The Long Road Ahead in Afghanistan, V

Assume for argument’s sake that the war in Afghanistan can be “won”: objectives can be formulated that are acceptable to all parties and through a combination of political and military actions, the opposition can be vanquished. If the war is won, however, will the peace be won or lost?

For the postwar peace to be one in which the Better State Of the Peace is not only initially achieved but sustained, Afghanistan must become a better place for Afghans, so they will transfer their loyalty to the new status quo represented in the American and Afghan government BSOP. The reason for such a sustained transfer of allegiance has to be based on the perception of the Afghans–and especially those who have not previously supported the government–that their lives are better under the regime than before (or under that proposed by the insurgents). If that occurs, there is a reasonable chance (but no certainty) that peace may “break out;” without it, the BSOP is likely to be simply an interlude in the fighting.

The nub of the problem is what is sometimes called “nation-building,” but is more properly called state building (since that term refers to the government and supporting structures). What this means is that a new government must be visibly superior to that before the insurgency, both in terms of governmental performance and improvement in the general conditions of life in the country.

In the case of a post-insurgency country, the building of a better state begins with several built-in disadvantages. The first is its own legacy: as noted in other parts of this series, there would probably not have been an insurgency had the government been praiseworthy in the first place. Indeed, the legacy of the Afghan government is one of considerable corruption, maldistribution of what little wealth exists, authoritarianism, rural-urban split, and a variety of other reasons people have opposed it. Before any loyalty is likely to be transferred to a new post-insurgency government that has elements of the old regime at its core, the people must be convinced that the “new” government is a considerable improvement over the old. In the case of Afghanistan, the probable core must be the perception that the regime is not anti-Pashtun.

There is also the legacy of the war itself. Going back to the Soviet invasion of 1979, Afghanistan has been more or less constantly at war for thirty years today, and some years will of combat will be added before the BSOP is reached. Warfare takes its human and physical tolls, and the amount of post-war rehabilitation and reconstruction that will be needed will be enormous under the best of circumstances. Afghanistan was and is a very poor and extremely underdeveloped place, and this is a two-edged sword: on one hand, there was less to destroy than in a more developed place; on the other, the agenda of needed change is more extensive than in a place that was better developed in the first place.

The state-building process will be extremely difficult. Its bottom line must be an Afghanistan where there is hope and a sense of a better state of life for the citizens. The problem is what that means in a strictly Aghan sense. The agenda is both uncertain and extensive.

Start with a rejoinder. Although the conditions in Afghanistan are admittedly deplorable, the measures by which that misery are described are almost certainly suspect. The CIA World Factbook description of the Afghan population serves as a shocking warning. Until very recently, most sources have listed the Afghan population at a little over 33 million, but recently the estimate has been revised downward to something over 28 million, a drop of around five million or about 16 percent. Why? According to the Factbook, “the previous estimate…was extrapolated from the last Afgham census held in 1979, which was never completed because of the Soviet invasion; a new Afghan census is scheduled to take place in 2010.” In other words, the figures on which all per capita estimates about Afghanistan are based come from admittedly flawed 30-year-old data that are to be updated next year in the middle of an ongoing war. Does this inspire confidence in any statistical representation of the Afghan condition?

State building must be underpinned by economic development, and the prospects are grim. Only 28 percent of the population is literate, as measured by 8 years of education. That provides a limit on the kinds of productive activity in which the country can engage. After poppies, the largest exports of the country are hand-woven rugs and textiles, the most primitive forms of manufacture. About 80 percent of the population is engaged in agriculture, mostly subsistance agriculture, while 10 percent are involved in industry and 10 percent in service activities.

The transportation and communications infrastructure are similar. Afghanistan has 14 airports with paved runways (the figure for the United States is 14,951). There are 7,719 miles of paved roads in a country the size of Texas compared with 2,631,246 miles in the US. Afghanistan has 27 radio stations and 7 television stations. There are approximately 5.4 million cell phones in operation, compared to 255 million in the US.

The misery level in human terms is even great. The life expectancy of Afghans is slightly less than 45 years. Per capita GDP is $700, which ranks it 219th in the world and compares to $46,900 for Americans. The unemployment rate is estimated at 40 percent. In 2003, the last year for which statistics were apparently available, 53 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. The atstistics go on and on; the reader gets the picture.

The process of even beginning to transform this situation is daunting, to say the least, and must be put in context. Within the educational levels, for instance, males are much more likely to have an eighth-grade education than females, 43.1 percent to 12.6 percent. Effectively, this means half the population (women) are locked out of the economic system, but it is not clear that many Afghans, for cultural reasons, want that to change.

It is also clear that it is not entirely certain that we know what we want to do about all this. The commitment to transforming Afghan society into something else will clearly be another part of the very long road ahead in Afghanistan, and the outcomes are neither certain nor entirely predictable. In those circumstances, what should the United States do? Given the constraints on the current era, what can the United States afford to do? What levels will the American people support?

The answers to these questions are not certain, but it is probably necessary to determine them. If the United States will not commit itself to a massive rebuilding of Afghanistan after it wins the war, it will likely lose the peace and see much of the BSOP dissolve before its eyes. If that is the case, then should the effort be undertaken in the first place?

All of the questions raised in the five installments of this series have serious implications for the ongoing American effort. While these articles were being written, General Stanley McChrystal has returned to the United States with a new assessment of what is needed in Afghanistan. In the next posting, those requests will be analyzed in terms of the framework described here.


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