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The Difficulty of New Thinking on Afghanistan

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Ralph Lopez     Permalink
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Most notably, the report recommends that NATO "Integrate all troops and operations in Afghanistan under a single NATO-ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) command with a mandate to protect the population."

With a mandate to protect the population. These are key words. General Karl Eikenberry, former Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, told Congress in 2007, ""Much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to support their families." If Biden and General Eikenberry are correct, then it follows logically, and the conclusion cannot be escaped, that by killing "Taliban" we are killing mostly young men whose main crime is not that they like the Taliban they don't but that they want to feed their families. This is the definition of a tragedy.

A surge in troop strength by the relatively small number of 24,000 need not be all that alarming. Russian troop strength rose to 100,000 at the max, with supply lines right next door, and still they could not win militarily. What is more important than the number of troops is what their orders are. The Asia Society's "mandate to protect the population" is the winning mission. Rather than chase Taliban, those orders should be to stay put, protect people and work crews, and hand out day jobs and money.

The Taliban, which now has a presence in up to 56% of the country, enjoys support a mile wide and an inch deep. Chasing Taliban does play into one set of hands: Al Qaeda's. In a tape released by bin Laden, he said that the goal for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was to "bleed...America to the point of bankruptcy."

"All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note,"

That "operation" just cost bin Laden two expendable fighters, but it cost the U.S. perhaps a million dollars. A single Tomahawk cruise missile costs $850,000, then there is gas and wear-and-tear for helicopters, fighter jets, C-130 gunships (which fire $10,000 in ammunition in a burst) surveillance drones, Humvees, armored personnel carriers, not to mention human lives. On both sides.

If the military presence can be dovetailed into a massive job creation scheme focused on cash-for-work projects requiring no more than simple hand tools (there is no shortage of such projects in the country ditch-digging for future water pipeline, basic rural road improvement) then a new counterinsurgency manual may be written. Yes, there may be a small number of hard-core Taliban with Al Qaeda links, say 10 percent, who will understand nothing but being martyred. The other choice is consigning them to irrelevance. You can't be a commander if no one shows up.

Analyses which place the emphasis on regional diplomacy, although important, cannot substitute for understanding what drives the insurgency in-country. Moreover, regional diplomacy initiatives are slow on the uptake as planeloads of troops arrive at Baghram at this very moment, around-the-clock, and the fighting weather arrives.

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The cost of a massive cash-for-work program to act as the spearhead for real reconstruction? We can't afford it, right? The mind resists letting go of a paradigm. The reality is that a robust job-creation program, for a year, could cost less than what the military spends in two months. The amazing thing is not only is this a more productive approach, it's cheaper.

There are already a number of cash-for-work pilot programs in Afghanistan, in Jawzjan Province, Uruzgan, and Balkh Province, run by Action Aid, Mercy Corps, and USAID, respectively. The USAID project involves the clearing of springs and removal of silt which clogs irrigation ditches. The projects benefit the people in two ways: by providing "much-needed cash to families," and to help them "take better control of the irrigation system on their own land," says Abdul Qadeem Niazi, Senior Infrastructure Engineer for USAID.

What causes the present course to persist? Such a discussion, which might touch upon the profitability of war and President Eisenhower's exhortation to "beware the military-industrial complex," is outside the scope of this essay. It is interesting to note, however, that Eisenhower once wondered why wasn't it possible "to get some of the people in these downtrodden countries to like us instead of hating us."

It is now time for Mr. Holbrooke, President Obama, and the administration to do their only real job. As they fly around the world in airborne palaces at taxpayer expense, their only real job is to be right.

Ralph Lopez is the co-founder of Jobs for Afghans.
The co-founder is Najim Dost, an Afghan citizen and a recent graduate of John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Please circulate and forward this to your congressmember and the White House.

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Ralph Lopez majored in Economics and Political Science at Yale University. He writes for Truth Out, Alternet, Consortium News, Op-Ed News, and other Internet media. He reported from Afghanistan in 2009 and produced a short documentary film on the (more...)

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