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Afghanistan: Time to Build

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You can always count on Americans to do the right
thing -- after they've tried everything else.

Winston Churchill
[2 Jun 11; Revision A, 4 June 11]

It is disgraceful that after ten years of U.S. effort, thousands of lives, and perhaps a trillion dollars of resources, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The overall effort has been dismal in terms of costs versus results. The initial military effort to rout the Taliban was excellent, and everything has gone downhill since. The subsequent economy of force operation (while our attention shifted to Iraq), avoidance of any meaningful development effort ("we don't do nation building"), and an over-reliance on Presidential government at the expense of institution-building were followed by an increasing emphasis on military operations, even though it was widely recognized that there could not be a military solution.

Far too much effort has gone into fighting in the most backward, fundamentalist and xenophobic part of the country. This has required a massive logistics effort and fueled a contract economy which easily overwhelms modest efforts to promote a real market economy. The resulting corruption and misused assets undermine the entire effort regionally. The military effort is inherently destructive and builds a legacy of bitterness and enmity. Just days ago, an errant airstrike apparently killed 14 innocent people. Only a couple weeks earlier, a dozen people were killed when German soldiers fired on demonstrators at a funeral for four Afghans (including two women) killed in a night raid. The futility and lasting negative impact of military operations are well illustrated by recent bitter fighting that killed seven U.S. troops and more than 60 “Taliban” fighters. The loss of seven U.S. 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. It takes an awful lot of development effort to make up for 60 lives. Not surprisingly, it is these sort of effects that have led President Karzai to demand restrictions on operations involving civilians. But he is hardly alone in this distress; these effects have also led the former British ambassador to characterize the current efforts as profoundly wrong.

Now the death of Osama bin Laden has basically achieved the supposed objective of fighting in Afghanistan - eliminating its potential as an al Qaeda base. This has naturally spurred demands for a significantly reduced U.S. role along with a fresh assessment of objectives. Just last week, the House of Representatives narrowly defeated an amendment requiring the President to establish a timeline for the transition of US military operations to the government of Afghanistan -- a clear indicator of declining political support for operations there. Resource constraints, intensified by an economic recession and recent natural catastrophes, provide a strong sense of urgency on the need to realign our efforts. We need to look beyond the military. In George Clemenceau's words, “War is much too important a thing to be left to the generals.” Without a renewed sense of purpose set in a long-term assessment of interests, a collapsing military effort will collapse everything else around it, leaving a legacy of death, destruction, and corruption. The prospect of rapid, major military reductions adds a sense of urgency to realigning the overall approach.

It is time to shift from battering down opponents to working to convince them that they can build better lives for themselves and at the same time stabilize the nation. Promoting stability in weak states is the core strategic challenge for the XXI Century and Afghanistan, for better or worse, has become the test case. It can provide a positive example for developing nations in general and for the Muslim World in particular of how the United States can promote stability in failing states, or it can demonstrate that the United States is simply incapable of providing such leadership.

There must be a new vision of what Afghanistan can be. It needs to leave behind 40 years of fighting and look forward to building a new, vibrant nation. It is Time to Build. The key challenge is to get Afghans enthused about their own prospects and determined to make change happen. 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 Afghanistan could become. 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. Everyday Afghans, empowered at the village level, can fight corruption from the ground up. Indeed, that is the lesson of the ongoing turmoil in the Arab world. Although many Afghans are illiterate, cell phone penetration is now over 50% and the younger and more literate Afghans can take charge of their own destiny. Concerted local efforts can both inoculate an area against Taliban activity and put pressure on local leaders to be more responsive and supportive. The Taliban are well aware of the potential for cell phones to complicate their efforts and recently made a determined effort to shut down cell phone use in disputed Helmand Province, something that would be much more difficult in the less disputed areas.

There are widespread opportunities that Afghanistan can take advantage of to build such strong and prosperous local economies, including energizing the traditional Silk Road trade network, using the nation's mineral wealth to support economic development, putting neglected agricultural areas back into production at a time when world food resources are under increasing pressure, and restoring traditional handicraft production, especially hand-woven carpets. By now, the quieter areas of the country should be economic showcases; instead they remain mired in backwardness.

There has been a broad recognition that the military effort is inadequate and that there needs to be much more development effort. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has stressed that, "Civilian leadership in addressing conflict and instability also depends on marshaling and leveraging the varied assets of the U.S. government as a whole." This Whole of Government approach was reflected in a "civilian surge" of roughly 1,000 specialists into Afghanistan in 2009. Supposed to boost development efforts, it proved to be difficult to implement. Civilian departments simply did not have many specialists available or willing to volunteer for Afghan assignments. Aside from the manpower questions, there were two major shortcomings. First, many of the specialists were integrated with military advisors. Their interaction with locals was significantly constrained; projects were often not integrated into larger efforts and had a short-term focus. This was particularly problematical for agricultural specialists because few such projects could produce rapid results. The other problem was simply size. Even though the surge represented a significant increase over previous civilian support levels, it was still a only small fraction of the total effort and heavily concentrated in the most difficult areas of the country.

It is Time to Build, time to move beyond the military effort with a greatly expanded effort to provide maximum support to the grassroots level, small projects widely distributed, with a focus in the quieter areas of the country where the population is supportive of foreign assistance. There are already a number of programs operating at the grass roots level, including Afghan government programs which could be expanded as part of a Time to Build effort. These include 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 Distributed Essential Services effort demonstrating local village development in Nangarhar Province. A Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP) also focuses on grassroots efforts, but is directly tied to military efforts by local commanders. It can provide quick reaction funds for smaller projects, but generally in a more fragmented approach that is relatively insensitive to long-term objectives. Other potentially very helpful programs have been proposed, such as an Afghanistan Development Corps, based on the U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s would provide initial jobs and training to young Afghans and put them to work essentially helping to build the facilities and infrastructure which would provide them future jobs. A similar Cash-for-Work initiative proposed by Jobs for Afghans which would parallel and support the National Solidarity Program. A nascent Connectivity to Enhance Global Human Security undertaking, setting up community internet points around the country, can help tie all these efforts together and make them more effective.

The development experience of an on-going community-based effort conducted by the U.S. Agency of International Development in Mindinao, an area of the Philippines long wracked by an Islamist insurgency, provides some perspective. In particular, this effort highlights the importance of having local people at the project interface. Obviously having U.S. specialists for short tours of duty complicates the effort and underlines the importance of developing local staff. The Whole of Government approach is simply inadequate. Even now it cannot provide sufficient manpower for the task at hand. More importantly, it does not specifically aid the development of new business, the only real change that can energize the nation.

One useful approach could be the establishment of enterprise development funds, which were very successful in Central Europe. Between 1989 and 1993, the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) Act provided more than $136 million for economic restructuring and private sector development. The enterprise funds it supported offered loans, equity capital, and technical assistance to promote private-sector development. Managed by independent boards, the cost was very low as loan repayments eventually covered almost all the initial expenses. Helpful as they can be, such funds cannot begin to provide the scope of investment needed to make the nation flourish; only extensive foreign direct investment has the potential to do this. While there are obvious risks to investing in Afghanistan, there are also attractive opportunities to get in on the ground floor of a new developing economy. The Afghan government recognizes the importance of such efforts and its Afghanistan Investment Support Agency actively promotes foreign investment. There has also been one significant U.S. government effort on these lines, the Task Force for Business Stability Operations (TFBSO). Set up by default in the Department of Defense (in 2006, there was no significant Whole of Government effort), the task force has focused on reinvigorating industrial production. It has actively introduced numerous major U.S. businesses to commercial opportunities in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, as the Whole of Government approach has taken hold, there is now a major push to transfer it out of the Department of Defense to a more appropriate civilian agency. While this makes bureaucratic sense, it would obviously mean a major disruption for the effort.

At any rate, the task force is only acting as a facilitator for what must be the major approach -- a Whole of Nation approach. If foreign direct investment is a key, this simply can only be provided by the private sector. More involvement by organizations such as the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) is necessary to highlight widespread commercial opportunities in Afghanistan and assist businesses in entering the field.

Another active element in the overall effort is the widespread and typically unnoticed activity by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Many of these organizations actively support specific developmental efforts in Afghanistan, often in education or health care. Representative of the hundreds of such individual efforts are the programs of Sister Cities International, the health programs of Mountain2Mountain (which links mountain towns in Afghanistan and Colorado), and International Relief and Development (IRD) which implements many U.S. government programs in infrastructure and agriculture.

The more that Afghanistan moves toward being a stable, prosperous nation, the more important the non-government actors will become. The Whole of Nation effort is critical to nation building in Afghanistan. And the United States does indeed do nation building, and does it well. Both Germany and Japan are prime examples. Our model for nation building 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. U.S. 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.

More recently as Soviet domination collapsed, the United States helped move Poland and Hungary into the modern world, promoting a resurgence of commercial development which has transformed both these countries. Both of them also have a presence in Afghanistan. A significant development contribution they can make is simply spreading the world on how development supported by the West in general and the United States in particular transformed their own nations.

The United States is now forced to do what it should have done in the first place, to build in quieter areas rather than destroying in more difficult areas. The overall military effort has been very disappointing. The positive results it has achieved are overshadowed by the costs in resources and in lives, both NATO and Afghan. Well-intentioned efforts have spread enmity throughout the Muslim world, corrupted the Afghan government, forced accommodation with unsavory governments in Central Asia and Pakistan, taught the Afghans that it is outsiders who are responsible for transforming their country, and brought the U.S. public to the brink of rejecting the entire effort in Afghanistan. It is time to show the Afghans how they can rebuild their own country, with Western and U.S. assistance and support. And it is time to show Americans that Afghanistan is not a black hole that eats people and resources, but a backward country struggling to throw off medieval legacies and come into the modern world. The single most important element is to get all stakeholders enthused about the possibilities, to give them a rallying point, a concept that looks forward, provides both encouragement and hope.

It is Time to Build.

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