Afghanistan is clearly in a crisis. The military drawdown has everyone uncertain of the future and reluctant to invest in it.
The Taliban appear confident that they will return to control -- they see time on their side, NATO will leave and they will be left behind. Yet much of the population would prefer neither the Taliban nor NATO. There is a deep-seated historical antipathy to foreign troops (not unique to Afghanistan), but there is also deep concern in regard to the Taliban who are seen fighting not to free Afghanistan but to dominate it. In ways they are as alien as NATO, responsible for widespread killing of fellow Muslims, including many women and children in indiscriminate bombings, and brutally suppressing traditional councils, ready to kill any one opposed to their own narrow views. But there is no alternative visible, a third way, a route to a new Afghanistan. So the Taliban by default remain an open possibility, but an alternative which would almost certainly lead not to peace but to civil war.
It may be that modernization would sweep the Taliban aside, but this is also imperiled by the drawdown which could have a catastrophic impact on the Afghan economy. It will have a very direct impact with a significant reduction in demand. Thousands of highly paid support jobs (e.g., translators) will disappear, as will service contracts. There will also be a marked reduction in demand for goods and materials, well illustrated by a current news article on the collapsing demand for boots, with the Afghan government itself now buying cheaper (and lower quality) Pakistani and Chinese boots. In addition to the direct economic impact, development support is also being curtailed instead of being ramped up to compensate for the military drawdown. And of course the riskier environment means less investment, and also less spending by wealthier Afghans who are putting off purchases or even leaving the country. Afghanistan is at a tipping point and needs to be nudged in a positive direction
What is now crystal clear is that the only people who can save Afghanistan are the Afghans themselves. The NATO military presence will help to stabilize the country for the immediate future, and international development support, though being reduced, is still significant. What is most needed is for the Afghans to develop their own concept of what a new Afghanistan could look like and how they could get there. With its prime location on trade routes, its significant mineral wealth, and its potential to revive former agricultural and light industrial sectors, Afghanistan could have a bright future. It is prosperity that can transcend ethnic and tribal differences and unite the country. But this will only happen if Afghans themselves become enthused with the prospects for their own country and take their future in their own hands, with grass roots insistence on good government and economic development. No one else can do it for them. Others, including in the diaspora, can encourage and support them, but only Afghans in Afghanistan can build a new Afghanistan.
The foundation has to be a concept developed by Afghans of what Afghanistan can be. An Afghan manifesto, a concise statement of what Afghanistan can become, building on mineral wealth properly used, on trade opportunities expanded, and on traditional agriculture and light industries revived. It would have to integrate Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage into a narrative outlining a new Afghanistan based on an Islam of peace, on respect for the worth of all individuals, and on responsive government at all levels incorporating traditional Afghan approaches to governance based on consensus and popular input. Any authentic Afghan manifesto has to be developed by Afghans in Afghanistan, striving to generate as broad an appeal as possible, integrating widely accepted core elements of Afghan culture, and providing positive examples of Afghan progress. It has to promote a sense of everyone working together to build a modern country and sharing its wealth. Above all, it has to be attractive to everyday Afghans and energize them to work for a positive future.
One model for development in Afghanistan is South Korea, another faraway, culturally distinct and war-torn nation. It was also an agrarian country with widespread illiteracy. Even though it had nowhere near the development attention now given to Afghanistan and lacked the mineral deposits that could power economic expansion, U.S. assistance helped transform it into a vibrant economic and democratic powerhouse. South Korean blossoming into a vibrant and independent nation provides a concrete example of what is possible.
Since broad acceptance is critical, it is also important to develop a rallying cry, a short and powerful few words that encapsulate the sense of the Afghan manifesto, something like "Afghanistan Arising" or perhaps a short historical reference to a person (say, Amanullah Khan) or event held in high esteem by all Afghans. A rallying cry has to have high appeal in Dari and Pashto, a phrase that can spread virally and be widely seen as an expression of Afghan aspirations.
An Afghan manifesto with a galvanizing rallying cry can be transformative only if it spreads throughout everyday Afghan society. In the past, such a comprehensive diffusion of an evolutionary concept would have been simply unthinkable. But this potential is arising at precisely the moment when there is an unprecedented expansion of connectivity within Afghanistan. Cell phone penetration has gone from essentially zero to over 50 percent, while there are now more than a million Internet users. Rapid development of a fiber optic network is expected to quadruple Internet users and increase cell penetration to 80 percent by 2016. Kabul will even soon be launching its first telecommunication satellite and providing 3G Internet capabilities.
This is set against the background of the Arab Spring, facilitated by this new connectivity and conclusively demonstrating the power of everyday citizens to force radical change. It also demonstrated the chaos and disarray that result when major changes happen without any sense of direction. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen are now all experiencing political turmoil fueled by a lack of direction from any agreed course of action. Although the shift in government in Iraq was from a totally different cause, political instability there is also fueled by the absence of an agreed national framework.
So the new connectivity in Afghanistan opens new opportunities. Coupled with an Afghan manifesto giving a sense of direction it can bring the nation into a bright future. Now is the Time to Build.