate recruits with fiery words, but nothing motivates better than helping to defend one's own family and friends. Military forces protect against hostile groups, but protecting against individual terrorists and small groups is a police function. Locals can make an area greatly inhospitable to fundamentalist intrusions.

The focus has to be on areas with the biggest potential for the most improvement, for areas currently with reasonable security and reasonable governance. Clear-Hold-Build remains a core strategy, but we cannot Clear and Hold more than we are capable of providing Build assets for. We need to stay where they want us and build those areas into showcases. And we need to recognize that this is an integral part of a much larger struggle. US resolve can significantly assist other efforts to address radical Islamic groups, particularly in neighboring Pakistan where a concerted campaign against the Taliban in Waziristan is currently under way.

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