KABUL, Afghanistan – If I were so bold as to send a note to President Ashraf Ghani, I would say this: Tell your people to stop waiting for help from others. They cannot rely on foreign support. Tell your citizens they should instead take an active role in restoring peace to Afghanistan themselves. Tell them they can do this. Tell them that your government will help them.
Too much time and energy is wasted – by Afghanistan’s political leaders, educated elite and the public itself – urging the international community to rush to their rescue. When our leaders constantly spout this idea that Afghanistan needs more foreign troops, money and assistance, it becomes woven into the national psyche.
President Ghani recently told a citizen gathering in the Paktia province that he has finally convinced world leaders that the war in Afghanistan is a foreign project that requires foreign solutions. He seemed to suggest that the world will save us all.
These kinds of remarks are more suited to a politician running for office. We need strong leadership from an experienced president who can inspire citizens with a sense of pride and ownership in their own land.
Peace will not come from outside the borders; it must arise from inside the villages of Afghanistan itself. Garnering international sympathy may give war-weary Afghans temporary solace, but relying on assistance from abroad is a fool’s errand. The Afghan president can take a cue from the 20th-Century American journalist Walter Lippmann, who famously remarked that a good leader is someone who tells his people what their responsibilities are.
Here is what he should tell his people:
Historically, tribal etiquette has been the foundation of order in Afghanistan. For centuries, ethnic tribes fended for themselves, keeping the peace and keeping their territory safe without the help of large armies.
During the Russian invasion of the 1980s, it was villagers and ordinary people who stood against the Soviet army and eventually prevailed. During the past 16 years of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, villagers and citizens in several areas defended their turf without assistance. In the Urgun District of Paktia, citizen governance alone prohibits the Taliban from infiltrating.
During the late 1980s, the Taliban easily took control of Afghanistan because they promised to clean up the mess the mujahedeen had created. But they have long since lost support of the citizenry because they are seen as lackeys of foreigners who have no agenda for Afghanistan but to destabilize the elected government of Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.
Ghani should spend more time on closing the gap between his people and their government. Public support is the key to peace and his own future.
In 1996, more than a decade before the Taliban was declared a terrorist organization, a group of them came to San Diego, California, where I lived at the time. They were asking Afghan-Americans to urge U.S. congressmen to recognize and support the Taliban. My father, a retired government civil servant, asked the Taliban lobbyists if they have the support of the Afghan people. “If you do,” he said, “then you don’t need our support.” To this day, my late father’s words remain relevant.
Realizing the importance of public participation, the U.S. Defense Department has approved the hiring of more civilians to work under the command of the Afghan army to secure cleared areas. The decision was welcomed by some Afghan Army officers.
One ex-Afghan Army general – now a member of Parliament – told TOLO news the army “can’t be on every street corner or in every village and district … Local police and citizens should be responsible for keeping their areas safe after they have been cleared by the army.”
He is right, but a dominant expectation remains that the government will guard and protect every public and private entity all the time. This becomes clear when we hear the outcry after incidents such as the recent ISIS attack that killed 20 at a Shiite mosque in Kabul.
The government cannot assign army and security forces to protect every school, mosque, and shop. I suggest Afghans consider assigning teams of civilian volunteers to work with law enforcement, like the Zharandoy, a group similar to the Boy Scouts of America. They could work in conjunction with law enforcement to patrol streets and borders, promoting safety.
This policy of waiting for foreign and domestic governments to solve everything, then blaming them when they fail, is fruitless. It only feeds a culture of dependency that prevents the country from taking any major steps toward achieving a lasting peace.
Waiting for peace to be imported from foreign lands reminds me of the Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot,” in which the characters spend all their time waiting for someone who never comes.
With limited capital and human skills, it will not be easy. But that’s no excuse for Afghanistan’s government and citizens to eschew their responsibilities. To twist the famous line from U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1961: Ask not what governments can do for you. Ask what you can do for yourselves.