KABUL, Afghanistan – President Donald Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan contains some bold new ideas that might help, but he got the most important part wrong. When Mr. Trump said, “We are not nation-building again... we are killing terrorists,” he was catering to an American citizenry grown weary of this never-ending war. But help with nation-building is precisely what Afghanistan needs most.
First, here are the good aspects of the new strategy: a U.S. president finally is warning Pakistan that it won’t be able to support radical elements with its own security establishment and still get billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to “fight” terrorists. Also, Mr. Trump has sent a strong message to the Afghan government that the era of the blank check is over. Too much cash meant to help the people of Afghanistan has ended up in foreign bank accounts of corrupt Afghan officials or unscrupulous foreign contractors.
But here is where Mr. Trump misses the point: like presidents before him, he has opted for a military solution to a socioeconomic problem. As long as Afghanistan teeters on the brink of becoming a failed state, the men of its disenfranchised younger generation will be easy bait for the Taliban and other insurgencies.
The Trump plan is based on a sound military assessment that any rapid withdrawal would lead to a total collapse of Afghanistan’s relatively democratic system. The country would become a breeding ground for international terrorism.
But no amount of artillery and death can miraculously turn Afghanistan into a prosperous nation, free of socioeconomic ills and political sclerosis. More guns and killing will only prolong this nightmare.
Mr. Trump eschews “nation building,” but imagine if $5 billion a year were spent on building roads, clinics and major infrastructure instead of weapons and soldiers. We know that the U.S. isn’t responsible for fixing Afghanistan’s socioeconomic problems, but if the collapse of Afghanistan into terroristic chaos presents a clear and present danger to the U.S., why not pull out the root of the problem, instead of just trimming the leaves?
We need to use our soft power to build Afghanistan from within. The military option not only doesn’t work, but exacerbates the problem. Guns and soldiers merely give the insurgency a cause for jihad against the “invaders” and solidifies their base. Increased American military operations also inevitably lead to more civilian casualties, which harms the American image.
U.S. troop escalation raises tensions in neighboring countries and prompts U.S. adversaries to further help the insurgency. It could heighten the rivalry between Pakistan and India, tempting Pakistan into further use of the Taliban as their proxy to counter the Indian influence in Afghanistan.
The soft power of nation-building would work because, despite 16 years of violence and setbacks, many Afghans still view the U.S. as an ally and friend, not as the invader they once viewed the Soviet Union during its occupation in 1980s.
The generation of Afghans who were in their teens when the U.S. liberated Afghanistan from the yoke of Taliban are now in their 20s and 30s. They have tasted freedom of expression and the right to peaceably assemble. Women are now members of cabinets and Afghan parliament. None of that would have happened under the Taliban. U.S. values have taken root and grown in Afghanistan, and that’s why we don’t see mass demonstrations on the streets against the U.S. or Afghan government. The new generation appreciates the fact that there is no going back, and they want to preserve what has been accomplished. These successes are a result of American soft power.
There is no correlation between the number of NATO troops and the level of peace in rural areas. In places like Helmand, where the bulk of NATO forces is concentrated, violence levels are much higher than in areas where there are no foreign troops. Why? Because in places without troops, the villagers take matters into their own hands and defend themselves against Taliban.
Afghan media reports that in the Mirzaka district of the Paktia province, village elders and tribal leaders impose hefty monetary fines on any who support or give sanctuary to insurgents. Some who violate this decree have been punished by the burning of their homes.
So, Mr. Trump, the facts strongly show that it’s time for a shift from military options to some nation-building. Yes, politically, it will be a hard sell in the U.S. Why would taxpayers support job creation in Afghanistan when their government is struggling to do the same at home?
But if they think of this as simply a shift in the allocation of funds that are already being spent, it makes sense. Americans did the same thing after World War II, nation-building in Japan and Germany, and it led to generations of peace that remains to this day.
Afghans must accept that this would not be a free lunch. If they fail to fulfill their responsibility to fight corruption and restore accountability, all the good will and money the U.S. can offer would fail. Afghans should prepare for more sacrifices and tighten their financial belts to help the U.S. help them.
Dropping the Mother of All Bombs may kill more insurgents, but it will do nothing to address the cause of the problem.