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General Petraeus, Will You Talk to Me Now?

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It isn't State-Building, It's Deflating an Insurgency

The former Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, General Karl Eikenberry, Vice President Joe Biden, and now even Time Magazine agree: 70 percent of the Afghan men fight for the Taliban not for reasons of religion, or even against the occupation, but for the wages the Taliban pays so they can feed their families. Afghanistan is a desperately poor land with 50% unemployment.  This seems an extremely poor reason for us to be fighting a war.  Most of them don't hate us (yet,) they don't even especially want us out, at least right now.  They attack because they get paid for it and their children are starving.

I had my file folder of Powerpoint charts and plans for an alternative way to win this war ready to hand to General David Petraeus as I raced to the Kennedy School Forum at Harvard, upon hearing he was speaking in my neck of the woods yesterday.  I didn't have a ticket for the event so I never managed to even get near him.  What I did witness was the extraordinary spectacle, through the peek I had through the doors, of a Scottish bagpipe band preceding his entrance and a full-blown rendition, by a hired singer, of the Star Spangled Banner.

Does even Obama get this treatment at what amounts to a town hall meeting?  Hail Maximus.

The devil is in the details.  With broad agreement that we are walking into what every indicator says will be a quagmire, where soon plenty more young Afghan men will be fighting because they do actually hate us, is it possible to do anything to lure them away from the Taliban with hope and jobs?  After witnessing the inevitable civilian casualties and the unsporting fire-power of F-16s and C-130 gunships against AK-47s and rocket launchers, it's a sure bet that hostilities will harden.  It's like watching a train wreck approaching which you can do nothing about.  It can never stop in time, and there are no switches to divert it.

But are there?  Will anyone see it and lunge, to divert the train wreck?

Time Magazine:

valley elder Sham Sher Khan, [says] the way to counter the insurgency hasn't changed..."The Taliban say they are fighting because there are Americans here and it's a jihad. But the fact is, they aren't fighting for religion. They are fighting for money.  If they had jobs, they would stop fighting."

The prevailing wisdom is that the country is rife with corruption.  We hear that money never makes it to the little guy.  So the question is, is there a program which can circumvent this?  

The metaphor I like to use is a physicist's "wormholes" through space.  There are vast distances between suns, but there may be "wormholes," bends in space, which are in essence short cuts which may make intersteller travel possible.  In this case the vast distances are the many layers of corrupt bureaucracy, inside the country and out, which prevents all but a trickle of reconstruction aid reaching the people who need it most.  

It should be noted that the biggest corruption takes place outside the country, where contractors like Louis Berger (schools, roads) skim off huge profits from cost-plus contracts before a dime ever reaches Afghans.

The solution, the track switch, the wormhole, is cash-for-work jobs programs, an innovation in Third World development tool which has been proven over time.  They are administered by humanitarian organizations like Oxfam (called NGOs, non-governmental organizations), local government authorities, and US agencies like USAID.  

Cash-for-work programs have already made a huge difference in some communities in Afghanistan, including in Jawzjan Province, Uruzgan, and Balkh Province.  The work involves basic infrastructure improvement like clearing canals, clearing irrigation waterways, building stone wall boundaries, and basic improvements of unsurfaced roads, which is most of the roads in Afghanistan.  There is no shortage of this kind of work, as most of the rubble lays right where it fell right after the Russians bombed it.  

The aim of cash-for-work programs, which have also been piloted in many other countries is to put hard cash into the hands of workers at the end of a day of labor.  They are easy to monitor, since little capital equipment is required much larger than hand-tools, and one can easily count heads at a worksite to see if the money is being spent properly.  The cash-for-work solution is ridiculously cost-effective.  The Taliban's recruiting pool could be greatly soaked up by spending what we spend on military operations in 2 months.    This would keep potential Taliban "off the street" for a year.  Pay $10 a day and these guys will do anything.  The Taliban pays $8.

Also, these kinds of simple projects like canal-clearing and ditch digging are not structures the Taliban can destroy right after they are built.  You can't blow up a ditch.

The time has come to take what works in Afghanistan and put it on steroids.  Cash-for-work should be the core around which the new military mission is built.  

General Petraeus is known for being an innovative thinker outside of the box.  Post-surge, resurgent Taliban Afghanistan will be his greatest test.  Fortunately, many thinkers and brave humanitarian workers came before him to pave the way, at risk of life and limb.  They were soldiers too.  They and the general know that no one hates war like a soldier.

Obama and other critics of the reconstruction warn us against extending our ambitions to "state building" rather than the sensible goal of simply defeating the insurgency.  Cash-for-work is not state-building.  It is deflating the insurgency.  

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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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