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Resolving the Afghan Conundrum

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Much conjecture has been made of the situation in Afghanistan--it's an ungovernable, fragmented country, an unwinnable war with no concept of a decisive victory, a graveyard of empires set to add another tombstone to its collection. A very expensive tombstone at that. This year's tab alone is estimated at over $50 billion.

The solutions to this conundrum thus far proposed: ride Kharzai's coattails to a perceptual victory and then get out, train Afghans to police their own country with a united police and army, or simply search and destroy until all the Taliban are gone,--all are based on false premises.

Afghanistan is not a country. It is, like Iraq a loose confederation of tribal cultures whose suspicion and lack of cooperation among themselves is exceeded only by their distrust of invading foreign entities. Add to this a savage combativeness:a friend once worked in pre-Soviet Afghanistan as a Peace Corps medic whose chief duty was to repair bullet wounds to the buttocks of the endlessly quarreling locals who, enjoined by Islam from killing, resorted to such gunplay knowing the victim would likely die of infection, for which they could not accept blame. When asked, upon the Soviets invading, if they stood a chance of prevailing he said no. He was referring to the Soviets.They have a willingness to die seeking revenge for any perceived insult to their tribe or religion, and by invading one has initiated an open-ended, expensive, endless conflict with an enemy united only in its hatred of outside meddling.

But meddle we must. The collapse of the Twin Towers set us on a collision course with destiny in this forbidding place, and the investment in lives and treasure seems a bit much to simply cut our losses and bug out without first trying a few simple strategems that may well produce the desired result. By this I mean a reasonably united political structure with its citizens engaged in a cooperative effort at building their nation. "Nation building." There, I've said it. And like it or not, it's what we should be doing there if we ever hope to make this longest war in our history redeemable.

For this there are several fairly compelling reasons: the previous regime nourished terrorism and exported the product, Afghanistan lies in a strategic position hard by Iran, the oil rich republics of what was once the USSR, and Pakistan--our erstwhile ally possessing the only current Islamic bomb and fundamentalist factions within its military and intelligence organs. It's sitting on a motherlode of mineral wealth--some of it the strategic, rare earth kind, and (to my thinking) most of all, the ongoing threat and plight of half its population--its women.

The women of Afghanistan have historically been little more than chattel, and their status sunk to new lows under the woman-fearing Taliban. Women were not allowed out of their homes even to shop for groceries without a male escort, and were required to cover themselves head to toe lest a passing imam see any portion of their flesh and succumb to a frenzy of lust for which she--not he--would be held accountable. The mullahs exerted more effort policing women (read: keeping them in their place) than in otherwise conducting the duties of government. As to women acquiring educations and/or holding down jobs and positions of power? Fuggetabboudit.

Something about the condition of women in Afghanistan is redolent of the condition of blacks in the pre-civil rights American South. Movement was constricted, dress and comportment were specified and horrendous penalties exacted for any deviation from this norm. As bad as that was, even the Old South pales beside the penalties--stoning, beheading--exacted on errant women under the Taliban. Do we really want this system to return? What is "fighting for freedom" all about if not this?

One wonders at the relative silence of western feminists on this issue. It would seem that, in proper outrage, women would be demonstrating before the embassies of all fundamentalist Islamic countries, and in front of the fundamentalist mosques in their own countries in massive, noisy rallies, proclaiming solidarity with their oppressed sisters and roundly booing any of their representatives in public forums.

Nonetheless, achieving our aims in Afghanistan is a daunting task, and clarity must be the watchword if we are to carry the day. Options must be thoroughly examined and even gamed out to deduce results. Goals and the means of achieving them should be proclaimed with as little dissembling as possible.

It is at this point that I would like to propose a course that I believe has both merit and the promise of eventually succeeding:

Our stated goal should be to build Afghanistan as a viable, peaceful and prosperous nation with all the freedoms and responsibilities that Americans enjoy--although not necessarily in the same way. Women should be free, the population literate and invested in legal means to settle disputes,and engaged in building an infrastructure to eventually usher it into the first world.

Freedom of religion must be absolutely respected, with Buddhists, Christians, Jews and others under the vigilant protection of authorities.

There are no doubt Afghans who share this vision--probably academics and others who have been to the West. These should be sought out and nourished like hothouse flowers to establish an intellectual base for nationbuilding. They should not, however be given initial positions of power. Afghanistan is not ready for them.

The borders of the country contain multiple power centers, i.e., the warlord territories. The current dominant personalities,General Rashid Dostum,Mohammed Quasim Fahim, Hamid Kharzai, Daoud Khan, Atta Muhammad, Karim Khalili, Gul Agha Shirzai,Ismail Khan,and major tribal entities, the Hazara, Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks form a nucleus with which to constuct a federation of ethnic states or 'ethnofederation' as the concept is popularly expressed.

Each of these entities has their own agenda--some sell opium, some exact tribute from wayfarers through their terrain, some are weapons brokers, others are clients of Iranian and Pakistani interests. The point is, none of them is or will be star struck by democracy. However, their status holds the keys to power in Afghanistan, and if democracy is ever to prevail, they must participate, however unwillingly.

This begs the question: what is common ground in Afghanistan? Weapons? Opium? Islam? General treachery aggravated by blood feuds? The motivating factor in each group varies.

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Jeffrey MacKenzie is an architect who has an abiding interest in international affairs and in the peaceful resolution of conflicts. "I have come to realize the role money plays in forces that move nations. The growth model for international (more...)
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Resolving the Afghan Conundrum

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