I have been impressed with the urgency of doing.
Knowing is not enough; we must apply.
Being willing is not enough, we must do.
-- Leonardo da Vinci
There are two Afghanistans, and they are intermingled. Old Afghanistan is a
backward, tribal society, strongly fundamentalist, innately hostile to armed
foreigners. This Afghanistan tends to support the Taliban, as a native Islamic
movement, though it is uncomfortable with some of the extremist positions. New
Afghanistan is also backwards, but trying to move into the modern world. It
values education and economic development and views Islam more as a way of life
than a call to violence. Afghans here are willing to work with NATO to take
control of and improve their own lives. For this Afghanistan, the Taliban is
a band of religious thugs intent on imposing their will on the entire nation.
Both Afghanistans are wary of the central government, its corruption, its effort
to impose external controls and its inability to provide basic services, including
courts and security. Although one Afghanistan is more inclined to support the
Taliban and the other more ready to cooperate with NATO, both would prefer
Taliban nor NATO, but an Afghanistan clearly controlled by Afghans.
These two Afghanistans are not only intermingled, the boundary between them
is vague and flexible. Many Afghans live in both of them, respecting the traditional
culture promoted by the first, but aspiring to the benefits of the modern world.
Incentives move the boundary one way or another. The Taliban provide jobs to
guerillas of David Kilcullins's formulation and intimidate with violence.
NATO offers work, a future, and security of uncertain duration and reliability.
So the boundary varies over time. It is not strictly a geographic or ethnic
boundary, though the Pashtun areas in the south are certainly more fundamentalist
and xenophobic and are the core of Old Afghanistan.
NATO battles the Taliban as a direct threat. Initially after the 9/11 attacks
this was an effort to eliminate the sanctuaries they provided al Qaeda and the
brutal repression they visited on the population. But the Taliban gradually
reasserted control over areas, particularly in Old Afghanistan, thanks to not
so benign neglect by NATO. NATO responded with a renewed military effort focused
on Old Afghanistan. This, to say the least, has been disappointing. It has been
very costly in lives (NATO and Afghan) and resources, but has produced only
fragile gains at best. Many of the efforts have been counterproductive, in particular
reinforcing corruption in Afghanistan regionally and making the United States
beholden to autocratic regional governments. NATO operations have alienated
and even embittered elements of the Afghan population, providing a steady stream
of Taliban recruits and undermining relations with the entire Muslim World.
NATO efforts in New Afghanistan have also been mixed. Development efforts have
significantly increased the education and health facilities available to the
population. They have also made widespread infrastructure improvements, setting
the basis for future economic expansion. But the large flows of money have added
to the official corruption, leaked resources to the Taliban, and severely distorted
the local market economy, undermining the very economic expansion that the efforts
are supposed to promote. Nevertheless, there have been significant improvements.
Cell phone penetration has gone from zero to 50%, with internet broadly available.
GDP has been growing at over 10% the last couple years and the identification
of widespread mineral
riches can provide a solid basis for future expansion. A recent Senate report
rates highly the National Solidarity
Program which has supported over 50,000 projects at the community level.
But the costs of the effort, especially against the background of domestic
economic difficulties in the United States and widening turmoil in the Arab
world, are driving a reassessment. The recent Senate report, as one example,
is very critical of the overall effort and skeptical of lasting progress. The
top down strategy is simply not working and is way too costly. The focus of
attention is naturally on Old Afghanistan. This is where the fighting is, this
is where the costs are. This is the Afghanistan familiar to the American public,
a black hole that eats people and resources. Security gains are acknowledged
as fragile; stability without a significant NATO troop presence seems a long
way off. President Obama has already committed to beginning a drawdown and there
are heavy pressures to make it a sizable one, seeing a marginal US interest
and heavy continuing costs.
New Afghanistan gets very little attention in this intense debate. The American
public has seen only occasional glimpses of this Afghanistan, such as in the
widely circulated Three Cups of Tea.
But this is the Afghanistan most important to US (and global) interests. Costs
here have been comparatively low, especially in lives, so attention and concerns
are also low. New Afghanistan is the kind of country that the United States
has traditionally supported, a backward area trying to move into the modern
world. A war torn area that has significant agricultural and mineral assets,
it has good prospects for major economic expansion. But it is also threatened
by the Taliban who want to forcefully impose an autocratic, repressive regime
not essentially different from some of the repressive regimes now being eliminated
in the Middle East, with varying degrees of active US support.
A major US withdrawal might eventually collapse the Karzai government (even
after the Soviets left, Najibullah hung on for several years). It would almost
certainly bring renewed anarchy with intensified death and destruction. The
Taliban would have every incentive to fight to re-take Kabul, but the United
States and the West would also have every incentive not to simply abandon anti-Taliban
areas (in contrast to 1989). An Afghanistan in turmoil would certainly destabilize
the entire region. And such a result would also undermine trust and confidence
in the United States globally.
A US decision on what to do now has to be solidly based on US interests, as
well as projections of the expected costs and benefits of various courses of
US interests have evolved significantly over the decade it has been involved
in Afghanistan, though official justifications mostly ignore this evolution.
The al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan is now minimal. Most significant al Qaeda
activities are elsewhere and some kind of renewed base in Afghanistan would
be a very poor location for developing the only strategic threat al Qaeda poses:
use of weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, the international situation
has changed dramatically. Globalization with the internet has enmeshed the United
States tightly in the global economy; a prosperous United States is now only
possible in a stable and prosperous world. The core
challenge of the XXI Century is turning failed states into stable and economically
growing nations that can support global (including US) prosperity. Afghanistan
has become a test of the US ability to lead such an effort. Failing to stabilize
Afghanistan will undermine the US ability to address the many other failed states
that must be transformed if there is to be a stable world economy. Obviously,
this is a daunting task far beyond the ability of the United States alone, but
there is no other nation that can lead such an effort. Bringing peace and stability
to Afghanistan is a major first step in bringing stability to the globalized
world of the XXI Century. A failure in Afghanistan will undermine US leadership
everywhere, but most particularly in the Muslim World which is already a region
of intense challenges.
As is becoming increasingly clear, a continuing military campaign in Old Afghanistan
is not an attractive way to proceed. Whatever gains are achieved will be badly
overshadowed by the overall costs in lives and resources, as well as the collateral
damage of reinforcing Pashtun antipathy, fueling more corruption regionally,
and continuing to force the United States into supportive agreements with repressive
regimes. Even after ten years of fighting prospects remain murky at best. Most
importantly, the costs are simply too high. The distressed US economy needs
more resources at home.
The shift of assets from Old Afghanistan needs to be accompanied by a shift
of assets into New Afghanistan. It is Time
to Build, time to put resources where they can do the most good and the
least harm. The only reasonable focus is on grass roots development and an associated
expansion of the underlying market economy. From the United States side, this
needs to be not a Whole of Government effort, but a Whole of Nation effort with
the private sector providing investment along with the technical and market
expertise that can make quieter areas prosper, move the boundary between the
two Afghanistans steadily toward modernization. In the end, it is not military
efforts but modernization that will sweep
the Taliban aside. This will not come from the top down, but from the bottom
up. The same sort of pressures now active in the Middle East can also force
corruption out of government and provide local security. Security problems obviously
require that this initially focus is in the quieter areas and then spreads.
We need to rally to support New Afghanistan, the modernizing Afghanistan that
wants development and prosperity, the Afghanistan that can serve as a model
for development in many other failed states. Development should have been the
initial focus ten years ago. Now it is the only game left in town, the only
route to meet the challenge of stabilizing Afghanistan as a test case in how to promote
global stabilization. And at the same time to uphold the US tradition of supporting
freedom and the worth of the individual and to honor commitments made to Afghan
A Rally for Afghanistan program can bring together the voices and experiences
of the dozens, hundreds of organizations now working disconnectedly to promote
development in Afghanistan, such as Sister Cities programs; NGOs promoting education,
health, agriculture; small business efforts; the Marine Corps school partners
program. Businesses and business organizations (including the Afghan-American
Chamber of Commerce) have much positive impact. An outreach program (with schools, health organizations, athletic groups, etc.) could greatly increase these connections.
A Rally for Afghanistan program also needs to spread awareness of these efforts
to the broader American public, to raise appreciation of the extensive efforts
in and the development potential of New Afghanistan.
Most of all, a Rally for Afghanistan program needs to get everyday Afghans
enthused about the potential for growth of their own country. Real change will
not come from the top down, but from the bottom up as individual Afghans work
to build their own country. The United States can, and should, assist in this
effort, but the primary responsibility for building the New Afghanistan lies
An initial version of this article was posted on the GlobalSecurity.org Sitrep.