Afghanistan stands at a fork in the road. 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.
But tipping points can go either way. 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 on the road to the dark side of the ridge, or can positive forces with US assistance move the nation 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. By 2008, some 11,000 schools were providing education to 6.3 million children, a six-fold increase in six years. Health care, though still deficient, has improved dramatically with 85% of the population now having access to primary health care.
Afghanistan indeed is at a tipping point. There are dozens of model areas where real development is already taking place, where a spirit of modernization can take hold of the nation and promote a new sense of a bright future. But there is no vision for Afghanistan, 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.
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 Security undertaking 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; it had no where near the development attention now given to Afghanistan and lacked the mineral deposits that could power economic expansion. Nevertheless, it was transformed into a vibrant economic and democratic powerhouse. US troops have now been there for sixty years without any significant public objection. 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 now begin operations in a wide range of emerging possibilities 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. Although civilian casualties, a major point of contention, are now largely the direct result of Taliban actions, active military operations are an underlying cause. 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. 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.