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Obama'stan: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

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Imagine that, after World War II, instead of investing in the Marshall Plan in Europe, we allowed Europe to slide into decay. Eight years after the end of the war, unemployment across Europe is 40%. There are reports of literal starvation in the countryside. There are pockets of prosperity -- the more fortunate are getting televisions and cars -- but the vast majority of the population lives in various stages of misery.

Now imagine extreme political factions -- in those days it would have been communists -- making inroads, because they pay a small but living wage to new fighters, plus help with food and medicine. There is no work. The extremists are the employer of last resort. This is exactly what is happening in Afghanistan.  People are starving.

Col. Tom Collins, the top Pentagon spokesman in Afghanistan, told PBS:

"There is a low percentage of the total Taliban force who we would call ideologically driven. We refer to them as Tier 1 people who believe their ideology, that what they're doing is right. The vast majority of Taliban fighters are essentially economically disadvantaged young men."

And General Karl Eikenberry, former commander of US 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"

Yearly reconstruction assistance has amounted, in adjusted dollars, to $60 per person versus the $600 per person we spent on the Marshall Plan.  Forty percent of the workforce is unemployed. The well-financed Taliban pays $8 a day to its fighters, a fortune in this country, and the Taliban is always hiring! Go figure why the insurgency is growing. What is the Obama administration doing? Following the path which carries the most risk: more troops. More troops, more civilian casualties.  More civilian casualties, more hatred.  More hatred, more Taliban.

As always we are focusing on the "pointy" end of foreign policy. When we are roundly hated, we will wonder what went wrong. One of the big talking points among the "experts" now is about government corruption. This is a problem, but the much bigger problem is the kind of corruption which is officially sanctioned. Out of the relatively measly $60 per capita spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan, roughly 40% goes straight back out of the country in the form of profits for foreign contractors, according to a recent Oxfam report.

Need a school? Hire a foreign construction firm to design it, import materials to build it, rather than scout around for what's local, and import leased heavy equipment to do the digging and clearing, rather than give lots of shovels and picks to men who would do just about anything for $10 a day. It's like giving a man in the desert a thimble of water and taking half of it back.

The gravest misconception about the insurgency is that it is driven by ideology, not economics. The Americans, at first, were truly welcomed in Afghanistan. The country was relatively stable until a year ago, when the people got tired of waiting for help which never arrived.  The Taliban took full advantage of it.

Unlike Saddam in Iraq, who had a natural constituency in his Sunni and tribal base, the Taliban has its mysterious roots in the madarsas of Northern Pakistan.  It has little popular support except its ability to force obedience. This was related to me by an Afghan colleague who told me how, "if there was a ten dollar bill laying on a street corner, you could come back days later and that ten dollars would still be there." Why? Because if you were accused of stealing it, they would cut off your hand. The Taliban insurgency is growing as a result of economic conditions, not ideological ones. Most Afghans hate the Taliban, but they need to feed their families.

Top British official Captain Leo Docherty has called Afghanistan "a textbook case of how to screw up a counterinsurgency."

In a report from Helmund Province a young man told a reporter that it was either the Taliban or watch his family starve. "I couldn't find a job anywhere," said 19-year-old Jaan Agha. "So I had to join the Taliban. They give me money for my family expenditures. If I left the Taliban, what else could I do?" Herein lies the problem and the promise for the Obama administration. They'll keep joining the Taliban, unless we give them something else to do.  

Obama has indicated that he understands the problem, then goes and does exactly the wrong thing: send troops, rather than make jobs. The shame is that right now, this minute, he still has a choice of approaches.  As the snows melt in the passes and the spring fighting season arrives, and hatreds and hostilities harden, that choice will vanish like the snows.

Empires have stomped through Afghanistan since the beginning of history and have always met a bad end.  These fierce, independent people take to being occupied less than perhaps any other people on Earth.  In the summer of 2008, a young Marine captain sat down with village elders in a Southern province, with his men, and said, "We know many faces have come through here over 30 years...the question we have to answer to you is how we are different."

Afghanistan can be won by implementing a massive infrastructure program focusing on rural roads, where most people live (not a state-of-the-art highway to the airport,) on digging pipeline for water systems (3/4 of the country has no access to safe drinking water, a major cause of death and disease,) and on irrigation. Reconstruction must be managed in a way which creates millions of unskilled labor jobs for Afghans, rather merely benefiting foreign contractors like Kellogg-Root-Brown.

Noor Ahmed Qarqeen, Afghan Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, said "Men who work, have no time to make war."

American casualties are at an all time high, and will go higher as young soldiers fight heroically and with extraordinary sensitivity against both insurgents, and a deaf, dumb, and blind American foreign policy.

Ralph Lopez is the founder of Jobs for Afghans.

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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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