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Shifting Gears on Afghanistan

For fifteen years US support for Afghanistan has heavily emphasized military action and this has been clearly ineffective as vividly underscored by the recent Taliban massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif. Yet it seems we have learned nothing and now we are apparently considering sending an additional 5,000 troops to Afghanistan. Such an action would doubtless generate significant objection from an American populace strongly disenchanted with surges which have no clear concept of just what would actually be accomplished. Clearly, we need to do something different.

But what?

The core requirement is not to defeat the Taliban militarily, but conceptually; to focus not on beating the opponent down but on building the country up, inviting the opponents to join in a mutually profitable effort. As in any insurgency, the focus has to be to win not battles, but rather hearts and minds. Ultimately, what is important is not that Afghans think well of us, but of themselves and work to build a stable, inclusive and tolerant society. We need to show Afghans, and the world, an alternative, a different route that could get Afghans excited about their own future and working to make it happen.

America is actually good at doing this, when it focuses on it, as demonstrated in post-war Germany and Japan, and then in South Korea; another war-torn, illiterate country with minimal resources was turned into an economic powerhouse. Afghanistan could do the same, particularly since it has a wide range of natural resources and a long history of quality agricultural production valued throughout the region.

Obviously, the whole country cannot be changed at once. But specific regions could. Balkh province represents one such opportunity. Before the massacre it had been reasonably quiet and has strong local leadership and a multi-ethnic population. It also has good commercial potential with its agricultural base famous for cashmere, wool, wheat, vegetables and cotton; some dormant light industry, and a rail connection into adjacent Uzbekistan that could support a strong trade effort.

The recent massacre could be a turning point, an incident that vividly drives home to local Afghans the need to stand up and move forward, to choose between waiting to be caught in a deluge or standing up and working together for a new life. What is most needed is for leaders to light a way forward. If they are to orchestrate a burst of economic activity, they need to form their orchestra, a collection of complimentary government, commercial and civic organizations. There has to be some central coordination group, working not to promote a few specific projects, but a whole cluster of mutually supportive efforts.

Such a group, a Balkh Development Council, would include representatives of the provincial and national governments, as well as leaders of local business organizations and civic groups dedicated to education, health, and individual development. The local Community Development Council of the national Citizens’ Charter would have to be a central element in this effort. And against a background of widespread corruption in Afghanistan, it is critical that the activities of any council would be open and transparent, allowing both participants and local citizens to track the progress of any specific projects. Tied with Balkh's long history of cultural and commercial achievements, a council could also promote a positive Islamic view based on local customs and traditions. Afghan Islamic scholars now regularly stress that Islam teaches patience, peace and tolerance and in turn call on insurgents to denounce violence and stop the ongoing bloodshed. Such ideas can form an essential framework for a positive view of the future. A council can identify specific business and cultural opportunities and systematically advertise investment opportunities. While it can be difficult to make a good case for an individual investment project, having a variety of interactive projects can make for much more attractive offerings.

Collectively such efforts can provide the most important factor: a reason for Afghans to fight for their own future, both literally and figuratively.

Of course such an effort does not have to begin in Balkh, but it has to begin somewhere. Other centers could also be attractive, including Herat, Bamiyan, Kabul New City, Kandahar and Jalalabad. And while actions in one of them could spark a new national outlook, it also does not have to originate in only one location; several locations could compete to be the brightest spark showing a road to a new Afghanistan, exchanging information and experiences. The essential element is that the effort not focus on a few specific projects, but on a whole cluster of interactive and mutually supportive projects, a cluster that can bring the entire community working together toward a new future and setting an example for the entire nation.

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