Ahmed Rashid -- U.S. Needs to Keep It Simple in Afghanistan

By Ahmed Rashid
Sunday, September 6, 2009

For much of the 20th century before the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan was a peaceful country living in harmony with its neighbors.

There was a king and a real government, which I witnessed in the 1970s when I frequently traveled there. Afghanistan had what I'll call a minimalist state, compared with the vast governmental apparatuses that colonialists left behind in British India and Soviet Central Asia.

This bare-bones structure worked well for a poor country with a small population, few natural resources and a mix of ethnic groups and tribes that were poorly connected with one another because of the rugged terrain. The center was strong enough to maintain law and order, but it was never strong enough to undermine the autonomy of the tribes.

Afghanistan was not aiming to be a modern country or a regional superpower. The economy was subsistence-level, but nobody starved. Everyone had a job, though farm labor was intermittent. There was a tiny urban middle class, but the gap between rich and poor was not that big. There was no such thing as Islamic extremism or a narco-state.

In 2002, I spent a great deal of time in Washington trying to urge the Bush administration to focus on rebuilding Afghanistan's minimalist state, which had been utterly destroyed by 30 years of war.

At that time a bunch of experts in Washington, some now closely associated with Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, estimated that it would cost the international community about $5 billion a year for 10 years to re-create a basic Afghan state that could counter any threat that al-Qaeda or the Taliban might pose.

The keys were investment in agriculture, because that is where jobs lie; rebuilding the roads that used to link the major cities and border towns, so the economy could take off; and investing in an Afghan army and police force. In addition, the country needed a workable government model, modern and inclusive education and health programs, and a functioning justice system.

We all know what happened. The Bush administration left Afghanistan underresourced, underfunded and in the hands of the CIA and the warlords, and went off to fight in Iraq.

When al-Qaeda and the Taliban saw that George W. Bush was not serious about Afghanistan, they found it easy to return. The insurgency began in the summer of 2003, as the Taliban reoccupied large chunks of the country, used drug money to arm its men, and improved their firepower and tactics so much that the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, recently said the situation is "serious" and "deteriorating."

Now any operation to patch together a minimalist Afghan state would cost between $10 billion and $15 billion a year and require tens of thousands more Western troops, which nobody is willing to provide. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is widely expected to request additional forces, but he's not going to get that many.

Today Washington is bickering over what constitutes success in Afghanistan, whether the Obama plan will work, how long American public opinion will hold up, how many more troops and dollars are needed and how to stop its alleged NATO allies from slipping out through the back door. Asked what success would look like, Holbrooke even quipped: "We'll know it when we see it."

Many dissenters in Washington, such as columnist George Will, insist that the Afghans are incapable of learning and unwilling to build a modern state. Others, including former British diplomat Rory Stewart, argue that Afghan society should be left alone. But the dissenters do not sufficiently acknowledge the past failures of the Bush administration that led us to this impasse. What's worse, they offer no solutions.


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