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Flirting With Disaster in Afghanistan, and a Glimmer of Hope

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As chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee has a hand in the crafting of foreign policy second only to the president and the secretary of state. The following is a letter sent to him urging a course correction in Afghanistan, which he has the power to effect.

Dear Senator Kerry,

The war in Afghanistan is about to enter a new phase. We are on the cusp of a new level of violence after which orderly withdrawal anytime soon may not be an option. After eight years of occupation, the vast majority of Afghans remain mired in wretched poverty, with pockets of opulence only adding to resentment over the misspending of non-military aid. The misallocation of aid is well-understood by Afghans, who see the "narco-mansions" and the new SUVs of foreign contractors while most can barely eat.

To say that "nation-building" is outside of the scope of our limited mission is to miss entirely the nature of the insurgency, which is ultimately the result of a failed reconstruction and rampant 40% unemployment, juxtaposed with Taliban control of a lucrative opium economy. This places the Taliban in the position of being the employer of last resort, able to pay a young demographic of potential new fighters a wage of $10 per day.

This demographic bodes ill for America, as the insurgency finds a never-ending supply of new manpower. Although the Taliban remains widely unpopular, it is now becoming "less unpopular" than the American presence, which, given the Taliban's reputation for brutality, took some doing. But eight years after the occupation began, 40% of children are underweight, 35% of the population is malnourished, and one in five infants dies before the age of five. AOL news reports that hunger is Afghanistan's biggest killer.

The US has nearly squandered the enormous amount of goodwill which initially greeted the American presence. We are now firmly in the cycle of civilian casualties, night raids, and desires for revenge which will make the war even more intractable.

Policy-makers are badly miscalculating the nature of Afghan nationalism, which, while slow to assert itself, once triggered, will settle for nothing less than a humiliating catastrophe for America. The operative Afghan saying is "twice betrayed." It was believed by Afghans that after the US abandonment to starvation and civil war in the 80's, after the Mujahadeen had driven out the Soviets, that this time the promises of a reconstruction would be kept. In Afghan culture, the second betrayal is far worse than the first. We are on the verge of letting it happen.

This disaster can be averted by focusing on those programs which wean rank-and-file insurgents away from the opium economy which finances the insurgency. This can be done at a cost to the US of what we spend on military operations in less than one month, or about $5 billion. The National Solidarity Program (NSP) is an Afghan government program which is already in place, is of proven competence, and which has the capacity to immediately provide employment for fighting-age males on a wide scale.

Why should Americans care about the NSP? Because the sooner Afghanistan is stabilized in a sensible way, the sooner the hundreds of billions spent on war can be spent here at home. Providing economic alternatives to joining the Taliban is the single most devastating blow which can be dealt to the Taliban, as memories of its brutal rule and the benefits of honest wages and peace combine to distance the population from its growing sway. If we get stuck in a the quagmire of a viral insurgency, this opportunity will have been lost. At this moment, it may not be too late. The benefits of a commitment to addressing hunger and unemployment will be visible immediately, and planning for withdrawal of combat forces can beging in earnest as the tribes turn upon the Taliban, as have the Pashtun Shinwari.

The crucial aspects of the NSP are:

- The election of nearly 30,000 community development councils (CDCs) by each village, which choose from among different project proposals which both generate employment and benefit the communities,

- The selection of the council treasurer by the villagers themselves, who are best-placed to decide who is honest and competent,

- The sense of "buy in," or community ownership by the community, which both drives the communities to defend NSP projects against Taliban attack, and prevents Taliban attack due to the bad "public relations" it incurs.

- The existence of thousands of projects already on the drawing board, ready to implement immediately in order to hire many thousands of workers. These projects lack only funding. The Honorable Ehsan Zia, the architect of the NSP, has been on Capitol Hill many times requesting this funding.

NSP projects tend to be simple: canal clearing, digging irrigation trench, and basic dirt road improvements using gravel and dirt, anything which puts a cash wage of about $7 per day, good money here, in the hands of economically desperate young men.

Since the organized Taliban commands little bedrock loyalty, the result will be a weaning away of fighters from the opium economy which finances the insurgency, as Afghans turn upon the Taliban and rebuild tribal structures. Abandoning Afghans once again to warlords and religious extremists, without the bootstraps to resist these forces economically, will have disastrous consequences for the West.

Afghans have long been capable of defending themselves. As a warrior society, given something to defend, Afghans will deal with local Taliban and Al Qaeda. But this will not happen as long as the Taliban is the only actor distributing cash and benefits. Please back an appropriation which is a small fraction of yearly military spending for the NSP. Surely we can divert one month of what we spend on military operations into something that really works. It is in ordinary, poor Afghans, and tribal society, that we will find our best allies in the war on terror. Let us not betray the Afghan people again, Senator, for "twice betrayed" is what no people should have to bear.

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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 (more...)

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