Feb 16, 2007

surge in afghanistan, special to the site

The Surge in Afghanistan           President Bush delivered a speech in Washington on Thursday that focused on the once-forgotten war in Afghanistan. The president enumerated a range of measures to fix the detiorating situation in Afghanistan for which he is to be applauded—including, increasing the size and professionalism of the Afghan police and army; adding more than 3,000 US troops; investing in the rural economy to give farmers growing poppy for opium incentives to substitute other crops; helping the Pakistani government set up additional border posts to prevent militants crossing the Afghan border, and creating “reconstruction opportunity zones” in the tribal regions on the Afghan-Pakistan border that can export duty-free goods to the United States. The administration is asking Congress for more than ten billion dollars over the next two years to pay for these measures-- 80% of the money is to go to beefing up Afghan national security forces, and the rest will pay for civilian aid.


            It’s a pity that the president didn’t make this speech more than a year ago when it became clear that the Taliban and Qaeda were resurgent; opium production was exploding; suicide attacks were skyrocketing; attacks on international forces were rising, and reconstruction was stalling because of security concerns. But the president’s initiatives are to be welcomed because in Afghanistan there is a real chance that a comprehensive “surge” on the military, diplomatic and reconstruction fronts will meet with success.


            It’s a key tenet of counter insurgency operations that the center of gravity in a conflict are the people, and in Afghanistan, unlike in Iraq, the population has positive attitudes towards the  international forces occupying their country and a negative view of the insurgents.According to an ABC News/BBC poll released in December, eight in ten Afghans support the presence of international forces on their soil, while only five percent support the Taliban. Afghans also overwhelmingly reject Islamist extremism. No Muslim country in the world appears to be more hostile to Osama bin Laden, with nine of ten Afghans having a negative view of al Qaeda’s leader.


            The new aid efforts by the United States in Afghanistan will therefore likely meet with a favourable response from Afghans, but the administration could be more creative about the policies it is pursuing. On the opium question-- it’s all well and good to encourage farmers to substitute other crops for poppy, but unless they have financial incentives to do so-- so they can bring home roughly the same amount of money they make from poppy production-- the effort is doomed to failure. For that reason, just as the U.S. subsidizes its own farmers for growing certain crops, we should offer subsidies to Afghans who grow common Afghan crops such as cotton, fruit and nuts so that they have a compelling reason to give up poppy farming. Opium production is funding the Taliban, so taking away the financial incentives for poppy growing makes Afghanistan safer for the soldiers of the international coalition and for the Afghan people.


            And we should also aim to transform Pakistan’s tribal belt where al Qaeda and the Taliban have found safe haven. Pakistan has promised a significant aid package to the tribal areas. The United States should also be prepared to grant substantial aid, but that aid should be tied to allowing international observers and journalists to visit the tribal areas, which have been off limits to outsiders for years. The aid should also be tied to the Pakistani government mounting an aggressive campaign to arrest Taliban leaders living in Pakistan.    


            Also the US military and NATO, working together with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, must start identifying the identities and social networks of the suicide bombers who are causing so much havoc in Afghanistan. Last year alone there were 139 suicide attacks. The suicide attackers and their support networks can be identified by mining jihads websites, good intelligence work, and analysing reports in the media. Once the social networks and madrassas that are producing the suicide attackers are well mapped the Afghan and Pakistani governments should move to close those networks and institutions down.


It is also overdue for the United States to announce a long-term mini-Marshall plan for Afghanistan. In early 2006 the Afghan government estimated that $4 billion a year in aid for the next five years was needed to rebuild the country. The U.S. should contribute at least half that sum for the next five years. Given the fact that the 9/11 attacks were incubated in a failed Afghanistan, costing the American economy at least $500 billion, aid for Afghanistan to ensure it does not revert into a failed state is a good investment.  


For its part the Afghan government should institute an public employment program similar to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program that followed the Great Depression in the United States. Afghanistan has a massive 40 percent unemployment rate and a chronic need for infrastructure such as roads, dams, and agricultural aqueducts destroyed by decades of war. The labor required for these projects does not require great skill and millions of Afghans should be set to work rebuilding their country in exchange for a real American Marshall plan to the country.