David Ignatius
David Ignatius
Opinion Writer

In Afghanistan, soccer or civil war?

Gaze into the murky crystal ball at Afghanistan’s future after the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops: The country is fragmented, intense rivalries pitting regions against each other. Kabul remains the center, prized by all, and rivals come there to battle for national dominance.

This isn’t a military assessment, actually, but a business plan formulated by my favorite Kabul tycoon, Saad Mohseni, the head of a media company called Moby Group. He’s launching a new Afghan Premier League in soccer that will be sponsored by Roshan Telecom Development Co., a leading Afghan communications company, and whose games will be broadcast by Mohseni’s network of television and radio stations.

David Ignatius

Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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This plan for Afghanistan’s first professional soccer league illustrates how the country has changed over the past decade, no matter what judgment you make about the U.S.-led counterinsurgency effort. Afghanistan is now connected by cellphones and television: 60 percent of the population watches TV regularly, and there are 17 million mobile phones, compared with zero in both categories in 2001.

The biggest force for change in today’s Afghanistan may be urbanization, not politics. In the past several decades of war, Kabul has become a city of about 5 million; Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad have all tripled in size.

Afghanistan won’t resemble Switzerland anytime soon, but it’s not the same primitive, rural battleground as when the Taliban ruled. According to U.S. polling, the No. 1 issue today is the high cost of weddings.

The soccer league is an attempt to cut “across all ages, socio-economic groups, regions and tribes,” a pitch letter says. The league will have eight teams, representing the regions that have often been at war. Some teams are named after local birds of prey — the Eagles of the Hindu Kush will represent central Afghanistan, the Goshawks, the rugged southeast, the Falcons the Kabul area.

Player selection began last month and is being broadcast in a reality-TV competition called “Green Field.” Next comes a round-robin tournament in Kabul in September and October. And then, if it works, they’ll do it again in 2013 (when U.S. troops will be handing over the lead combat role); and again in 2014 (when most U.S. troops are supposed to depart). At least that’s the plan.

How realistic is the idea of a post-American Afghanistan that is ragged at the edges, but where Kabul remains a hub for communications and commerce, not to mention soccer tournaments? Nobody knows, but I heard descriptions of a similar “Afghan good enough” outcome from Obama administration officials in recent conversations.

Administration officials hope the Afghan National Army will be strong enough by 2014 to hold Kabul and the ring road that connects the country’s major cities. Local power brokers (a.k.a. warlords) may hold sway in some regions, but administration officials doubt the Taliban will be able to control major urban centers. Afghanistan won’t be peaceful or secure like a developed country, but it won’t fall apart either in this guardedly hopeful view.

A bleaker prognosis was offered by Dexter Filkins in a widely discussed New Yorker article last month titled “After America: Will civil war hit Afghanistan when the U.S. leaves?” While respectful of what the U.S. military has accomplished, Filkins was skeptical that it can endure. In his words, Afghans and Americans are “under the stress of battle — and without a substantial presence of American combat troops after 2014 — the Afghan army could once again fracture along ethnic lines.”

So which will it be — televised soccer rivalry or armed civil war? Obviously there’s no way to predict, but two factors would reduce the likelihood of civil war. One is a commitment for a stay-behind force of, say, 15,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops to prevent a return by al-Qaeda and continue training the Afghan army and police. Second is a political strategy that moves toward national reconciliation and supports elections in 2014 for a new political leadership to replace the corrupt President Hamid Karzai. Unfortunately, this needed political transition is getting much less attention from Washington than the military pullout.

Afghanistan is viewed as a lost cause by most Americans, I suspect. The country may indeed be heading toward the worst-case scenario described in Filkins’s excellent reporting. But there are some relatively low-cost ways the United States can reduce the risk of an Afghan explosion — and keep the country stable enough that media entrepreneurs can make a buck from the nation’s favorite sport — which isn’t war, as the headlines might make us think, but soccer.

davidignatius@washpost.com

 
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