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TIPPING AFGHANISTAN: Shifting Gears in the Current Struggle

Tipping points are those times when a gradual accumulation of small changes results in a sudden major shift in a balance; restoration of the prior equilibrium may be very difficult or even impossible. Such looming shifts are typically not apparent as small changes accumulate and can come as a surprise, catching people ill prepared to address the sudden shift. Natural tipping points can result from a mechanical accumulation of changes, though human activity may influence the timing or outcome. So, for example, one analysis of Arctic warming warns of a possible sudden disruption of the Gulf Stream with a catastrophic impact on Europe.

Social tipping points are even more complex as mass responses are interactive, with many small changes eliciting counteractions, greatly complicating any ongoing assessments of possible sudden shifts. Numerous analyses of the Afghanistan situation have raised concerns over tipping points. One noted Afghanistan specialist, Barnett Rubin, concluded that Afghanistan “stepped back from a tipping point” in 2006 when NATO troops turned back a frontal offensive by the Taliban. A more recent analysis, At the Tipping Point in Afghanistan?, addresses a wide variety of issues. It recognizes considerable progress as well as daunting challenges, concluding that “questions remain as to whether micro-level efforts at improving local governance and building relationships with communities can positively influence Afghanistan’s broader national problems, and whether progress can be sustained after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.” Similarly, an analysis by a Canadian group, Afghanistan: Transition Under Threat, sees Afghanistan's post-conflict transition as more uncertain than ever. Most of these analyses see a tipping point in terms of some sort of collapse of the current effort and a return of Taliban control.

Tipping points, though, can go either way. Lorelei Kelly acknowledges that any degree of success in Afghanistan is going to take a patient and long-term social strategy. Reflecting the complexity of the situation, another analysis addresses how “once relatively secure northern provinces like Kunduz, Nangarhar, Takhar, and parts of Badakhshan are reaching their own tipping points,” underlining the fact that Afghanistan is in many ways fragmented and local situations can vary widely. It is not surprising that a senior advisor can comment that he is “not to be a big fan of tipping point models -- of radical change in momentum. Sometimes it happens...[but]...I think what eventually turns the course of the war and causes violence statistics, for example, to come down is the provision of enough security in enough of the country, so that gradually the insurgents have a harder and harder time operating.”

Afghanistan indeed is at a tipping point. The high cost in blood and treasure and the uncertain results are severely undermining support for operations there. The American public - the ultimate source of support – sees Afghanistan as a black hole that only eats people and resources. The Taliban strive for a tipping point where government control collapses in the face of unremitting pressure. Military efforts are preventing that, but there is widespread concern that this is only delaying the inevitable. There is a race going on, with the Taliban trying to seize as much control as they can before modernization sweeps them aside. Afghanistan sits not on the edge of a cliff, but on a ridge line. Can the Taliban regain enough momentum to push the country to the dark side, or can positive forces with US assistance move the nation to the bright side? Afghanistan can tip either way.

There are already areas where it is difficult for the Taliban to operate, where visible local economic improvements energize the local population to work at building new lives. This is the future of Afghanistan. Flourishing areas set an example and show the possibilities of real economic development where a spirit of modernization can take hold of the nation and promote a new sense of a bright future. But at the moment there is no vision for Afghanistan as a whole, no compelling narrative of its potential. An Afghanistan National Development Strategy provides a starting point for such a narrative, but it needs to be put into words that the Afghan people – and the American people – can appreciate. Just as it was the American Dream which energized American development, there needs to be an Afghan Dream to energize Afghan development, to provide the spark that will fire Afghan imagination, Afghan aspirations, Afghan passion for change. And like watching a nondescript bud transform into a beautiful flower, Afghanistan can blossom. These two symbols – a spark and a blossom – are what can tip Afghanistan to the bright side.

News reporting on Afghanistan is abysmal, focusing almost exclusively on bombs, bullet, bodies, blasts and other assorted mayhem. But the violence is concentrated in only four provinces; skewed reporting hides the real story about Afghanistan: there have been very significant improvements in economic performance in recent years. The Gross Domestic Product increased 22.5 % in 2009, while 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 infant mortality rate fell by a third, life expectancy inched upward and school enrollment skyrocketed from 1.1 million students in 2001 to 5.7 million students in 2008 -- a third of whom were girls. Health care, though still deficient, has improved dramatically with 85% of the population now having access to primary health care.

Many of the elements of a transformative development program are already in place: a National Solidarity Program, widely recognized as efficient and effective; an Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, focused on attracting industrial investment; an active Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development promoting responsible social and financial growth; agricultural development efforts including an Afghanistan Vouchers for Increased Productive Agriculture (AVIPA) program focusing on rural family farm production; a successful Distributed Essential Services effort demonstrating local village development in Nangahar Province; and a number of communications efforts such as a Connectivity to Enhance Global Human Securityundertaking to set up community internet points around the country. The extent of Afghanistan's mineral wealth is only now being appraised; it has the potential to support extensive improvements, such as a comprehensive Silk Road trade network and a proposed Afghanistan Development Corps,
based on the US Civilian Conservation Corps.

Our model for nation building needs to be South Korea, another faraway, culturally distinct and war torn nation. It was also an agrarian country with widespread illiteracy. Even though it had no where 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. US troops have now been there for sixty years without any significant public objection. A wider awareness of the South Korean blossoming can help inspire a similar development in Afghanistan, providing a concrete example of what is possible. There is also a parallel dark world, with North Korea providing a concrete example of bitter results when thugs run a country.

It is true that the effort in South Korea took place after a war was over – as were also the earlier cases with Europe and Japan – but even now most of Afghanistan is not really a war zone. According to one very recent evaluation, half of the violence in Afghanistan takes place in only 9 of its nearly 400 districts. Over most of the country, the challenge is not military, but a question of policing, of suppressing local thugs. It is the type of requirement that an active local population can certainly manage.

Afghanistan has relied on government-to-government programs to spur its economic development. Afghans have essentially been told, some one else will transform your country. This needs to shift to a narrative that individual Afghans can and will transform their own country, and the United States will help. Major infrastructure development has to come from the top down, but real business development comes from the bottom up. The current turmoil in the Middle East shows the power of transformation from the grass roots up, rather than the top down. This is the force that needs to be mobilized to build a new Afghanistan. While years of inattention, weak governance and wavering decisions have undermined local confidence, ongoing development efforts are bringing a new Afghanistan into focus, an Afghanistan blossoming into the XXI Century. It is commercial development that can tip this in a positive direction.

Companies will, of course, make decisions based on their own economic evaluations. Risks in Afghanistan are certainly seen as high because of the skewed reporting. So it has to be made clear to the business community that risks in many areas are modest and that there is a potential for significant long-term profit; now is the time to seize the opportunity and establish an early presence. Working with Afghan partners, an outside company can begin operations in a wide range of emerging sectors such as distributed power generation; putting neglected agricultural land back into production and building associated light industries; mining widespread mineral resources; invigorating traditional industries such as carpet weaving, stone cutting, and trading; and providing transit, logistic, and hospitality services on major regional transport routes. An initial modest investment is an opportunity to get a foot in the door, establish a presence, and be in a position to take advantage of developing opportunities. In the words of one senior US official, “Afghanistan is not a failure. She is an opportunity.”

Government programs provide major support for such involvement, particularly the The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) providing direct loans and risk insurance for private investment, and the Ex-Im Bank, especially a new Global Access program, offering financing and risk insurance for exports of US capital goods and services.

Now the military effort is focused in the most difficult part of the country, a deeply fundamentalist region historically hostile to armed foreigners. Although many residents there are wary of Taliban control, they are also skeptical of government and US efforts to establish security. While some local Taliban doubtless act out of religious fervor, many simply want to be on the winning side, or want to have some reliable income, or just have a visceral antipathy to outsiders. One of the major failings of the military emphasis in the south is the failure to protect other areas where significant improvements are possible; indeed, where they are actually taking place. NATO efforts need to focus not on victory, but on growth, building prosperity in Afghanistan province by province. One of the encouraging aspects of the situation is a systematic program to attract locals into the police and into village and district government. Now a new Afghan Local Police force draws recruits from their own communities. Local development is the critical factor. Stable areas with good local government will take responsibility for their own security. It is unfriendly territory for the Taliban if local residents report outsiders and can depend on local forces to respond. Foreign forces can help, but it is the local forces that are critical to suppress any clandestine Taliban presence.

Although civilian casualties, a major point of contention, are now largely the direct result of Taliban actions, active military operations are an underlying cause. It is clear that Afghanistan is a very complex situation and any comprehensive resolution in either direction is unlikely in the near future. The challenge for NATO is how to promote a situation in which the insurgents indeed have a harder and harder time operating while avoiding the open ended cost of an unpopular military commitment.

With broad discussion on budgets and the cost of Afghanistan, now is a very opportune time to offer non-military alternatives, to shift the focus from military operations to development efforts. What will vanquish the Taliban is not military operations but development, moving Afghanistan into the modern world. Although the Taliban like to stress that they will remain long after NATO is gone, time is not on their side. But modernization will not happen all at once, nor uniformly across the country. NATO must focus its efforts where it can do the most good, working where the local population wants us, building on achievements. Instead we are now focused on military operations in the most fundamentalist and backward part of the country. It is the area most costly to operate in, where outsized logistic requirements inevitably lead to corruption and economic distortions, undermining the very effort they are supposed to support. The population is at best widely skeptical of Western intentions and staying power. The news provides a steady stream of reminders of the futility of many of these operations. A recent article, for example, focused on one battalion locked in what the commander concluded was an endless war for an irrelevant valley. Recent bitter fighting 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.”

Tipping Afghanistan in a positive direction requires a significant deemphasis of military operations and a significant reemphasis on economic development in areas where NATO forces are welcomed. It is the blossoming of such areas that will undermine any residual Taliban claim to legitimacy. NATO efforts need to focus not on victory, but on growth, building prosperity in Afghanistan province by province. There needs to be a shift not only in operations, but in reporting and publicity, a new focus on spreading the word of development and of the South Korean parallel, on getting individual Afghans enthused about their own economic potential, demonstrating that NATO forces are actively supporting Afghan development in accordance with their own priorities.

A burgeoning Afghan economy can sweep the Taliban aside in a wave of modernization, spreading prosperity with a new sense of possibilities. Countries and companies which establish an early presence will be in a position to benefit the most from this economic expansion. An active Afghan development program could demonstrate the positive impact of grass roots empowerment and become a model not only for the Muslim World, but for the entire spectrum of developing nations – the core strategic challenge for the XXI Century.

Comments (1)

Bravo, Ed, a tour de fource! One observation:

"The Taliban strive for a tipping point where government control collapses in the face of unremitting pressure. Military efforts are preventing that, but there is widespread concern that this is only delaying the inevitable."

I doubt military efforts are preventing much of anything, except perhaps in the short run. In the long run, as the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, chaired by Rep. John Tierney, has shown conclusively in the recent report "Warlord Inc.," the military side is strengthening the very elements which would plunge Afghanistan into civil war if they could. You note this well when you say:

"Instead we are now focused on military operations in the most fundamentalist and backward part of the country. It is the area most costly to operate in, where outsized logistic requirements inevitably lead to corruption and economic distortions, undermining the very effort they are supposed to support."

Those "logistic requirements," of course, are the moving of military supply convoys across thousands of miles of road "owned" by warlords and insurgents whom Pentagon contractors must pay to not attack them, from $500 top $3,000 per truck in 100 or 200-truck convoys. Then they turn around and buy ammo and explosives for IEDs, and hire fighters who can find no other job.

"US Taxpayer Dollars Killing American Troops in Afghanistan "

Let's hope your strategies are implemented now that Congress may be looking for a way out and better ways to spend $100 billion a year.

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