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What I Learned In Afghanistan

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The best blogs nail down one key point, writes Bob Creamer in The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging. Many of the contributors warn that to wander or ruminate or zigzag will have your reader click-skip off into cyber-space. That's not good. So blogging is about brevity. Blogging is about being fast-paced and highly focused. Blogging is leaping on an important point or issue and ridding it hard. Blogging is writing in the fast lane. You get the point, right?

I have my important issue, Afghanistan. I've been in this Central Asian country for two months, traveling, writing, observing. I've been watching the surge of 21,000 U.S. troops pouring in and I have been experiencing the traditional upsurge of violence, the "Spring Offensive," courtesy of the Taliban. And I know this: every year since the US invasion in 2001, Afghanistan has experienced an increase in violence and killing. Obviously, we're on the wrong track. But I'm in the right place.

The Obama Administration's policy is to pour US troops and equipment and advisors into Afghanistan to train and mentor the Afghan army and police and government agencies while also increasing humanitarian and developmental aid. At the same time, the Obama Administration is downsizing our goals. It has turned George Bush's policy on its head: instead of little resources for huge goals, to create a full-blown democracy, Obama is committing greater resources for a more limited goal. What goal? Stop Afghanistan from imploding and again being a staging area to attack America.

So reality has finally intervened. The neo-cons pie-in-the-sky dream of democracy overnight with minuscule means has been recognized as profoundly screwy thinking, if you can call it thinking.

From my three months in Afghanistan in 2006 and these two months so far in 2009, I have learned a national flag and a constitution and a president and a national seal do not make a nation. Nationhood requires a bond between people, loyalty to a set of ideals, commitment to the land -- not just to your parcel of land. Called the "empire's graveyard" -- having booted out first Alexander the Great, then the British Empire, and finally the Soviet Union -- it's clear Afghans can fight foreigners. And when there are no foreigners they tear into each other. But what else does Afghanistan stand for?

In fact, there are those who believe Afghanistan is not a weak state, not even a failed state, but no state. There is much truth to this. Yet, before democracy can take root there must be a state.

The Obama Administration is shifting US strategy from "killing for democracy" to teaching, mentoring, advising, and equipping for statehood. The focus is on developing a national army and police, desperately needed in this fractured land; developing a national government that reaches into the countryside, a countryside that has no government. The democratic spirit, essential for the reality of democracy, grows out of personal stability and a sense of being tied to a people. This, the former community organizer, Barack Obama, understands well. This is what the new policy in Afghanistan is all about.

To remain faithful to the brevity requirement in The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, let me wrap this up. Huge numbers of Americans troops and many private contractors in Afghanistan are "partnering" with Afghans. I've been with Marines training the Afghan National Army and US Army soldiers advising the Afghan National Police and private contractors mentoring different Afghan government ministries. Obama is staking the war on training the Afghans to defend and run their own country, instead of the Bush policy of simply killing those opposed to their government.

Yes, US troops are today killing Taliban and other insurgents. But the goal today is to secure an area for development, rather than merely to kill for democracy, a difference often overlooked. Yes, there are developmental projects, but Afghanistan cannot be rebuilt with merely money like Germany after World War II. There is nothing here to rebuild. Everything has to be built -- roads, power plants, infrastructure, capitalism, and of course democracy, the most difficult of all.

So what I see in Afghanistan is a great experiment in American education. Educating a people to defend themselves and govern themselves to become a genuine nation. And out of this comes the foundations of a state, and eventually democracy. Will it work?

II don't know, but after two months in Afghanistan, I'm more optimistic than when I left my home in New York. Wait! The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging says a blog should not run over 800 words. I'm at 768! I have to work on this brevity thing. Now I'm at 780! Verbosity is the kiss of death in blogging, right? 790! That's only 10 words left! Now 5 words! OK, I'll tell you why I'm more optimistic in my next post.