Crisis = Danger + Opportunity
- Chinese ideographs
The United States can help Afghans build a dynamic, prosperous country at a
far lower cost than the current military effort.
Promoting global stability to support US prosperity is the core
strategic challenge of the XXI Century. Advancing good governance, including
the reduction of turmoil in the Muslim world, requires strong US leadership.
Though often criticized as parochial, fundamental US values the worth
of the individual, basic human rights, government accountability to the people
have wide global appeal and are the only solid foundation for a prosperous
world. Afghanistan has become the test case of US leadership in building prosperity
in backward countries.
Costs in Afghanistan have been high, but have also been significant achievements.
Student enrollment has gone from one to seven million, with over 25,000 university
students. Cell phone penetration has gone from zero to 50%, with internet broadly
available. GDP has been growing at over 10%. The position of women has been
greatly improved. Nearly 85% of the population has access to basic health care.
These achievements have been overshadowed by stories of mayhem, corruption and
extremism which depict Afghanistan as a black hole that only eats people and
The core stabilization principle is straightforward: help Afghans build their
own society, on the model of how the United States helped South Koreans build
their own vibrant and independent country. The Afghanistan
National Development Strategy provides Afghan perspectives on what this
would look like. Translating them into visible efforts is the challenge.
Directing development assistance to the grass roots level in the quieter areas
of the country is the immediate imperative: turning provinces and districts
with local good governance into showplaces. This requires supporting programs
that already have an immediate impact at the grass roots level: a
microfinance facility, the National
Solidarity Program, the Valued
Sustainable Services effort, and the Global
Partnership for Afghanistan. Another attractive model is provided by the
for East European Democracy (SEED) Act which promoted business development
East Europe. Above all, there needs to be short-term job creation to give Afghans
confidence in their own ability to make their country flourish.
The Arab Spring dramatically demonstrated the ability of everyday citizens
to demand more accountable leadership. In Afghanistan, a broad program of Connection
Technologies can serve as a backbone for commercial, agricultural, health
care and educational efforts, but it can also empower citizens to demand responsiveness
from leaders at all levels.
Taliban ideology is alien to the traditional Afghan practice of Islam which
was tolerant and not dogmatic. There was much popular antipathy at the brutally
repressive Taliban government which suppressed traditional local councils and
consensus politics. Now there is widespread revulsion at the routine murdering
of civilians. The Taliban have been historically repressive toward women, toward
education, and toward economic development. Overall, their medieval outlook
and the economic stagnation it produced stand in stark contrast to vibrant development
in quiet areas. Challenges to the Taliban have to be led by Afghans who see
a new opportunity for their country to move into the modern world - but it must
also be supported by the United States, promoting an Afghan consensus on future
developments. Security comes from everyday citizens working with local leaders
to protect their own futures.
Shifting a modest share of military savings into socio-economic expansion along
with a US commitment to real long-term development could dramatically improve
prospects. In conjunction with this, there needs to be a broad effort to present
a much more balanced picture to the Afghan public and to the American public,
a picture that includes the thousands of positive steps being taken every day
to move the country forward.
A longer version of this commentary was originally published by The Center for Study of the Presidency and Congress.