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Afghanistan: Descent into Reality

[revised 23 August 2010]

The effort in Afghanistan is in danger of losing touch with reality. It is stuck in a deepening rut, rushing towards a receding objective. The effort requires that the United States find an answer to the challenge, and find it NOW, so that next year troops can be drawn down and the effort brought to some kind of conclusion. Somehow everything may turn out OK.

This focus is driven by the American penchant to impatiently seek answers; politics is reduced to sound bites; complex situations are dumbed down to reach simplistic "answers." Afghanistan is one of these complex situations seeking an "answer." But there is no answer, no policy or program that will resolve the situation this year, or next. It is a complicated, entangled, jumbled situation. Under such circumstances, the best that can be done is to develop programs which improve the situation, constantly re-evalute the programs and their effects, and continuously adjust. Even when some results are known, it is often not possible to say whether changes actually made the situation better or worse. Iraq is a case in point. The surge produced a success. Or was it actually the surge that did it? Or is it even a success? The one thing that is clear, after a trillion or so dollars of resources, is that nothing is clear. History will evaluate the surge and its effects, and history is still unfolding.

And it is still unfolding in Afghanistan. The stated objective is simple and straightforward: eliminate an al Qaeda sanctuary. But the evaluation is anything but simple. The basic objective - as with the Iraqi surge - has been achieved. Al Qaeda has retreated to Pakistan, its presence in Afghanistan is minimal, the Taliban seem disinclined to provide it solid support, and Afghanistan would provide an extremely weak base from which to develop the only significant threat it poses to the United States: a nuclear or biological strike. Al Qaeda also has a range of other possible bases, including Yemen and Somalia; it is simply not possible to dominate them all. So the United States could find itself militarily exhausted in Afghanistan only to have al Qaeda set up shop in some other failed state. On top of that, it is not even clear that al Qaeda needs a sanctuary to operate against the United States.

Nevertheless, to insure that this objective remains achieved, the United States and its allies must prevent the Taliban from once again taking over the nation, in the President's words , "to finish the job." This means stabilizing the nation and building up its internal capacity to deny the Taliban, again in the President's words,"the ability to overthrow the government." Yet the administration insists that "we're not engaged in nation building" in Afghanistan. "Nation building" is, after all, an impossible task, especially from the outside, an open ended commitment without any clear objective. But, as Eugene Robinson has cogently observed, "we're going to reform an unresponsive government, generate economic development and create loads of new jobs. Sounds like nation building to me."


Precluding Taliban control requires stabilization. Stabilization requires socio-politico-economic development. Now US politics requires that this be justified only in terms of al Qaeda, though a hodge podge of other justifications get mentioned, such as moderating Pakistan, protecting women or even countering Chinese inroads. The underlying requirement for all these objectives is development. It is totally unrealistic to pursue stabilization without nation building, that's like creating a sandwich without bread, there is an essential element missing.

Precluding Taliban control is also a flexible objective. There is general agreement that some kind of political approach is necessary, and this is grudgingly taken to mean ceding some control of some areas to the Taliban. Of course, they will be expected to pledge not to support al Qaeda and to respect some line of control. But the Pakistani Taliban have bluntly demonstrated how unreliable Taliban assurances can be. Nevertheless, precluding Taliban control is not a firm objective after all. Ceding areas to the Taliban remains an option and the decision will not be taken by the United States.

One seasoned diplomat, Robert Blackwill, has argued for a "de facto partition" which would basically provide a middle course, retaining an active combat role in Afghanistan for years to come but rejecting permanent Taliban control of the south. The United States would focus on defending the northern and western regions and assist tribal leaders on the Pashtun periphery who may decide to resist the Taliban. This could also be combined with some agreement with Taliban elements. Similarly, Jack Devine, who ran the CIA's support to anti-Soviet Afghans, also sees a fragmented country, a tribal society, not a nation state. He recommends the establishment of "productive relationships" with tribal leaders and even Taliban factions; concerned about a potential collapse of the Karzai government, he advises cultivating relationships with leaders inside and outside the current regime. US forces have recognized the importance of local efforts with a new initiative to develop local defense forces. The effort raises many questions and is only reluctantly supported by President Karzai, but it emphasizes the need for local leaders to take charge of their own security.

The real objective is to help move Afghanistan into the XXI Century, from the stone age into a new age. Such development will indeed stymie the Taliban and preclude a sanctuary area for al Qaeda, but it is important for much more basic reasons.

  • The United States has always prided itself on helping downtrodden people. John F. Kennedy's stirring words, "that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty" embodied these sentiments but badly overstated the US ability to fix the world. Nevertheless, they express a basic US attitude of helping others. This is the best face of America, to promote freedom and basic human rights. But is bounded by reality.

  • The most fundamental reason for promoting Afghan development is both practical and pressing. The core strategic challenge facing the United States in the XXI Century is avoiding global turmoil. Globalization makes US prosperity dependent on global prosperity, or at least global stability. With a wide range of failed states, population stresses on vulnerable governments, impacts of global warming, and the self-centered focus of major powers, particularly China and Russia, global turmoil is all too possible. The United States is the only nation capable of providing the leadership crucial for this and Afghanistan has become a test case. It will either demonstrate that the United States can indeed support development in backward nations, or will show that the United States is incapable of addressing the development challenge in unsettled countries. Our failure to convince NATO allies and to provide an overall operational rationale does not bode well.

  • This is important not only for development in general, but for demonstrating to the Muslim world that the United States supports its development and for demonstrating globally that the United States is a reliable and steadfast partner and ally.

    In truth, this not nation building - nations cannot simply be built, particularly from the outside. This is nation growing, like helping a child develop, it takes years and in the end there are independent nations standing on their own - as Germany, Japan and South Korea do now. We need to support Afghans building their own society, their own nation. This is what we are really doing, and what we need to do. We cannot justify this in simplistic terms of al Qaeda, but must articulate how Afghanistan fits into a broader global strategy.


    The need for a rapid resolution begets a need for military force; nothing else promises a significant impact in a short period of time. Nevertheless, there is a general recognition that a military solution is simply not possible. But even the search for a political solution is calling for increased military activity, so that negotiations will be from a position of strength. This approach sees the Taliban as the main opponent and grudgingly accepts that it may be necessary to cede some position of control to them

    This is wrong on two counts:

    • The main opponent is not the Taliban, but the backwardness of the nation. The frustration and discontent which this engenders is the source of the Taliban strength, it is what facilitates the Taliban's very existence. The Taliban are an alien force in Afghanistan; their main vulnerability is not military but social. They are a predatory, barbaric and criminal group disguising itself as a religious movement. Their atrocities clash with Afghan tradition. They are rejected by the vast majority of Afghans, even in areas they control by terror and intimidation. Modernization will sweep them aside, not military confrontation. Indeed, their movement is slowly fragmenting. Their leader, Mullah Omar, has been invisible for almost nine years; their lower level commanders feel alienated from the older leadership; and the movement is slowly coming apart. The challenge is how to make this happen sooner rather than later. Muslims need to challenge the Taliban on their own terms, but Afghans also need to feel confident that they are secure in their own homes. Moves toward reconciliation or reintegration of more moderate elements can help. But it would be a travesty to officially cede control of any areas to such medieval tyrants.

    • The US military effort is self-defeating. It plays into the Taliban propaganda on foreign invaders. Its long logistics tail cannot be sustained without supporting corrupt officials in Afghanistan, as well as in surrounding countries; transit payments even help support the Taliban. The contract economy which supports the military effort severely distorts the Afghan economy. It undermines efforts to develop the independent market economy which would undergird real development and forces US units to rely on some of the worst government officials. The formidable language gap and the unavoidable cultural insensitivity of many US soldiers and civilians, not to mention their deep frustrations at being unable to distinguish friend and foe, inevitably generate frictions, particularly since many aspects of Western culture are contrary or even offensive to Afghan sensibilities. Constant personnel turnover precludes the establishment of any lasting relationships. Fighting also unavoidably brings on civilian casualties. Whether or not they are directly caused by the US forces, they are often blamed on the United States since it has typically been US forces that initiated the military operations which caused them. As with the Taliban, the US vulnerability is not military but social. The counterinsurgency strategy being pursued is a long-term strategy incompatible with the far shorter US political time line.

    The military effort might make sense in terms of how to best achieve a military solution for Afghanistan, or perhaps how to best force a political resolution. But it make no sense in terms of the overall US strategic situation: how to best allocate limited national resources to face a wide range of foreign and domestic challenges. Right now, the expected security benefits are far out of proportion to the costs. In the absence of a coherent rationale, there is no way that the US Congress will continue to sustain the current high levels of expenditures, nor should it. The military effort needs to be reoriented from a focus on defeating the Taliban to thwarting the Taliban, keeping a lid on their areas of control and keeping them off balance with military strikes and clandestine operations.

    The emphasis on military operations with its focus on engaging the Taliban also makes it difficult to look at the wider situation within Afghanistan. Instead of focusing on areas where the biggest gains would be possible against the main opponent - economic backwardness - activity focuses in the most difficult areas, now Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Rather than looking at the situation from a purely military perspective, it is imperative to get a full 360-degree view, to look at the total situation and assess where the biggest opportunities can be exploited for the least resources, and not focus on where there has to be intense fighting to develop even limited opportunities. Civilian assistance has to be the center of any such effort, but it will have limited impact if assistance workers cannot interact extensively with the local population. The effort has to emphasize building local capacity, so any contract efforts must be projects which are both sustainable and contribute directly to the local market economy, focusing on what the local population considers most important. And by concentrating in areas with good local government, it can promote the development of good governance from below.

    So, as Blackwill argues, we need to focus development efforts on the northern and western regions, where, unlike the Pashtun areas, people are not conflicted about accepting US help and not systematically coerced by the Taliban. Unfortunately, these are the very areas we are neglecting, providing the Taliban opportunity to destabilize areas that we should be actively developing. The military effort needs to transition to being a support element, checkmating major Taliban initiatives while protecting grass roots economic activities in the quieter areas. Such development can not only serve as a major motivation to local Afghans, but can provide young people an opportunity to work enthusiastically at development rather than becoming dejected misfits open to jihad propaganda. Development will also serve as a showcase, vividly contrasting austere areas under Taliban domination with vibrant areas moving into the modern world. This is what will defeat the Taliban. Already there are extensive efforts supporting such development, including:

    • The Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) and the associated Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry which it helped create actively support matchmaking and networking events with a wide range of international organizations and commercial entities. So, for example, the most recent Joint Symposium on the Role of the Private Sector included presentations by US government officials as well as representatives of major companies operating in Afghanistan, all outlining opportunities for business development.
    • A Distributed Essential Services program managed by the National Defense University has been actively supporting project development in Nangarhar province. To date it has some 37 microhydro power systems already operating and some two dozen more in the planning stages. In addition, the program has begun deploying containerized solar systems in Paktika province. Present efforts also include a solar-powered, container-based cold storage system for Gardez focused on pomegranates, melons and other high value crops to spread out deliveries to market. The project is coordinated through a collaborative web site and envisions providing a wide variety of essential services, often to remote areas.

    • Sister Cities International is supporting a particularly active effort by San Diego in partnership with Jalalabad. The program has supplied books and a computer laboratory to Nangarhar University, promoted an active exchange between between a local elementary school and Najmul Jahad School in Jalalabad, supported construction of a new school at Nasrat and a variety of programs promoting grass roots economic development, such as a women's development center with computers, furniture and items for a day care facility. The center will run courses in skills development and literacy and computer training. There have also been cow and goat raising programs and a tailoring project in local districts.

    • The International Foundation for Hope has focused on agricultural training and development, with major projects in forestry and orchard development - a traditional Afghan business. So, for example, one project in eastern Afghanistan has an overriding aim of developing regional production levels on 7,500 acres of perennial fruit and nut orchards, providing a viable alternative livelihood for up to 5,000 farmers.

    Overall, there are hundreds of such programs, some larger, many smaller. They show the potential for rapid economic development in Afghanistan, as well as the determination of thousands of everyday Afghans to build better lives for themselves and their children. They include enthusiastic young people striving to gain the skills needed for real development.

    The 360-degree view also applies to regional opportunities, developing positive ties with neighboring countries. One specific area of proposals has centered on re-energizing traditional Silk Road transportation networks between Central and South Asia. Pakistan remains a particular challenge, with its military-dominated and unstable political system, nuclear capabilities, long-standing ties to Taliban elements, and widespread distrust of the United States. In this case, major military options are not even available, so development remains the only viable option. Now, with the nation wracked by floods, US assistance offers an opportunity to demonstrate US support to Pakistan. Unfortunately, the last time the United States responded to a disaster in Pakistan (the 2005 Kashmir earthquake), it ended without any effective follow up and radical groups remained to solidify their presence in this vital region.


    The visible lack of major results in Afghanistan, widespread ignorance on its civil and economic development, and the heavy costs in terms of blood and resources are forcing the United States to face the underlying realities of its Afghan operations, especially against the background of continuing economic slowdown at home. It would be nice if some ready solution were at hand, but there is none.

    It makes no sense for the United States, the world's only superpower, to focus its strategic might on a ragtag band of misfits squirreled away in the Pakistani mountains. This is particularly true because of the much larger strategic challenges facing the nation, including a range of pressing domestic issues, widespread turmoil in a now globalized world, and challenges from both Russia and China. That is the underlying problem, the basic disconnect in the Afghanistan conundrum: operations in Afghanistan make sense only in the context of a larger US global vision. Resources allocated there must be commensurate with the overall strategic objectives.

    Afghanistan remains disjointed and will be unstable for years to come, with a patchwork of shifting political control. The central government exercises nominal control over the entire nation; regional officials vary in how much individual autonomy they can exercise. The Taliban have a good measure of effective control over broad areas. It is unlikely they will soon be vanquished or that they would again be able to control the entire country , though it is possible that political agreements might give them recognized control of specific designated areas. Overall, the United States has no choice but to deal with a fragmented political system; it must emphasize dealing with competent local leaders. A cohesive Afghani state, with effective ministries that reach out and provide governance, is still years in the future.

    The United States cannot force any resolution of the fragmented political situation. Military efforts are important to stabilize critical areas, but the larger this effort, the more it undermines itself. Military efforts must transition to more modest operations avoiding the heavily contested areas. The real objective can only be promoting a prosperous and stable Afghanistan - not because of al Qaeda or even the Taliban, but because of the need to promote prosperity and stability on a global scale. Afghanistan is particularly important in this context because we have made it so. It is a highly visible example of the US interaction with the Muslim world as well as US steadfastness in terms of commitments to both other nations and to individuals who have put life and property at risk to directly support US efforts.

    Development has to focus on the quieter areas where real progress is possible. The Afghan people are well aware of the predatory nature and brutality of the Taliban; it is only development that will put an end to this threat. Quiet areas need to be turned into showcases of how the West in general and the United States in particular can support dramatic changes in backward areas. These efforts must have maximum involvement by local Afghans. The West has to learn from earlier development efforts, as in Africa, where decades of aid have had minimal results - largely because efforts focused on doing things for the local people rather than with the local people. Contracts are no substitute for a vibrant market economy.

    So steadfastness requires first of all articulating a US global vision. Any success in Afghanistan can only come from a clear commitment to support long-term development and provide long-term security assistance. Costs have to be commensurate with overall strategic objectives and benefits have to be clearly visible. The American people need to see a reasonable rationale and results. Then a long-term commitment is possible -- a 60-year presence has turned South Korea from a war-torn country into a vibrant and prosperous democracy.

    The American people have to see a much more comprehensive picture of activities in Afghanistan. Current reporting focuses almost exclusively on the bad news -- bombs, bullets, blasts and bodies -- and provides no sense of the widespread positive developments in Afghan society. A vivid example of this is the recent reporting on the tragic killings of ten aid workers. The murders made newspapers worldwide, after many years during which their selfless support to building a new Afghanistan was ignored.

    A new Afghanistan is what we need, what they need, what the world needs. But it cannot come at the expense of everything else.

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