Winning Through Peace in Afghanistan For Half the Price of War

Winning Through Peace in Afghanistan

For Half the Price of War

A reassessment of the situation in Afghanistan is underway as the uncertainty of the upcoming runoff election amidst looming fears of a civil war have spawned jitters over troop deployment levels in Washington.

At the heart of the crisis is our inability to define our objectives in the conflict.  We plunged head on into the crisis knowing nothing beyond the initial attainable goal of dislodging the Al-Qaeda, whose numbers have since dwindled to fewer than a hundred according to General Jones, and toppling the Taliban government in Kabul.

But somewhere along the way we forgot our mission and at the behest of the Northern Alliance identified the entire Pashtun population in Afghanistan as the enemy and conveniently vilified them as the Taliban.  By transferring blame from one party to another and from a few to the many, we lost track of identifying the enemy, ours and by extension theirs, as we resorted to our oft-failed tactic of applying a military solution to political problems and by using urban war tactics to a rural insurgency.  This gross negligence turned the situation into a paradox of failing military strategies, inherently contradictory political propositions, and conflicting regional interests that it is Afghanistan:

  • In Afghanistan, we insist on winning a war for which our military presence is the cause and not the solution.
  • We are protecting the façade of a government that represents the tyranny of the minority rather than the will of the majority.
  • We are identifying Taliban ideologically, whereas in Afghanistan they are defined ethnically, as Pashtuns, so our campaign against them amounts to our participation in a civil war.
  • We are training an army dominated by the Tajik minority to fight an insurgency in areas of the country dominated by the Pashtun majority.
  • We are planning to expand the Afghan security forces to 400,000 at an unsustainable cost of $3.5 billion that is four times the entire annual GDP of Afghanistan.
  • We are militarizing a country at an exceptionally high civilian/military ratio amidst ethnic tensions that linger after a three-decade long civil war, lest we forget future ‘blowbacks.’

Against these odds, can the U.S. avoid the fate of previous invaders and prevent the Afghan crisis from becoming Obama’s Achille’s heel?  It is difficult to answer history in the affirmative unless we genuinely pursue a drastically different path—in line with the advocacy of ‘change’, and Obama’s status as the Nobel Laureate for peace. The way to win peace without losing the war is to think outside the box for a practical solution based on trust and sincerity to show that we are a ‘helping hand’ and not an ‘occupying force.’

Afghanistan’s enemies are poverty, political disenfranchisement, religious manipulation, and social alienation. Through the peace alternative we can give the people the hope and opportunity for a life style that doesn’t feed on the miseries of war—“Nothing stops crime better than a working hand.”  We can drain the pond in which the extremists fish by denying them their most formidable resource—the human resource.

Such a strategy demands that our 21st century expectations meet the 19th century life style of the Afghans at the juncture of peace and reconciliation so that for once we can apply their solutions to their problems. They can be independent within the modern world, but not isolated from it.  The starting point can be the Pashto saying, “You can’t win villages by force,” as we direct our efforts towards village building instead of ‘nation building.’  We can do this by building village community centers to introduce modernity to them on their terms.

The benefits of an enduring peace will always out weigh the miseries of perpetual wars.  By making a tangible and visible investment in their lives, as the U.S. did in the 1960s, we can win the hearts and minds of the economically neglected and politically marginalized Pashtuns in the war-torn areas of rural Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The safety of these community centers can be guaranteed through a priority of built-in immunities.  Mosques that have a built-in protection against extremists’ attacks should be built first and schools, libraries, and health clinics should be phased in according to a similar safety assessment. These facilities should be Internet-connected to broaden the people’s worldview by providing access to a more progressive Islam that is not in conflict with modernity and a spiritual rather than the doctrinal dimension of Islam.  There should be electronic libraries on history, literature, arts and sciences that revive a sense of cultural pride in a heritage that inspires a sense of responsibility through relevant historical narratives.

In due course, sports facilities should be built to draw the youth away from battlefields. Arts, crafts, and cottage industry modules should be built with micro-lending banking; agribusiness cooperatives to subsidize alternative crop substitution replacing opium poppy cultivation.  Pharmaceutical plants should be built to turn the local poppy harvest into medicinal drugs that will not only eliminate narco-financing of the insurgency, but also provide opportunities for sound economic investment.

Because the community will have a vested interest in these projects, they will protect with their blood that which they have built with their own hands.  Nonetheless, a contingency of rapid re-building plans should be in place in the event of attacks and sabotage.

As extensive as this may seem, it can be done with a fraction of the cost of military operations and will certainly have better prospects of success.

They say a republic loses its soul when it becomes an empire. The opportunity awaits a new American leader like Barack Obama to convince the world that our imperial reach can be soulfully democratic.

Zaman Stanizai is professor of Islamic Traditions at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara.

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