One truism of counterinsurgency is that securing and winning over the population are the keys to success. So, what do the people of Afghanistan want? In December, ABC and the BBC conducted nationwide polling and discovered that one-third of Afghans said that poverty and unemployment were the biggest challenges confronting them. Another third named rising insecurity and violence. Meanwhile, relatively few Afghans were preoccupied by those issues that many Americans deem to be Afghanistan’s greatest problems. Only 14 percent of respondents said corruption and feckless government were the leading concerns, while a mere 2 percent selected the drug trade and the influence of foreigners. When asked to name the biggest danger in the country, around 70 percent of respondents chose the Taliban. The lesson flowing from all of this is that the United States must provide the kind of stability and prosperity that it promised Afghans after the overthrow of the Taliban.
On April 17, 2002, President George W. Bush spoke at the Virginia Military Institute, where General George C. Marshall had studied a century earlier. In his speech, he seemed to pledge some kind of Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. But no such outpouring of assistance ever came. Per capita U.S. aid to Bosnians following the end of the Balkan war in the mid-’90s was nearly 30 times that received by Afghans in the two years after the fall of the Taliban. Between 2001 and 2009, U.S. reconstruction and humanitarian aid hovered around an average of $1.75 billion annually—about $58 per Afghan per year. Ambassador James Dobbins, the Bush administration’s first envoy to the new Afghan government, has rightly observed that “the American administration’s early aversion to nation building” meant there was “low input” and, therefore, “low output,” which resulted in “low levels of security and economic growth.”
Nor have Afghans seen much for the approximately $36 billion in reconstruction aid that has flowed to their country since 2001. Many of these funds have been consumed by the various international organizations whose four-wheel drives clog the streets of Kabul. A 2008 report by the British charity Oxfam found that around 40 percent of aid to Afghanistan was funneled to donor countries to maintain home offices in the West and pay for Western-style salaries, benefits, and vacations. Another study found that less than 20 percent of international aid ended up being spent on local Afghan projects. Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest nations, on par with such basket cases as Somalia.
The United States could improve this state of affairs quite swiftly—certainly before the July 2011 deadline for some form of U.S. military drawdown. After years of war, there is no shortage of vital infrastructure in need of building or repairing. Focusing on several high-profile projects would provide much-needed jobs, establish the foundations needed for a functioning economy, and give Afghans a reason to resist the overtures of the insurgents. The most urgent, obvious task is to secure the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway, the most important road in the country, economically and politically. Under the Taliban, this route was pitted with giant potholes that could swallow cars whole. It was rebuilt as a blacktopped freeway by 2004, and, at that time, was the only large-scale reconstruction project to be completed since the U.S. invasion. Just two years later, the security situation had deteriorated so precipitously that to drive on the road without substantial security backup was a suicide mission. It remains so today.
Taking back this highway from the Taliban and the brigands who plague it would bring broad economic benefits, increasing commerce between northern and southern Afghanistan and enabling more trade between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. And it would send an important message. Five years ago, in Iraq, American soldiers took control of “Route Irish,” the key artery connecting Baghdad International Airport with downtown Baghdad that had become a nightmarish obstacle course of suicide bombers and IEDs. Making Route Irish safe to travel again signaled that order would prevail in Iraq—and eased access to the country for those international companies and countries engaged in the reconstruction effort.
The second major priority is to finish the work on the massive Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan, which will eventually provide electricity to some two million Afghans. (Only 15 percent of Afghans have electricity in their homes.) Work on the dam has been plagued by inexcusable delays for years. (Incoming AmeriAcan commander David Petraeus will likely focus on this type of project.)
Getting more Afghans to work could be accomplished by a Works Progress Administration program similar to the one instituted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Around 35 percent of Afghans are unemployed, despite their country's desperate need to build new roads and dams and repair agricultural aqueducts destroyed by years of war. Yet the manual labor for major projects such as rebuilding the Kabul-to-Jalalabad road has been performed by imported Chinese laborers. This practice must end.
The Taliban may have imposed a brutal theocratic rule on its citizens, cloistered half the population, bankrupted the country, and provided a safe haven to pretty much every jihadist terrorist and insurgent group around. But it was also the only government in the past three decades to provide Afghans with that most important public good: security.
Those who are urging the United States to reduce its presence in Afghanistan over the next year or two often argue that foreign forces are a bacillus that the Afghan body politic is sure to reject. But, according to the ABC/BBC poll, only 4 percent of Afghans view the United States as the greatest danger to their country—while 62 percent support the presence of international soldiers in Afghanistan. This suggests that the way out of Afghanistan is not to dramatically ramp down the American presence anytime soon.
Another frequent criticism of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is that the effort to secure the country is futile as long as Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other allied jihadist groups continue to enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal regions. But to use this argument as a justification for withdrawal overlooks the most important strategic shift that has occurred since September 11: The Pakistani public, government, and military have largely turned on the militant groups they once supported.
Where the Taliban once enjoyed something of a religious Robin Hood image among ordinary Pakistanis, they are now increasingly seen as thugs. That is because, in recent years, jihadist violence has grown exponentially in Pakistan: Insurgent attacks have increased nearly 800 percent since 2005, and suicide attacks have increased twentyfold. In an emblematic strategic error, on October 10, 2009, the Taliban mounted a 22-hour attack on Pakistan’s equivalent of the Pentagon, near the capital of Islamabad, provoking revulsion and fear among citizens and empowering the military to take on the militants. In October, the Pakistani army launched an offensive in South Waziristan—where it had suffered three defeats in the previous five years. This operation was supported by at least half of the Pakistani public, and, unlike previous campaigns against the Taliban, it wasn’t perceived to be solely for the benefit of the United States. As a result of the offensive, the Taliban can no longer count on South Waziristan as one of their strongholds. The lesson in all of this is to let the Pakistanis continue at their own speed against the Taliban and to desist from publicly scolding them. (It is worth noting that Pakistan has lost many more soldiers to the fight against the Taliban than the United States and other nato countries combined.)
Still, Pakistani efforts against the Taliban will always run up against the strongly held belief of the Pakistani military and political establishments that Afghanistan would give them “strategic depth” in the event of an Indian attack across their eastern border, and that continuing to support elements of the Taliban is a national security imperative. One fix would be to solve the Kashmir dispute, but this does not seem likely to occur anytime soon.
A more plausible solution in the shorter term is for the international community to recognize Afghanistan as a neutral state, as Switzerland has been since 1815. (Afghanistan itself maintained a traditional policy of neutrality for much of the twentieth century, until the Soviet invasion in 1979.) This idea was proposed earlier this year by Karl F. Inderfurth, an assistant secretary of state for South Asia under President Clinton, who explains that this would involve a “formal Afghan proclamation of neutrality, its endorsement by the [U.N.] Security Council, and the acceptance of reciprocal obligations by the Afghan state and relevant countries.” Pakistan would then be reassured that India’s large-scale aid program to Afghanistan and its handful of consulates in the country are not part of some wide-ranging Indian scheme to encircle and strangle Pakistan, as many Pakistanis presently believe. To give the proposal teeth, the Security Council could invoke a range of sanctions against any state that interfered with Afghanistan’s neutrality.
It has been a staple of Western political theory, ever since Thomas Hobbes published The Leviathan in the shadow of the English Civil War, that, if the state does not provide security, life will be “nasty, brutish and short.” Almost a decade after the Taliban’s fall, we must relearn that elementary lesson—and fulfill the promise we made to Afghan citizens to put their country on the path to a better future. If we do that, Afghanistan could once again attain the measure of stability she enjoyed in the 1970s, when she was at peace with herself and her neighbors.
Peter Bergen is contributing editor to The New Republic and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know.