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  Dispatch: Afghanistan on the Edge

 
 
Why we’re losing hearts and minds in Afghanistan.
By Stewart Nusbaumer

Kabul, Afghanistan -- President Bush recently called Afghanistan “the first victory in the war on terror.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had earlier boasted Afghanistan was “a model of success for Iraq.” Here is the truth. There is no victory in Afghanistan. And Afghanistan is a model only for disaster.

In the five years since a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban, the radical Islamists have reorganized and re-established themselves in the countryside and now Afghanistan is embroiled in a full-fledged guerrilla war. Suicide attacks are surging, U.S. air strikes are twice as frequent as in Iraq, combat-related deaths in the last two months total nearly 1,000, Taliban attacks number a dozen every day, bombs are exploding in central Kabul, and numerous provinces are devoid of any reconstruction activity. After rushing several thousand new troops to Afghanistan, European nations are considering sending several thousand more. No victory and no model in Afghanistan.

Bob, who works for a foreign security firm he doesn’t want me to name, between sips of hyper-potent tea explains the stick-and-carrot strategy. I’ll condense his fable—one Bob insists came true a half century ago in Malaysia.

The stick of military force clears a contested area of insurgents and this then enables the carrot of economic development to win the “hearts and minds” of the people. The stick and carrot work in tandem: stick clears, carrots take root, stick clears more, and more carrots take root. Eventually economic carrots are everywhere and the military stick retires to Florida.

“You Yankees have to remember,” Bob is getting worked up, “when trying to win hearts and minds you don’t blow bodies to smithereens. That’s a fundamental point.”

OK, a great point with a twist of British sarcasm. But I want him to explain something else than ripped out: “The United States is falling flat on its bloody face again.”

Bob shoots forward, rubbing his cheek hard: “The U.S. came to Afghanistan with a tiny stick so the Taliban, the drug lords, the warlords, the tribes—the whole gang of usual Afghan thugs—crushed its carrots.”

“That sounds nasty,” I moan.

“You can’t rebuild a country when thugs control the countryside.”

The U.S. military umbrella to implement reconstruction never materialized; there were never enough sticks to swat away the nasties yanking up the carrots. Without enough troops, and most of them focused on eliminating al-Qaeda before they were transferred to Iraq, as fast as reconstruction happened it was gone. The built new schools and new schools were burnt down. A military commander in Kandahar just pleaded with NGOs not to build any more schools because they will just be destroyed.

As for privatizing security, that doesn’t work either. The spiraling cost for private security simply kills public-works plans. “We’re not doing anything down there,” said an NGO employee from Helmend province, a Taliban and poppy stronghold. “The security situation is very bad, that makes construction projects too expensive.”

A RAND Corporation study determined that Bosnia—a success story by comparison—has 19 soldiers per 1,000 residents, while Afghanistan has only 1 soldier per 1,000. On the way to victory in Afghanistan, someone forgot to bring the troops. And buying troops costs more than what they are guarding.

“If anyone ever did a study on where the money really goes,” says an Asian NGO whose contract for rural electrification was cancelled because of the violence, “like for salaries and overhead—security is our biggest cost—they would be shocked. You know, everyone here is making nice money.” He adds rather nervously, “Officially, we’re not supposed to talk to the press.”

“A Mafia System”

In his tent-office sitting behind a table piled high with papers and books, Afghan parliament member Ramazan Bashar Dost has no problem talking to the press. He has no problem saying exactly what he thinks. “It is mafia system in Afghanistan—the cabinet, the UN staff, big embassies like U.S. and Japan staffs, also economic staffs of EU. The system has no transparency. USAID not doing competitive bidding—American company awarded contract, subcontract work to Afghan company. It’s mafia system with lots of corruption.”

His dark eyes are sharp and soft at the same time. “We the Afghan and the American people have the same interests, but minority of Americans and Afghans killed system. Americans pay much taxes at home,” he hesitates, searching for words, “their money in Afghanistan is not used for good things.” He places his hand on my forearm, voice turning gentle, “Twelve billion dollars much money, but life for Afghans is worse today. Afghan people are hungry, no jobs, life is harder. Much money go to corruption.”

In Afghanistan, the international community for reconstruction and development is large and diverse with 800 NGOs from large private corporations to tiny humanitarian groups. They have a mixture of motives and goals ranging from making a stinking fortune to saving people. But the trend here is not good. “This is not the Peace Corps,” says an American with nearly four decades of Peace Corps and NGO experience. “This is cutthroat business. But don’t use my name.”

Under the cloak of rebuilding this sinking land, hunger remains rampant in the countryside, infant mortality is atrocious, daughters are still being sold to pay debts, open sewers run through the cities. Heavy greed and nasty deals are slurping at the financial trough of international reconstruction. Way too much carrot money is ending up in foreign bank accounts and a lot of misery is remaining untouched in Afghanistan.

So the number of troops is vastly insufficient. Reconstruction is at a near standstill. The funding process is corrupt and riddled with favoritism. Who can be surprised the Taliban is flourishing and drug lords are thriving. If the plan is to destroy Afghanistan, then things are going well here. All we need now is to insult Afghans. No problem!

The New Carpetbaggers

You can walk around Kabul every day for weeks and never see a single one of the 3,000 foreign residents here. Not one eating in an Afghan restaurant. Not one riding in a local taxi. Not one walking on the sidewalk. Not one shopping in a store. Not one driving down a street. All you will see is a blurred figure behind heavily tinted glass whizzing past in a luxury SUV.

I once suggested that a group of foreigners that we eat in an Afghan restaurant. “You’ll play Russian roulette with your health,” an Australian cautioned. Then I mentioned that I was thinking about moving to another guesthouse, and immediately came the dismissive reply, “But that’s run by Afghans!” Several times I suggested we take a local cab. “You want to get kidnapped?” The safer and better life in Kabul is always foreign, and ten times more expensive than the local. If the pervasive fear does not steer one to the safer and better foreign, then United Nations’ and foreign embassies’ regulations for their workers will ensure segregation remains ironclad in Afghanistan.

“It’s not right,” a young looking 21-year-old Sabeir complains, his self-confident stare suddenly melting into pained eyes. “This is our country, and they have nothing to do with us. We can’t even go to their places. That makes me very angry!”

To gain a people’s respect and trust, you don’t segregate yourself from them, you don’t push them away, and you don’t insult them. You participate in their society. You learn from them, as they learn from you. You treat them with respect, and they will respect you.

“The third night I was here,” an American accountant tells me, “they said we were having an office barbeque in the evening and I should come. So I went. But there were only expats. I asked, ‘Where are the Afghans?’ And I was told, ‘Oh, we don’t do that here.’ You know, I wondered if the Afghan workers were invited. I don’t think they were.”

Another American, working in an alternative livelihood project in the volatile south, said this: “We have Afghan guards standing on the street in front of our compound. But their office told them to move up on the roof where they will have more protection. But I made them move back down to the street. Their job is to get shot, they are our warning system.”
This man runs a major project funded by the U.S. government. Somehow, I don’t think he’s winning many “hearts and minds.” Not many foreigners in Afghanistan are.

Five years after the U.S. promised to create a secure and prosperous Afghanistan, it’s clear we’ve failed. The Taliban are back. The poverty never left. Afghanistan remains at the bottom of nearly every social indicator. Hope for a better life is quickly disappearing, replaced by a rising bitterness toward America, and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

“How long we supposed to wait?” asks the street chorus of unemployed and poverty-stricken. “Where does all the money go?” they demand to know.

Let’s face reality. A string of U.S. defeats—Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, and now Iraq—demonstrate America’s inability to fight modern wars. Our hi-tech military with its massive firepower has no wars to fight; the conventional Gulf War was an abnormality not likely to be repeated anytime soon, if ever. Our troops lack the doctrine, the equipment, and the training for the low-intensity guerrilla and irregular wars that we do fight, and certainly will continue to fight. Sure we have the world’s most powerful military. It’s a great military. It’s just not good at fighting wars, today.

Without the capacity to subdue guerrilla armies, the even more difficult task of nation-building is simply impossible. Nation-building is never more than establishing a rudimentary structure for locals to then develop, but the U.S. military-reconstruction partnership failed to build this basic bridge to an Afghanistan future. But there may still be hope.

Later this month, NATO will assume responsibility for providing security in the turbulent south, and in the fall for the entire country. The new coalition commander, British Lt. Gen. David Richards, advocates the “Malaysian ink spots” approach—Bob’s military stick protecting economic carrots that expand the safe zone.

But ideas without tools are promises that will fail. Will NATO increase the number of combat troops? Will it curtail the corrosive government corruption and excessive private profits? Will NATO expand economic resources for Afghanistan development? Will it smash the neo-imperialistic social partition that infuriates Afghans? On the other hand, if NATO’s control is merely a European face applied to a failed American effort then Afghans will be stuck with more of the same failure.

A version of this article first appeared in The American Conservative, July 31, 2006 Issue.

 

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