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Demilitarizing the Afghan Effort

Despite widespread agreement that a military solution is not possible, the current approach in Afghanistan remains overwhelmingly a military one - well illustrated by the recent surge of 30,000 troops and only 1,000 civilian supporters. Moreover, it is proving difficult to actually get qualified civilians on the ground and they are often posted to areas where they are essentially restricted to working ineffectively from within military compounds.

The objective in Afghanistan is both confused and politicized. The primary objective of denying safe haven to al Qaeda has become strategically irrelevant, though it still resonates politically. The functional objective of seeking a stable Afghanistan is meaningless without significant economic development - nation building, although this has become a toxic phrase politically. It is of course true that the United States cannot build Afghanistan, but the United States can provide support that is critical to this development. It is the only nation positioned to provide the necessary leadership - the same leadership challenge the nation faced after World War II when the Marshall Plan supported nation building on a continental scale. Although Afghanistan is a very backward country in a remote area of the world, nation building has become doubly important as the visible demonstration of US efforts to better integrate the Muslim World into the global economic system. Helping to build real prosperity in Afghanistan will severely undercut the appeal of radical Muslim agendas; failing to do so will validate it. Acknowledging this means acknowledging nation building as the core element of the overall effort in Afghanistan.

The military effort is focused in the areas of the country where they do not want us, backward Pashtun areas with a well demonstrated historical antipathy to foreign military forces. Here opinion surveys have consistently shown widespread skepticism and even direct hostility to US efforts. Military efforts inevitably result in civilian casualties and cultural transgressions, reinforcing the hostilities shown in the opinion polls. One recent article focused on a battalion locked in what the commander concluded was an endless war for an irrelevant valley. Bitter fighting there killed seven US troops and more than 60 "Taliban" fighters. The loss of seven US lives is obviously distressing. But the 60 "Taliban" dead are also distressing. Sixty men who gave their lives fighting in their view to protect their own homes, 60 dead who leave behind families and colleagues embittered at the foreign presence, 60 men who will never have an opportunity to see modernization come to their land. The US commander's conclusion was that, "The best thing we can do is to pull back, and let the Afghans figure this place out."

The logistic effort required to support the intensive military operations itself distorts the local economy and stimulates the very insurgency that the efforts are fighting. The contract economy draws qualified Afghans away from the real economy and disturbs ethnic and tribal arrangements, upsetting local stability in ways that no outsider can really understand. Just as important, the oversized logistic effort feeds corruption in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Reducing the contract economy, promoting a broad-based economic expansion, and fostering the continued growth of active reporting in the media and social networks could do much to reduce the endemic corruption problem.

Even positive evaluations of current efforts in the south stress that gains are tenuous and uncertain; one recent evaluation, for example, repeatedly commented that the real test will come in late summer 2011. This has been echoed by General Petraeus stating he expects intensified fighting this year. Costs of military operations are clearly not expected to decrease.

Regardless of the prospects for eventual military success, the effort is simply too costly. While local tactical and operational efforts may have favorable prospects, the overall effort is a strategic disaster with a grossly disproportionate call on limited US strategic assets. The military focus drains resources from other pressing global and domestic needs, undermining a comprehensive effort to address the strategic challenges in which Afghanistan effort is set. In addition to the long-term costs of dead soldiers and wounded and scarred veterans, the overall US military posture is steadily degrading -- at the very time that Pakistan and Yemen demand more attention; unrest is washing across the entire Middle East; Latin America poses growing challenges with Mexico descending into chaos, Haiti barely beginning to recover from devastation, and Brazil playing a much larger role on the global stage. China raises an increasingly sophisticated military challenge and an even more pressing economic and diplomatic challenge. Globalization is undermining US economic dominance, widespread poverty threatens world-wide turmoil, and the impact of climate change calls at a minimum for more resilience in the face of large uncertainties. Against this background, the domestic situation is becoming increasingly problematical. Wealth accumulates at the top end of the population while unemployment and underemployment accumulate at the bottom end. Health care remains a daunting challenge, education suffers, the prison population has one of the highest per capita levels in the world, and immigration remains a divisive challenge. Frustration leads to desperation, with a steady stream of press reports of murder and mayhem. For some it leads to supporting radical Islamic concepts and initiating their own attempts at mayhem; thankfully with only limited impact to this point.

It is imperative to reduce the strategic costs of efforts in Afghanistan. This means shifting from a military to a development emphasis, from resources for fighting to resources for building. The US failure to this point is starkly demonstrated in the broad national statistics. Despite nine years of US dominance, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world; its unemployment rate still stands at a daunting 40%, driving the insurgency we are trying to defeat. There is no sense of economic blossoming, of real improvements ahead for the average Afghan. Total spending stands at roughly $500 billion - if a tenth of that had been spent on real development, Afghanistan would now be a showplace and there would have been a much lower loss of life among both NATO troops and the Afghan population.

Nevertheless, the United States has strong commitments to Afghanistan. It must demonstrate its steadfastness as an ally not only to the Muslim world, but to the broader global community. And we have encouraged many of the best people in Afghanistan to support our efforts to help build their nation. We owe it to them not to simply desert them when they have put their lives on the line. Unfortunately, it is not so easy to back off. In the south we have bitten off way too much. The effort has flatly violated President Obama's specific directions when he authorized the troop surge: "Don't clear and hold what you cannot transfer. Don't overextend us." But now we are indeed overextended with an expansive presence in broad areas historically hostile to foreign troops.

The bottom line is clear: we need a rapid reduction in the assets focused on Afghanistan. Nonetheless, we need to demonstrate a significant commitment to supporting national development. This is only possible with a significant realignment of our effort, a much more productive use of resources. The military effort must transition to an economy of force effort with logistics minimized to bare mission essential levels.

Instead of focusing military efforts where they don't want us, we need to focus development efforts on where they do want us - on broad areas of Afghanistan where the medieval, brutal Taliban have limited appeal and the population wants development. In most areas, local security can address the Taliban, who pose not a military challenge but a policing and development challenge akin to addressing the challenge of criminal gangs in parts of some US cities. Giving people a stake in their own future rapidly undermines criminal activity.

Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani has called for an effort to develop eight model provinces. But what we have now is dozens of model areas where real development is already taking place. It is broad economic development that will vanquish the Taliban - they are racing against time to seize some measure of control before development sweeps them aside. Although news in the United States focuses almost exclusively on violence, some 85% of the violence is concentrated in only four provinces. This skewed reporting hides the real story about Afghanistan: there have been very significant improvements in economic performance in recent years, including:

  • GDP increased 22.5 % in 2009;

  • Exports have been jumping 30% a year thanks partly to targeted development efforts;

  • Cell phone penetration has gone from zero to 50%, with internet now broadly available;

  • The business climate, including ease of registration and of profit repatriation, has improved considerably;

  • By 2008, some 11,000 schools were providing education to 6.3 million children, a six-fold increase in six years.

  • Health care, though still deficient, has improved dramatically with 85% of the population now having access to primary health care.

There is a detailed Afghanistan economic strategy, originally published in 2008 as the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS). It was produced after extensive discussions within the Afghan government, so there is a reasonable basis for its claim to be reflective of the aspirations of the Afghan people. After the 2010 Kabul Conference, ANDS was expanded with a Prioritization and Implementation Plan; Volume 1 (PIP1) provides an overview of the implementation plan and Volume 2 (PIP2) provides program summaries and prioritization. Although general and rather idealized, ANDS does represent a comprehensive development plan. It is officially acknowledged by the United States, but has not figured significantly into the development of US strategy for Afghanistan.

Present US government efforts are often restricted. Funds from the Commanders Emergency Response Program are necessarily focused in contested areas and on short-term support to military operations. Efforts by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) are restricted by law from supporting individual business operations even though this is often what is most needed; providing operational support is also difficult. Any project is necessarily multidimensional and has to be set into the context of local needs and capabilities. Only then can the project result in a sustainable activity, preferably supporting local business efforts. A model program in this respect has been a Distributed Essential Services effort working with local officials to set priorities for and implement municipal development projects. A pilot program in Nangarhar Province has resulted in a range of individual efforts, such as local microhydro electrification projects, and demonstrated the potential for broad application in the country. The program is now being expanded as a Valued Sustainable Services concept. It helps people obtain services that they value and can sustain with resources they are likely to have and is based on three key enablers:

  • Telecommunications (radio, TV, cell phone, Internet, etc.), built on commercial infrastructures whenever possible;

  • Reliable Power, using distributed and renewable sources (solar, wind, microhydro, hybrid, etc.) where there is no power grid;

  • Knowledge-Sharing Support, such as reachback technical assistance.

The development of a real market economy is the only route to real stability. Infrastructure improvements can be very supportive of market development, although the large contracts often used in such projects can undermine local market development. Jobs are critical to economic expansion. This inherently requires a much energized effort in the agricultural sector - nowhere else is it possible for the Afghan economy to develop several million jobs. Poppies are an ideal crop in some areas; non-opium poppies or licensed pharmaceutical development could help address the illicit drug problem. Another job option is a proposed Afghanistan Development Corps (ADC), designed to provide immediate jobs and training for currently unemployed young males. But training is only useful if there is something to be trained for. So it is imperative that ADC efforts focus on projects which on completion will provide long-term jobs. So, for examples, construction projects can lead to the development of local companies producing construction materials; road developments can lead to the need for maintenance and logistic facilities; infrastructure development in mineral-rich areas can provide the basis for mining and processing operations. Systematic efforts at human capital development - education, vocational training, health care - are also important. They can not only improve the overall capabilities of the population, but can also provide other long-term jobs focused on continual human capital improvements.

Support to programs which provide funds at the grass roots level is critical, and a number of such programs are functioning:

  • The National Solidarity Program is widely recognized as efficient and effective. Since 2003, it has worked to develop the ability of Afghan communities to identify, plan, manage and monitor their own development projects. It promotes good local governance, involves rural communities in making the decisions which affect their own lives, and supports many of the poorest and vulnerable people.

  • An energized agricultural program by USAID has set aside funds for loans throughout the agricultural value chain, including farms, stores, leasing companies, and food processors. It has distributed vouchers to more than 735,000 farmers, providing direct access to improved agricultural inputs and set up an active veterinary program which has established more than 600 veterinary field units and administered more than 45 million vaccinations and treatments to livestock. Initial efforts need to leverage extension programs and focus on production improvements, where the fastest gains are achievable: better seeds, fertilizer, irrigation, and market access.

  • The Afghanistan Rural Finance Company encourages investment in the rural economy of Afghanistan, supporting economic and social development by serving the credit needs of small, medium and large enterprises in the rural cities and communities. It offers commercial debt capital to any business or individual that improves the local, regional or national economy by creating jobs and growing rural enterprises.

Foreign direct investment needs to play a much more active role. The number two development objective in the Afghanistan National Development Strategy is exploitation of the nation's extensive mineral wealth, an objective which can only be met with outside investment. The bid on an initial project on copper deposits at Aynak, was won by a Chinese company. Chinese, Indian and even Iranian companies are investing in Afghanistan. US companies, undoubtedly influenced by the uniformly negative media reporting, have been reluctant to get involved, although there is one Department of Defense program actively promoting such investment. Much more could be done to encourage US involvement. Modest investments in quiet areas can be made at relatively small cost and allow a company to establish a presence in this emerging market. More US government could also help US business to compete effectively in the current and post-conflict business environments.

Broader regional efforts are both important and difficult. None of the regional countries, including Russia and India, want to see Taliban control; China with its penchant to support repressive regimes may be an exception. Many of these countries provide their own models of repressive governments, including theocratic Iran, militarized Pakistan, and autocratic Central Asia and Russia. Democratic India struggles with its own internal dissension and badly unbalanced economic development. Several of these countries are playing a double game, subtly undermining US efforts and working to buttress their own position in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, as regional trading partners, cooperation is vital to the growing Afghan economy. Investment, as with the Chinese at Aynak, can help advance the individual agendas of these competitive regional countries, but can also provide a significant boost to Afghanistan's own development. Promoting transparency and openness is important. It is also important to encourage the Afghan government to protect itself from predatory economic practices by its neighbors, using, for example, tariff barriers to protect against external subsidies which undercut Afghanistan's own domestic production.

There is no more important challenge than significantly scaling back the military effort and re-focusing the civilian surge to areas where it can be most useful, quieter areas where real development is already taking place. These will be not just model provinces, but a widespread development in broad areas of the country. It is these areas that will demonstrate to the Afghan population and the wider global audience that it is indeed possible to bring a backward, Muslim area into the modern world. Such a shift will also allow the United States to re-focus its strategic posture to address the broad spectrum of military and non-military challenges now facing the nation.

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