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Afghanistan is on the verge of blossoming into a modern nation and sweeping the Taliban aside, though almost no one believes this. The central question is, can economic development tip Afghanistan toward growth and away from anarchy? Positive models are Germany and Japan, both crushed by war but supported by the United States in rebuilding into modern democratic nations. South Korea is an even more pertinent example - it was not rebuilt, but built. Also a war torn, miserably poor, agrarian country, with US help it has become an economic powerhouse and a vibrant democracy. In all these cases, the United States helped nations build themselves, with no effort to establish a lasting hegemony; all three are now unquestioned as independent nations.

For this to happen with Afghanistan, three interrelated efforts have to move forward: economic development, Afghan awakening, and discrediting the Taliban.

Economic Development:

Neither of the other efforts can move forward without a solid base of economic development. The major effort in the country has been badly misplaced. It has emphasized a heavy military effort - very costly in terms of both blood and resources - in the most difficult areas of the country, while intentionally minimizing resources for development in the quieter areas. Compounding the problem is the fact that available civilian support has been concentrated in areas of poor security, where it is almost impossible to function effectively. This effort has also overemphasized the role of the central government at the expense of traditional regional power centers, exacerbating a sense of individual powerlessness, especially with the experience of corrupt elections. There is a critical need to shift resources, applying some of the dividend from military reductions to development efforts, empowering effective district and provincial leaders, demonstrating the potential for real growth at the grass roots level, and providing a sense of individual contribution to local government.

  • A comprehensive connectivity effort is being developed to provide an internet access web tying together the full range of development efforts nationwide. Community connectivity centers would facilitate transparency (and so minimize corruption) and provide resources for education, health, business development, agriculture, and commerce.

  • Jobs are the most central need and agriculture is the most inclusive sector, the place where employment efforts must be centered. Development must build on successful efforts, like the training and advising programs of the Global Partnership for Afghanistan which works with rural Afghans to create farm businesses. The connectivity effort could provide the backbone for critical agriculture extension services and help integrate Afghan Development Corps (ADC) programs to provide both jobs and training for expansion of agriculture and associated light industry (e.g., flour milling, edible oil processing, textiles). This would initially focus in the quieter areas of the country and emphasize revitalizing formerly productive agricultural areas.

  • Mining and minerals can provide another large economic boost, and mineral resources in the ground could be used as collateral to fund initial development work and as resources to attract direct investment. The initial large mining contract, at Aynak, included provisions for local purchasing and development, but little has happened on this. So it is important that future contracts be much more specific on requirements for up front development and job creation. ADC approaches, funded using minerals as collateral, could be very helpful, building infrastructure and training Afghans for the jobs that the development would bring.

  • A regional transport network reinvigorating the historical Silk Road trade routes connecting China with Western Europe is an ambitious $7 billion project. Developing the Afghan segment of this network could provide a significant boost to the Afghan economy, as well as integrating it better with regional efforts, such as expanding the Pakistani port at Gwadar. It would also be another ideal project area for the ADC as it would be developing the infrastructure which would subsequently support many jobs.

  • Urban development is also coming to Afghanistan. An ambitious New Kabul City project will be home to an estimated 1.5 million people. The 4.5 million people now living in the city, initially built for 700,000, are projected to increase to about 7 million in 15 years. The new project will create 500,000 jobs: 100,000 in agriculture, 100,000 in industry and 300,000 in service and other sectors. The first phase will provide 80,000 housing units for 400,000 people with construction starting as early as next year.

  • Investment is a key to Afghan development and there are already several programs working at the grass roots level, in particular the highly regarded National Solidarity Program (now operating in some 28,000 villages and managed by local councils), an Afghanistan Vouchers for Increased Productive Agriculture (AVIPA) program focusing on rural family farm production; and a successful Valued Sustainable Services effort demonstrating local village development in Nangarhar Province. This has to be supplemented by increased Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The US Department of Commerce is sponsoring several programs encouraging US companies to make small initial investments to get in on the ground floor of future broad development. These efforts need to be significantly expanded, as with joint venture public-private partnerships. Both the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the World Bank's Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency provide risk insurance. A number of organizations provide financing to supplement investment, including the Asian Development Bank, USAID's Development Credit Authority and the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency.

  • Education and health are critical enablers of development. Widespread efforts in both these areas include government programs, NATO training programs, development assistance and dozens of efforts by individual non-governmental organizations (NGOs). All of these efforts would be significantly aided by the connectivity effort, as well as by the training aspects of the ADC.

  • Another attractive model is provided by the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) Act which originally supported Poland and Hungary as they were transitioning to market economies. The SEED program eventually expanded to include ten countries within the former Soviet sphere of influence and provided significant economic assistance at little cost to US taxpayers. The Polish program, for example, invested in 50 medium size companies, started a small business loan program and established a mortgage bank. It was the first foreign assistance program in history to return a significant amount of money to the U.S. Treasury.

But economic development is only the first step. Beyond this, there is a much more basic psychological challenge, a battle for brains: how to promote a sense of Afghan awakening while undermining Taliban intimidation. Widespread development efforts will also reinforce the message that the United States is determined to provide long term assistance to Afghanistan.

Afghan Awakening

The most critical factor is for the Afghans themselves to want to see their nation blossom. Ten years of Western effort have been very discouraging. Initial enthusiasm when the Taliban government was vanquished rapidly dissipated. The prevailing US government attitude was "we don't do nation building," despite a very successful history of nation building and the clear need for development if Afghanistan were to become a stable country. The functioning government had been destroyed and the subsequent shift of focus (and resources) to Iraq soon led to widespread disillusionment. The following huge flow of military resources brought corruption and poor governance. This exacerbated the situation and undermined the opportunities for individuals to influence government operations, but brought only minimal economic growth. Added to this is the current uncertainty associated with a 2014 date for US troop withdrawal. To reverse this sense of political impotence and bleak economic prospects, two elements are necessary: demonstrated development and effective leadership.

  • Demonstrated development has to provide widespread and visible economic improvements, projects that can be seen and publicized, projects that come with real expectations of continuing development, projects that can give a sense of a vibrant future. This is the news that Afghans have to see and hear on television, on radio, in the papers and in the local informal networks. Widespread training programs can insure that such development actually touches the lives of a large number of Afghans, helps to build strong communities, and provides real incentives to the developing security forces.

  • Effective leadership is even more important. Leadership has to provide Afghans a sense of ownership of their own society, a sense that the actions of individuals can actually promote change. This is lacking, though not totally absent at top government levels, but especially needs to be encouraged at provincial and district level where there is direct impact on the lives of everyday Afghans. The connectivity effort can help increase transparency at this level, reducing corruption and encouraging local leaders to be responsive to local demands. The Arab Spring is vividly demonstrating the power of individual citizens and their ability to insist on responsive governments. This is exactly the attitude that needs to be promoted in Afghanistan, supporting local leaders who are responsive to their constituencies, putting local pressure on those leaders who are not, and insisting that elections be conducted fairly. Real change will come from the bottom up as Afghans take charge of their own destiny, not from the top down. Connectivity is critical to the quality of citizenship. 2014 will be not only a year of military transition, but a year of political transition - new national leaders will be elected and a new basis for Afghan development will be put in place. It is not a year to be dreaded, but a year to be looked forward to.

Afghans want neither the Taliban nor NATO, but have been shown little of any alternatives. They need to develop an expectation of vibrant Afghan development, assisted by the United States and its allies, but directed by Afghans for Afghans - a sense of how Afghans can take charge of their own destiny, building better lives for themselves and at the same time stabilizing the nation. The Afghanistan National Development Strategy, supplemented with Prioritization and Implementation Plans (Volume 1 and Volume 2) and a more recent National Business Agenda provide Afghan perspectives on what an independent Afghanistan would look like. Translating them into visible efforts at the grass roots level in the quieter areas of the country can make these areas flourish, letting prosperity attract the more backward areas instead of trying to force them into modernization.

Afghan leaders at all levels need to promote this effort with a dynamic, straightforward slogan that can stick in people's minds and motivate them to join in a collective effort to transform their country. One such slogan could be "Sabaoon" - a Pushto word meaning the crack of dawn, signifying hope; it is being used in Pakistan for a school rehabilitating former suicide bombers, but it could just as easily be used for hope in rehabilitating a nation. Of course, it has to be Afghans who develop any such slogan(s), but they must embody a sense of looking forward to a bright future, and then they need to be constantly evoked by leaders to inspire everyday Afghans.

A new sense of transformation is also important for everyday US citizens, to see that the efforts in Afghanistan are not throwing resources and lives into a black hole, but are actually contributing to the development of a new Afghanistan. Hundreds of individual US efforts are already supporting Afghan development, but most of them are low visibility efforts which have limited impact on broader public opinion. Some efforts, though, actively promote support for Afghanistan. A couple notable examples are the Hayward-Ghazni Sister City program and Afghan Education for a Better Tomorrow which sponsors both an Annual Afghan Arts and Culture Festival on the Washington National Mall and a Rebuild Afghanistan Summit aimed at mobilizing local communities to help improve the lives of the people in Afghanistan. Now is the time to boost all these efforts and use them to provide a wider public awareness of the possibilities developing in Afghanistan.

Discrediting the Taliban

The Taliban are doing a good job of discrediting themselves. Although they rail against alien influences, their own ideology is decidedly alien to the broad sweep of Afghan culture. They themselves recognize that in many ways they are out of step with Afghan society. And a US shift from military to development efforts undercuts their core grievance on the presence of foreign troops. Widespread, visible improvements would intensify this.

Just this last month, the Taliban began touting a plan to boost the Afghan economy with investments in the mining and energy sectors. Of course they did not mention that a major reason for the dismal state of the Afghan economy is the systematic destruction of economic assets that they themselves carried out during their time in power. The announcement is a direct acknowledgment of the importance of economic development to Afghans, but Afghans can hardly put much credence in Taliban talk of future investments. Taliban economic development is a blatant oxymoron and leaves them open to well-deserved mockery, especially if there is a visible surge of development efforts in the time immediately ahead. The Taliban are totally incapable of carrying out the economic development they are now talking of.

The Taliban systematically break Islamic norms that they claim to respect. For example, rules in the Layeha, their own Code of Conduct, calling for the protection of civilian lives and property are often not heeded or are intentionally violated. When the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported that most civilian casualties were due to insurgent attacks and criticized the Taliban for violating their own Code, it hit a raw nerve. The Taliban reacted strongly, with denial, indignation and a call for the setting up of a joint commission on civilian casualties. But the most recent report attributes 80% of civilian casualties to the insurgents, many of them to children used as suicide bombers.

Opium production is an area where Taliban hypocrisy is at a peak. When they controlled the government, they roundly denounced the opium trade as totally alien to Islamic norms. Now they are promoting it, even forcing farmers to plant opium crops and actively opposing efforts to develop alternative crops.

Although Islam does not have a central authority, Taliban actions conflict sharply with both traditional Afghan practices and mainstream Islamic scholarship. In fact, one Marine unit has been addressing the Taliban challenge by teaching locals to read the Koran and assess for themselves how Taliban actions violate Islamic norms. This is also an area where words can be important. A few negative religious words systematically and continuously applied to the Taliban can help undermine their claim to Islamic legitimacy.

Everyday Afghans have shown themselves to be increasingly resistant to Taliban intimidation. In one village, angry residents stoned to death a local Taliban commander and his bodyguard after the militants killed a 60-year-old man accused of aiding the government. The Taliban are also well aware that a population hostile to them can greatly complicate their efforts. Although many Afghans are illiterate, cell phone penetration is now over 50% and cell phones can destroy the Taliban ability to move quietly. Because of this, they have recently made a determined effort to shut down cell phone use in disputed Helmand Province. This is much more difficult in the less disputed areas and becomes more complicated as cell phone coverage continues to increase and new generation equipment spreads, partly thanks to the connectivity effort. The more that modernization spreads, the more it can overwhelm the Taliban ability to obstruct development and the more local populations will be able to resist their intimidation by effective grass roots reporting of Taliban activity.


It is not military action but development which will sweep the Taliban aside. As the US military draws down, it is imperative to shift some portion of the resources saved into development support, concentrated at the grass roots level. Several current proposals can be instrumental in bringing development into reality, visibly moving Afghanistan toward modernization: a New Silk Road transit network, a comprehensive connectivity effort, and a widespread Afghan Development Corps (ADC). It is imperative to have results which can be trumpeted while systematically mocking Taliban economic declarations and publicizing their disregard of traditional Islamic norms. A non-military approach is often taken to mean negotiations with the Taliban. What it needs to mean is transcending the Taliban, making them irrelevant as Afghanistan blossoms into a modern nation.

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