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 neither 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 the accidental 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 action.
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 colleagues.
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 with Afghans.
An initial version of this article was posted on the GlobalSecurity.org Sitrep.