How to Save Afghanistan

First published in Time magazine, July 17, 2008.

It is summer now in Kabul, the snow has largely melted from the 15,000-ft. (4,600 m) peaks, and I am sitting with my friends Hussein, Nabi and Zia in the garden of a 19th century fort. Nearby, 10 carpenters who work with my nongovernmental organization (NGO) are creating a library for a buyer in Tokyo. They’re fitting slivers of wood into a delicate lattice and carving flowers into the walnut shutters. They work fast and smile often. But Nabi, a gentle-voiced 66-year-old cook, is not smiling. He is pessimistic about his country. “We have been promised progress by every government since 1973,” he growls, “but it is getting worse and worse.”

Nabi’s pessimism is very common now in Afghanistan. There has been a dramatic series of recent attacks by the Taliban: a mass assault on a jail freed hundreds of prisoners, and a suicide bombing outside the Indian embassy on July 7 killed 40 and injured over 100. Many of these assaults are planned and supported from safe havens across the border in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Western troop casualties are climbing; the last two months exceeded the monthly death toll in Iraq. On July 13, nine U.S. soldiers were killed when Taliban fighters swarmed over their base in the eastern province of Kunar — the worst attack in three years.

But terrorism and insurgency are only part of what’s going wrong in Afghanistan. In 2002, I walked safely along the length of the road between Herat and Obey in western Afghanistan. Recently aid workers were carjacked on that road, and it is now considered too dangerous for aid agencies, effectively closing the main access to the central regions of the country. In provinces close to Kabul, such as Wardak, Ghazni and Logar, which were easy to visit two years ago, foreigners are regularly attacked and girls’ schools burned at will. Afghanistan produces 92% of the world’s opium (used to make heroin) and 35% of its cannabis and has a flourishing trade in looted antiquities. In a vicious cycle, narcotics, corruption and the absence of law and order are rotting the heart of the government and crippling the economy. Despite massive Western investment, Afghanistan is close to being a failed state.

What should we do about it? Many policymakers want to throw more money and troops at the problem. Both Barack Obama and John McCain say that as President, they would send additional combat brigades — from 7,000 to 15,000 troops — to tame the insurgency in Afghanistan. At a June conference in Paris, Western governments committed an additional $20 billion in aid, in the hope that this would finally bring success in counterinsurgency, counternarcotics, rule of law, governance and state-building — and eventually allow us to withdraw from Afghanistan with honor.

But just because Afghanistan has problems that need to be solved does not mean that the West can solve them all. My experience suggests that those pushing for an expansion of our military presence there are wrong. We don’t need bold new plans and billions more in aid. Instead, we need less investment — but a greater focus on what we know how to do.


What We’ve Done Right

When I walked across Afghanistan, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion had toppled the Taliban regime, there was no electricity in the 400 miles (640 km) between Herat and Kabul. The villages along the route were led by tribal chiefs, mullahs or guerrilla commanders who had little to do with their neighbors, let alone with the central government. Most districts that I visited had no schools or clinics. As a civil servant — I was on leave from my job in Britain’s Foreign Office — I was surprised by how poor Afghanistan was and how ungoverned.

In 2006, after 11 months as a regional administrator in southern Iraq, I returned to Afghanistan to set up an NGO called the Turquoise Mountain to restore part of the old bazaar of Kabul and support traditional crafts. The garbage was then 7 ft. (2 m) deep in the streets, 200 yd. (180 m) from the presidential palace; there was no drainage, sewerage or water supply. Once famous traditional buildings were collapsing, and the craft-masters of ceramics, woodwork and jewelry were dying without passing on their skills. Most of the children in the area were not in school, most people were unemployed, few women were literate, and most of their children died before their first birthday.

The past six years, however, have made me optimistic about many aspects of Afghanistan. The community with which I work in the old city is hardworking, decisive and determined. In less than two years, we have cleared mountains of garbage, established clinics and primary schools, created jobs, restored the buildings and shops of the bazaar and attracted visitors and customers back into the area. I have been impressed also by the flexible and imaginative support that we began to receive from private philanthropists around the world and from Canadian and American development agencies.

There has been dramatic progress in many other parts of the country. Since 2001, 6.4 million children have been educated, and there has been a massive increase in access to basic health care. Western funding and assistance have helped create an efficient central bank, a stable currency, an elected parliament, telecommunications and infrastructure projects and a credible army. Some foreign aid goes directly into the hands of elected councils in over 20,000 villages, allowing them to initiate their own rural-development projects. Many of the villages I visited six years ago now have electricity and access to clinics and schools.


What’s Gone Wrong

For all those improvements, however, it’s clear why my friend Nabi is so pessimistic. The government has not established its authority or credibility. Civil servants lack the most basic education and skills. Perhaps a quarter of teachers are illiterate, and the majority are educated only one grade level above their students (if they are teaching second grade, they have a third-grade education). Many civil servants are corrupt. The police are notoriously predatory and violent. In much of the center and the north of the country, communities have benefited from small amounts of investment in development, health and education, but their contact with civil servants is minimal, and people remain very poor. In the south and the east, along the Pakistani border, the vacuum of government has become an opportunity for gangsters and the Taliban. These are the areas where almost all the world’s opium is produced and where Western forces are fighting a costly counterinsurgency campaign.

Many of these problems cannot be solved by the West, however many billions we spend or thousands of troops we deploy. Our money and expertise, which have helped make the central bank and the Afghan National Army professional and competent, cannot prevent the widespread corruption in the police and legal system. A central bank is relatively small, dealing with narrow issues such as currency and interest rates on which international economists can offer practical, technical advice. An army is able to develop its esprit de corps and drills in barracks, isolated from the broader society. But policemen and judges are much more connected to society and much more exposed to local politics and corruption. This is why most developing countries have relatively effective central banks and armies but corrupt and despised police forces. It’s also why everyone finds it easier to build roads than to create rule of law, easier to build a school than a state. Afghans deal with most crimes outside the court system, using a traditional leader as an arbitrator. No amount of legal training can help a judge faced with drug lords who are prepared to kill his family. It is almost impossible for outsiders to reform this kind of system.

Fighting the Taliban is equally problematic. Western troops can win any conventional battle against ill-armed extremists, but both history and the latest doctrine on counterinsurgency suggest that ultimate victory will require control of Afghanistan’s borders, hundreds of thousands of troops and a much stronger and more legitimate Afghan state, which could take Afghans decades to build. The West does not have the resources to match our ambitions in counterinsurgency, and we never will.

In any case, the preoccupations of the West — fighting terrorism and narcotics — are not the priorities of Afghans like Nabi, Zia and Hussein. Their major concerns are the state of the economy and basic services. Nabi has to keep working in a guesthouse kitchen at the age of 66 to feed his family. Like most other Afghans, he can barely afford bread: the price of flour has tripled in the past year as a result of a surge in global commodity prices. Unpredictable and uncontrollable events such as this may prove much more important than any international policy for the survival of the Afghan state. As Nabi says, “We are fed up with war. I am supporting five unemployed sons. Why can the government not create jobs?”


Getting Out of the Way

So what exactly should we do about Afghanistan now? First, the West should not increase troop numbers. In time, NATO allies, such as Germany and Holland, will probably want to draw down their numbers, and they should be allowed to do so. We face pressing challenges elsewhere. If we are worried about terrorism, Pakistan is more important than Afghanistan; if we are worried about regional stability, then Egypt, Iran or even Lebanon is more important; if we are worried about poverty, Africa is more important. A troop increase is likely to inflame Afghan nationalism because Afghans are more anti-foreign than we acknowledge and the support for our presence in the insurgency areas is declining. The Taliban, which was a largely discredited and backward movement, gains support by portraying itself as fighting for Islam and Afghanistan against a foreign military occupation.

Nor should we increase our involvement in government and the economy. The more responsibility we take in Afghanistan, the more we undermine the credibility and responsibility of the Afghan government and encourage it to act irresponsibly. Our claims that Afghanistan is the “front line in the war on terror” and that “failure is not an option” have convinced the Afghan government that we need it more than it needs us. The worse things become, the more assistance it seems to receive. This is not an incentive to reform. Increasing our commitment to Afghanistan gives us no leverage over the government.

Afghans increasingly blame us for the problems in the country: the evening news is dominated by stories of wasted development aid. The government claims that in 2007, $1.3 billion out of $3.5 billion of aid was spent on international consultants, some of whom received more than $1,000 a day and whose policy papers are often ignored by Afghan civil servants and are invisible to the population. Our lack of success despite our wealth and technology convinces ordinary Afghans to believe in conspiracy theories. Well-educated people have told me that the West is secretly backing the Taliban and that the U.S.’s main objective was to steal Afghanistan’s emeralds, antiquities and uranium — and that we knew where Osama bin Laden was but had decided not to catch him.


Playing to Our Strengths

A smarter strategy would focus on two elements: more effective aid and a more limited military objective. We should target development assistance in provinces where we have a track record of success. Our investment goes further in stable and welcoming places like Hazarajat than it can in hostile, insurgency-dominated areas like Kandahar and Helmand, where we have to spend millions on security and the locals do not contribute to the project and will not sustain it after our departure. We should focus on meeting the Afghan government’s request for more investment in agricultural irrigation, energy and roads. And we should increase our support to the most effective departments, such as education, health and rural development; they are good for the reputation of the Afghan state and the West. Creating more educated, healthier women and men and better transport, communications and electrical infrastructure may be only part of the story, but they are essential for Afghanistan’s economic future.

Our efforts in nation-building, governance and counternarcotics should be smaller and more creative. This is not because these issues are unimportant; they are vital for Afghanistan’s future. But only the Afghan government has the legitimacy, the knowledge and the power to build a nation. The West’s supporting role is at best limited and uncertain. The recent elimination of the opium crop in Nangarhar, for instance, was driven by the will and charisma of a local governor and owed little to Western-funded “capacity-building” seminars. The greatest recent improvements in local government have come about through the replacement of local governors rather than through hundred-million-dollar training programs. Since these successes are often difficult to predict, we should invest in numerous smaller opportunities rather than bet all our chips on a few large programs.

Our military strategy, meanwhile, should focus on counterterrorism — not counterinsurgency. Our presence has so far prevented al-Qaeda from establishing training camps in Afghanistan. We must continue to prevent it from doing so. But our troops should not try to hold territory or chase the Taliban around rural areas. We should also use our presence to steer Afghanistan away from civil war and provide some opportunity for the Afghans themselves to create a more humane, well-governed and prosperous country. This policy would require far fewer troops over the next 20 years, and they would probably be predominantly special forces and intelligence operatives.

This strategy is far from ideal. But it’s the best option we’ve got. It might not allow us to build an Afghan nation. It would involve a very long-term policy of containment and management, and it may never lead to a clear victory or exit. But unlike abandoning Afghanistan entirely, as we did in 1990, it would not leave a vacuum filled by dangerous neighbors. And unlike a policy of troop increases, this strategy would be less costly, more popular with voters, more sustainable in the long term, less of a distraction from other global priorities and less likely to alienate Afghan nationalists and undermine the Afghan state.

Transforming a nation of 32 million people is a task not for the West but for Afghans. Creating a narrative of national identity is not a technical engineering problem but more a question of mythmaking. Afghanistan’s future must combine elders like Nabi with the aspirations of 5 million refugees, recently returned from Pakistan and Iran. And it will be influenced by even larger forces: the eddies of local ideologies, charisma, the fundamentals of population growth and natural resources, global commodity prices and the nation’s relations with its neighbors, from Iran and Pakistan to China. It will draw on government bureaucracies and opaque tribal structures, on old constitutions and new cultures, on religion and luck. Afghans have the energy, the pride and the competence to lead that process. The West, however, does not. It should not waste its money, its lives and its reputation trying to do the impossible. It should invest in what it does well. We do not have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do.


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