Visual Narratives

Essay

I wrote this essay a long time ago. It seems like that anyhow. We were in Afghanistan (we still are, the difference is that back then we were actually aware of the fact.) and Obama was president. I pitched it to a number of a prestigious foreign-affairs publications.

Going through some old writings, I came across it and decided to put it up because it is reminiscent of an optimism that reigned during Obama’s first few years in office, when I—among many other naïve folk—considered him more than just a place-holder, when Americans thought that he was capable of actual change.

Also, because this showcases my ability to write political stuff, should a well-intentioned editor drop by for a quick browse.

It does, however, remain an example of something I will never write again.

 

 

 

Transforming Afghanistan Before It Transforms Us

Despite president Obama’s rhetoric about change, his war strategy on Afghanistan has strong echoes of his predecessor’s botched attempts to apply post-conflict reconstruction-style tools to a live conflict with an oxymoronic mix of Wilsonian idealism and unilateral interventionism. Obama excluded “a more dramatic and open-ended escalation” of the war effort in Afghanistan, one that “would commit the U.S. to a nation-building project of up to a decade”; signaling that he will not sacrifice immediate popularity, transcend the conventional logic of a militarized quick-fix over a comprehensive framework, including a plan for socio-economic transformation. The fact that the troop surge—the cornerstone of the strategy—is expected to show results before the 2010 American mid-term election, and the drawdown is due to begin right after the next presidential campaign, underlines the fact that the president is opting for what is politically attractive, choosing short-term pragmatism over a real solution, which may be controversial and take longer. Worst of all, with the strategy’s focus on the military surge in population centers combined with its contradictory premise of withdrawal within eighteen months, and its message that we would not be fighting “an endless war” Obama signaled to the extremists (who are strongest around the border areas) that America is tiring of the war—the first tell-tale sign that we’re bracing ourselves for the impending defeat.

The paradox of “the war on terror” is that we have yet to understand what we are fighting against. Struggle against radical Islam is not a struggle against those who detest our “way of life”, or our “values.” It is a struggle based on seeds of resentment to our policies. Sayyid Qutb’s Ma’alifu al-Tarriq, the manifesto that inspired militant Islam, emphasizes the imperialistic values that were, and continue to be, irreconcilable with Islam. The manifesto is very much a socio-economic thesis, based on the logic of battle of the oppressed against economic exploitation, and a key recruitment tool of jihadists.
That is why failing to address the grievances that are the roots of insurgencies is recipe for failure. Jihad is not a negation of Western values, rather, a struggle against the consequences of inadvertent and, perhaps, unintentional policies that undermine the safety, the dignity, and the wellbeing of the subjugated. Islam is a story of the struggle against tyranny, a narrative of the wars of Mohammed and his disciples against despots. That is why our colossal ignorance of the milieu in which we have intervened, misplaced clear conscious, combined with the uncouth mentality of an invading army provide such superb recruiting tools for the jihadists. Occupying Afghanistan, someone said, was the biggest gift we bestowed on Osama and his thugs. The terrorists were counting on the worthlessness of our tales of “nation building” and “democracy promotion.” We have not disappointed so far.

 

ISAF

It started with the Bonn conference. Our promise was that of “nation building”, our premise that of creating a sound transitional government, from where we would defeat the Taliban and deny al-Qaeda a home, make the American people safe by depriving the jihadists of a safe haven to launch another attack on the homeland, and from where we would be able to project our “power and influence”. We picked Mr. Karzai, a candidate whose vote was at the bottom of the barrel and created the misnomer “Northern Alliance” for his ruling coalition—in fact, there is no alliance between the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, and the Hazaras, the non-Pashtun peoples Mr. Karzai’s alliance is supposed to represent.

The first phase of the war was deceptively quick. The Taliban fled and the refugees poured back to a land unequipped to welcome them. The insurgency, like a mosquito you thought you had slain but had been waiting in a dark corner all along, grew in numbers and effectiveness. ISAF, International Security Assistance Force, was established and U.S. troops began to increase. The war entered its second phase, and the militants in a symbolic show of force, blew up the main gate of the ISAF. Now to get to the ISAF headquarters, you go through an inconspicuous metal door, cross a narrow passageway adorned with barbed wire to reach the operations center, where rows and rows of cabinets crammed with thousands of processors, run simulation and metrics analysis, as IEDs-impoverished explosive devices—go off at regular intervals somewhere outside.

Militarily, we committed the same error the British did every time they tried, and failed, to colonize the “Graveyard of Empires”, which was underestimating the deeply ingrained sense of personal honor and courage embedded in the Afghan tribal culture and mistaking the retreat of the warriors as defeat, confusing strategy with cowardice. Decades of living at crossroads between tribal traditions, religious extremism, and foreign meddling have made the Afghanis a complicated people, who defy classification. Kipling famously said: “You’ll never plumb the Oriental mind”, and recently McChrystal, the American general who leads the ISAF forces, echoing the famous words, said: “Everyday I realize how little I actually know about Afghanistan.” Non-militarily we committed the error of, well, not having a non-military plan.

Our recent messages of “funding jobs and reconstruction efforts in individual villages” comes too late in the fight, and runs contrary to the mentality of the marines (which is to go off a ship and rage battle), and so does the expectation that the Pakistani military will “mount synchronized military operations” on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Current endeavors, such as ramping up “nation building” training at places like the Joint Training Center in Louisiana, where Arab speakers and American soldiers simulate “real life” situations are akin to training for a title fight by watching videos. The assumption that the brave and noble men and women of our armed forces will defeat and dismantle al-Qaeda and its “ruthless, repressive, and radical” Taliban allies, with the help of the Pakistani army, in 18 months to two years, bears three major fallacies: first, there are but a few al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and they pose no clear and present danger. Most al-Qaeda militants, including Osama Bin Laden, are in Pakistan. Second, the Taliban are not constricted to the heartlands of Helman and Kandahar where the major surge is going to occur. They are seamlessly embedded in the social context of Afghanistan. They are the people. Third, heeding Obama’s demands would require that Pakistan launch a major offensive in North Waziristan, the base of operations of the Haqqani network, the most dangerous insurgent group operating in Afghanistan, and logistically supported by Pakistan’s very own military secret services. There is also the question of Hindustan. For Pakistan the question of India looms large. Pakistan’s military is plagued by the pathological fear of India and the Northern Alliance elements in the Karzai government who are pro-India. The ranks of the Pakistan army are heavily indoctrinated with anti-Hindu, anti-India propaganda. Islamabad has no reason to attack the Afghan militants it considers allies in the fight against India.

 

The Taliban, Where their Strength Lies

Their swift rise of the Taliban to power was part due to a shared Pashtun ethnicity with the locals and the attractiveness of the religious dogma they preached, a promise of order and security that in a time of anarchy appealed to a war-weary population. Their method was effective. It still is. Since 2006, in 33 of the country’s 34 provinces, they have set up anticorruption committees that (unlike the central government or the corrupt police) deal with any injustice swiftly, and without the need for baksheesh or bribes. But the most important element contributing to the strength of the Taliban was, and remains, the unbridled logistical and financial support of the ISI, the very potent Pakistani Military Secret Services. Taliban is very much a Pakistani invention and its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Without ISI’s logistical support, it is extremely unlikely that the Taliban could have achieved what it has, based on Islamic rhetoric and common tribal ancestry alone—particularly since 2007.

We had an opportunity with the Kerry-Lugar Bill, which tripled the aid to Pakistan, to demand that ISI pull the plug on the extremists. The Peshawar car bomb, which killed 90 people, saluting Hillary Clinton’s arrival with its macabre message, and the anti-American demonstrations that followed were a stark indication of failed democracy. Now, with the withdrawal timetable set before the surge even begins we have lost any leverage we might have had with Pakistan. Financial aid to Pakistan has always been controversial. Reportedly, of the $11billion provided since September 11, eight billion were spent on armaments, a scant $100 million, less than one percent, on education and healthcare, areas where the influence of religious extremism could have been curbed. (For the missing three billion or so, my guess is as good as yours.) To believe that the Pakistani army will play ball is a questionable assumption at best. We are financing an army that, through its secret services, trains the same guerillas that wage war on us.

With the short timetable Obama has set, the extremists will likely avoid a symmetrical conflict, hiding their Kalashnikovs under their beds, and wait to fill the void and ensuing chaos U.S. departure will create, and emerging the likely victors. They seem to have studied Sun-Tzu’s teachings on the subtle and deceptive strategy of counterattacking: retreat, wait, try the patience of the enemy, and wait some more until the giant tires itself. All they have to do to “win” is to survive for a couple of years. In the words of Taliban leader Mullah Agha Muhammed: “We were born here, we will die here. We aren’t going anywhere.” (1.

 

Counterinsurgency

General McChrsytal’s strategy, the one Obama has endorsed, is COIN, or counterinsurgency, which unlike counterterrorism, includes political, economic, and psychological factors, a much more complex strategy based on solid governance combined with luring the population away from the insurgents and their misconstrued version of Islam. But the counterinsurgency applied to Afghanistan is heavy on military emphasis with little or no socio-economic framework, explaining why the NATO force McChrystal now leads has failed, and failed miserably. A successful counterinsurgency has to pay attention to security, local politics, and the socio-economic milieu. These elements work collectively. Ours is a comprehensive strategy only in designation. In practice it is a militarized strategy, what historians call “exceptionalism”, the belief in the the divine right of America to bring liberty and “shine light unto” other nations. This mentality is reminiscent of Mill’s famous essay, in which he asserts that the most humanitarian option for Great Britain was to conquer India. But unlike Britain we are not planning to be there for the long haul. According to Obama’s plan, by 2011, Afghanistan will be calm enough for the American forces to pull out, another assumption that is, at best, very dubious.

It is true that the longer we keep this disliked and paralyzing presence, the longer we postpone the possibility of an independent sovereign state (which by definition is one that doesn’t have an overwhelming American military presence), and we deprive the Afghans of dignified self determinism, but leaving now, before fulfilling our promise of rebuilding the country will most likely lead to sectarian bloodshed and anti-Western Jihadists walking on Kabul, and being in a position to launch another attack, perhaps nuclear this time. According to the Commission on Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, “Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction proliferation, all roads intersect in Pakistan.” More specifically, all roads lead to FATA, Federally Administrated Tribal Areas of the Afghanistan—Pakistan border, where the Taliban are very much at home.

The Afghan army, military experts agree, has to reach 240,000 well-trained soldiers to approach anything resembling effectiveness. Obama’s plan depends heavily on training an additional 100,000 new soldiers over the next three years. It has taken eight years to train the first 100,000 soldiers and the timeframe of three years seems overly ambitious at best. Then the question is not whether the army can deal with the Taliban, but whether they want to. The ranks of the Afghan armed forces are plagued by centuries-rooted web of clan and tribal allegiances (current Afghan army is disproportionately Tajik lacking troops from Helmand and Qandahar provinces). Add growing fundamentalism within the ranks and the army will likely not rise to the challenge. A Tajik backlash in Pashtun regions sexed-up by extremist rhetoric and mass defection will more likely be the result.

 

The Enterline Study

Historically, military subversion of democracy to promote democracy has never worked. A counterinsurgency strategy that embraces the use of overwhelming force as the cornerstone of its tenet, unlike some analysts have recently implied, is not a “winning” strategy. In a widely circulated report political scientist Enterline and his graduate student Magagnoli, argue that if sufficient military resources are allocated, based on historical evidence, wars against insurgencies can be won. (2. Their analysis is flawed. What they categorize as “wins” actually denote blundering failures in terms of the human toll of the conflicts and the end political result.

According to the study, the list of “winners” of COIN tactics in the post-WWII era includes the French campaign in Algeria. That is a historical blasphemy. Not only because ultimately the French were defeated and Algeria became an independent state but also because of the human toll of the war, one million Muslims and 27,000 French dead, and million injured on both sides. Another “win” is the Second Chechen War. It is true that after a massive Russian assault that leveled the city of Grozny, with a death toll estimated at around 50,000 (mostly Chechen civilians) large-scale fighting has ceased, but sporadic violence still exists throughout the North Caucasus: The Chechen guerrilla resistance throughout the North Caucasus region continues to inflict Russian casualties through bombings and ambushes on the federal troops and forces of the regional governments. The militants have not been defeated. Most likely, they are also familiar with Sun-Tzu’s teachings.

In the Enterline study, Iraq is also classified as a “win”. Ignoring the human toll of that war—thousands of American soldiers dead, tens of thousands crippled and psychologically marked for life (conservative estimates put two out of ten soldiers coming home with PSTD which is almost always chronic and often as ghastly as a missing limb), and millions of Iraqis dead, injured, misplaced—if we only factor in the political end-result, it is safe to say that the only “winner” is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which will, when the dust settles, project its “influence and power” by restoring friendly relations with Iraq. Some of the most respected clerics in Iraq, like Ayatollah Sistani come from Iran. The major militia is Southern Iraq, the Badr Brigade, was trained in Iran, and its officers are mostly Shiites. Add the largely Shiite areas in Saudi Arabia and this informal Shiite “coalition” could include close to seventy percent of the world’s estimated hydrocarbon reserves. The common economic conjecture was that the U.S. would invade Iraq, double its oil production to seven million barrels a day by 2010 and end OPEC’s hegemony. It did not quite work out that way. In fact, chances are: you (unless you are a Halliburton executive) are worse off economically because of the war.

If the data in the Enterline study is closely scrutinized we will come to the sobering conclusion that insurgencies are very tough, if not impossible, to beat using a predominately military strategy. Military analysts, by large, agree that a 20% success rate is realistic, and only when the insurgency has not taken deep roots and does not enjoy popular support. In case of the Taliban, they are deeply embedded in the social milieu, and, although the Afghans may not say this to our faces, they are preferred to the foreign occupiers.

Multi-Regional Problem

Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and central Asia are on the cusp of a critical juncture in history. What happens in Afghanistan will decide the stability of the entire region, determine the reach of extremism, and ultimately determine our own security.
There is Iran, with its dream of being at the epicenter of a Shiite regional alliance. There is central Asia, where the recent bombing of a luxury train, the Nevsky Express, killed 26 people, most likely by Chechen guerrilla resistance. The terrorists adopted the double-blast method, a favored tactic of groups tied to al-Qaeda. There is the nuclear-armed Pakistan, where the army plagued by fundamentalism is supporting an unpopular president amid growing economic woes in a splintered system of governance, and where the commando-style attacks in Waziristan, including the attack on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, on the eve of Pakistan’s army’s advance into the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan had “inside job” written all over it.

The situation in Afghnaistan has a strong regional dimension and cannot be addressed without the co-operation of Pakistan and Afghanistan’s other neighbors, especially Pakistan. As long as Pakistan sees the Karzai government as allied with India, Pakistan’s Military Intelligence Services, ISI, will support the Taliban. Pakistan’s national security psyche is plagued by a struggle to keep India at bay. Unless the U.S. provides assurances of regional security Pakistan will prefer to be allied with the Muslim Taliban in case of an Indian attack.

 

Errors in Judgment

Obama seems to believe that we are not fighting a broad-based insurgency and can, therefore, defeat it quickly. It is true that the Taliban is controlling at most 15% of the Afghan territory but counties in Kandahar, Helmand, and some other Pashtun provinces, harbor tens of thousands of militants lying in wait, and they count on the support of 20-some million Pashtuns of Pakistan, including the Tehrik-e-Taliban, the ferocious Pakistani Taliban. Add the logistical backup of ISI, the blessing of the Ayatollahs (for now limited to providing arms), and you have a broadly-based, well-funded movement. Even villagers hostile to the old Taliban, will support the neo-Taliban as alternative to the dishonest police and the occupying army that has, for the past eight years, used missile-armed drones, the so-called “family destroyers”. Even those who do not believe in the writ of law the Taliban preach (founded on an extreme interpretation of the Islamic principles of jurisprudence or Sharia) defer to them nonetheless, based on fear of what will happen once the Americans leave.

After almost a decade into the fight during which commanders were given free rein to blow entire families to bloody shreds, the marines selected for deployment in urban centers are being schooled in the principle “that it is all about protecting the Afghan people”. But, who are the “people”? In a widespread counterinsurgency the enemy is the terrain. He is everywhere. How can an eighteen-year-old grunt from Iowa identify a Taliban, if he chooses to shave his beard, leave his Kalashnikov under his bed and pick up a shovel? In this war—not unlike Vietnam—the enemy will be hiding in plain sight, behind the sickly gaze of a farmer or the colorful chapan of a merchant. And he’s everywhere, or will be soon. The war in Afghanistan fits the characteristics of the neowar. Coined by Umberto Eco, the neowar is different than other armed conflicts in two major ways: “It has no front and the identity of the enemy is uncertain.” (3. In 2006 key Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, started to speak on behalf of all Afghans. Perhaps it is time to pay attention to his prophetic messages.

Another of the fundamentals President Obama is getting wrong is confusing the Taliban with al-Qaeda and other religious anti-imperialist guerrilla groups such as Hikmatyar’s Hizb-i Islami. The Taliban atrocities of the past notwithstanding, they are not purely a network of anti-Western militants. Al-Qaeda is. The Taliban are former anti-soviet mujahedeen, farmers, Pashtun clerics, tribal elders, even members of the Pakistani government. Al-Qaeda is incorrigible. The Taliban are not. But as long as they remain outside the existing political arena it is extremely unlikely that they will scale back their violent activities.

The word “surge” has become a sort of magic elixir in today’s public dialogue, based on its apparent effectiveness in Iraq. It has taken on new life in Afghanistan but it is erroneous to confuse Afghanistan with Iraq where the surge has showed decent results—the so-called “Sunni awakening—strengthened by the cooperation of local forces” The scenario does not apply to Afghanistan. With the exception of drug-dealing warlords who use USAID to finance their insatiable love for bulletproof Mercedes Benzes, we have no other significant allies in Afghanistan.

Failing to understand the wide range of regional, ethnic, and religious complexities that make Afghanistan unique is recipe for failure. Any government vying for legitimacy and popular acceptance in Afghanistan has to respect ethnic polarizations, empower and invite the tribal elders as part of a ruling elite that respects a traditional Afghan self-rule, including the “moderate” Taliban and fundamentalists who had signaled a willingness to denounce the “jihad above all else” doctrine. During the drawing of the Afghan constitution in 2003, some religious leaders, including Burhanuddin Rabbani of Jamiat-i-Islami and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf of Itihad-i-Islami, had warned against delegating too much executive power to the central government, predicting the blossoming of corruption, pervasive opium cultivation and smuggling. They were proven right.
Drawing on Qutb’s Ma’alifu al-Tarriq, the Taliban’s anti-imperialistic message is based on two simple tenets: one, they will rid the country of corrupt drug lords and Western puppets; two, they will restore order and unity—a message destined to sit well with the Afghans tired of the high and mighty Western forces, a population that is witnessing a chronic, widening gap between the rich and the poor, where the poor have no access to potable water, but the rich have, in recent years, transferred 16 billion dollars to Dubai alone for safekeeping.

Perhaps Obama believes that the Karzai government, the second most-corrupt in the world, will turn into a competent, legitimate administration to work with, one that will implement the developmental strategies necessary to turn Afghanistan into a civil, stable nation, from where no more attacks can be launched on the homeland—and all of this, in a couple of years. He seems to believe that Nancy Pelosi’s admonitory words on the “continued corruption and lack of effectiveness by the Afghan police, the need to increase the Afghan leadership role in building communities through vehicles, such as Provincial Reconstruction Teams, improving efforts to reduce poppy cultivation and crack down on drug trafficking, and so on” will make a difference. His faith is Karzai is misplaced. Out of Karzai’s twenty-four candidates for ministerial positions, seventeen were discarded by parliament due to their criminal pasts or strong ties to warlords. It is an economic truism that foreign aid fails almost always because of “absorptive capacity”, the enormous gap between noble intentions and actual results. In Afghanistan the gap is huge: only 10 to 30 percent of foreign aid is actually being spent in Afghanistan. Unless Mr. Karzai’s government is not taken out of the equation, it is very unlikely that the Afghan people can benefit from our generosity.

A true democracy derives its legitimacy from consensual power that arises from internal factors—in case of Afghanistan those would be tribal and clan allegiances. A system of government that fits Afghanistan’s socio-political framework is one in which the local authorities deal with providing essential needs such as jobs, healthcare and security, and where foreign aid disbursement and its coordination is vested in the federating units and not the central government. Macroeconomic tools that do not integrate the intrinsic problems of Afghanistan—rugged and inhospitable geography, regional tribal relations fraught with adversity, a corrupt central government, and chronic economic inequality—are ineffective. That is why our half-hearted attempt, through the National Solidarity Program, NSP, which awards grants for village-run development programs in Afghanistan, has fallen short. The average villager in Afghanistan relies on the local “authorities” to secure access to potable water, resolve conflicts, etc. We should accept a broader autonomy in the regions, resolving the rooted conflicts of territory and power, luring the fractions to the negotiating table, by offering reconstruction packages and capital resources disbursed by competent economic officers and technocrats as part of a comprehensive package that goes beyond the current framework.

 

Nation Building

Grass-roots, bottoms-up capitalism, the kind that propagates piecemeal, coasting along on word of mouth from village to village, taking perhaps a decade, or longer, to provide the empowering and liberating effect of a market economy, while the Afghan army, with our support, suppresses the opium trade and secures the border with Pakistan, may be the only roadmap to victory. Small credit unions have revolutionized the life of the poorest of the poor in India and Bangladesh. Why can’t they work in Afghanistan? All it takes in a rural economy is often a mule and 30-to-40 acres of land. But if there are comprehensive, viable socio-economic plans that will be implemented concurrently with the military surge, Obama forgot to mention them.

Umberto Eco writes that neowar is a media product, where “the media take the logic of war and maximizes the good”. Nowhere is this more evident than false reports of 82% of Afghans having access to basic health care as a result of our efforts. Health care that exists in Afghanistan is mostly provided by voluntary associations like Doctors without Borders. Wounded are often carried on a donkey’s back or on a man’s back on long and tortuous roads to be treated by one of the make-shift facilities the volunteers have set up. This grim reality is not depicted in the mainstream media and remains outside the sphere of consciousness of the average American.

A recent BBC poll listed unemployment, healthcare, lack of electricity, access to potable water, and roads—in that order—as the five basic concerns of Afghans. Could rebuilding the Afghan government and winning the people’s heart, in other words “nation building”, be still feasible? If Ghandi was right that “the greatest violence against a people is poverty,” the solution has to be socio-economic, taking up on our initial promises, with a counterinsurgency strategy as a congruous support for nation-building initiatives, not the principle tenet of our strategy.

 

Intellectual Battlefield

If Obama is serious about changing anti-American sentiments that plague the Arab world, he has to invest in the intellectual infrastructure, starting with an illiteracy rate in Afghanistan that is among the lowest in the world. Decades of war have left the Afghan children rootless and disenfranchised. Their ideological bearings come from maddrasses where extremism, cloaked under benevolent Islamic evangelism, is being injected into their young minds. Schools are where the struggle of ideas occurs and where we could have worked toward eradicating anti-American sentiments. For the past fifteen years, Greg Mortesson, best known for his bestseller Three Cups of Tree, has worked to promote peace in Afghanistan, one book, one desk, one good school, at a time. In a country where the literacy of the female Afghans languishes in the single digits, he has built more than 130 schools, mostly for girls. The question is: whether his efforts, and those of thousands of other humanitarian organizations, like Doctors without Borders who risk their lives to treat the sick and the wounded in Afghanistan, will be undermined by our hasty departure. The least we can do, have to do, is create a milieu for political reform processes, enabling legitimate civil society actors, Afghan or foreign, to promote basic humanitarian needs.

 

An “Envelope” Economy

We have, by backing Karzai, contributed to an exponential increase in poppy cultivation, delinquency, and drug trafficking, another reason why a long-term engagement, unlike what Ms. Clinton and Mr. Gates have sustained, is necessary to clear the ranks of drug-smuggling thugs, including Ahmed Wali Karzai, Mr. Karzai’s brother who is head of the provincial council in Kandahar and believed responsible for the widespread vote-rigging in Kandahar. Under Ahmed Wali Karzai’s protective cocoon Colonel Razik, the major drug pin in the region, and others like him, thrive on the return of widespread opium cultivation. Invasion of Afghanistan nipped al-Qaeda in the bud, depriving the terrorists of their nuclear ambitions, which needs state sponsorship. Our hasty departure may change that. Not to mention that the lawlessness of Afghanistan translates into cheap smack flooding our streets. It is, therefore, not time to pack our bags and make a shamed-faced departure, as Mr. Gates and Ms. Clinton have suggested.

Afghanistan needs roads, hospitals, electricity, and schools. It would take a decade or so to upgrade the country’s infrastructures, nudging it toward a free state, while building good faith, implement allocative efficiency, and pulling the army out as competent civil actors take their place. In the meantime upgrading the army’s Civil Affairs Units—experts in dealing with war-ravaged territories by rebuilding bridges, power lines, villages, and so forth—is the first step. These units were drastically downgraded by then secretary of state Rumsfeld, as part of Bush’s unilateral interventionist creed. In 2004 USAID implemented a $130 million project, by hiring Chemonic International, to revitalize agriculture in Hemland. The project was not implemented because the U.S. army did not allocate soldiers to protect the Technicians. (4. There are rural electrification and agricultural models that have worked, and worked very well, in poor, rural contexts. Given time, agricultural subsidies combined with deployment of agricultural officers, technicians, and electrical engineers—protected by U.S. forces—and local economic subsidies to battle the interconnected challenge of poverty, illiteracy, and lack of access to potable water could have dramatic effects.

 

The End Game

No one denies the extent of the disastrous legacy Bush left president Obama. The descent of Afghanistan to the brink of anarchy was a result of eight years of willful oblivion. We embarked on this disaster, as we often do, dancing to the drums of gasoline, not trumpets of democracy. This war was about demographics and opportunities, about the geostrategic importance of Afghanistan, because of its proximity to the energy-producing regions in Central Asia, more to do with projecting “our power and influence” in the region and precious little to do with al-Qaeda, the monster that wreaked havoc on us. We now know that in March, a mere three months into the search for Bin Laden, the Persian-and-Arabic-speaking Special Force personnel were pulled out of Afghanistan for deployment in Iraq. We had no exit plan in Afghanistan and no practical solutions for “transformation”—not even the noble intentions. The complex contingency operation (in other words nation building) that was signed by Clinton in 1997 was not renewed by Bush, leaving a gaping hole in policy. Obama has the possibility to change the paradigm, going back to the initial promise of building a democracy, or the closest thing to it, with a long-term socio-economic solution that would make extremism irrelevant.

On the current course we may win a battle or two but we will loose the war, leaving Afghanistan to its own faith of anarchy under the extremists. And the last time Afghanistan was left unchecked, on the eve of the Soviet withdrawal, the country was caught in a spiraling escalation of regional chaos. It became a safe haven for jihadists, from where they rewarded us with a few murderous planes. This time it could be worse, especially if al-Qaeda having impregnated the neo-Taliban, like a deadly virus within a bacterium, gets its hands on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Our local woes will seem irrelevant when and if someone detonates a nuclear weapon in one of our cities. Obama was right in his assessment that this was the “good war”, but he has chosen the wrong method to fight it. The strategy that could work in Afghanistan is geo-economic not geo-political. It can be implemented if Obama begins to act less like a neo-con and more like a man who has won the Noble Peace Prize. He needs to “grasp the nettle and show his mettle,” at the cost of unpopularity. Afghanistan needs a carefully balanced approach, where the legitimacy of our actions is derived from the correlation of rhetoric and action, where we address the root causes of repression, injustice, and poverty that serve as jihadi magnets. Developing Afghan agriculture as a means of wading off the exponential revival of poppy cultivation has to be part of any “winning” strategy. Robert Kennedy noted, “The real constructive force in the world comes not from bombs but from imaginative ideas.” A framework based on engagement and common interests, without “arrogance or hostility or delusions of superiority” (Kennedy, again) will erase some of the hatred directed toward us and provide Afghanistan with basic human needs, making it a safer place, reduce extremism and lawlessness, which, in turn, will make America safer, but to get there, Obama has to stop “campaigning” and start “governing,” and he has to believe that, “Yes, we can.”

  1. Sami Yousafzai, “The Taliban in Their Own Words,” Newsweek, (September 26, 2009), http://www.newsweek.com/id/216235/page/6
  2. Andrew J. Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli, “Is the Chance of Success in Afghanistan better than a Coin Toss?” Foreign Policy (December 2009)
  3. Umberto Eco. Turning Back the Clock. New York: Harcourt 2006, p. 11.
  4. Ahmed Rashid, “Descent into Chaos,” Penguin Books, London, England.

 


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