Many of us in developed nations tend to view Afghanistan as a war torn nation, devoid of any value to the West. It’s true that Afghanistan has major problems and is a long way from “contributing” to the world in terms of technology or products. Bombings and terrorism are a part of daily life. Just this week on the Persian New Years a bombing killed over 30 people in Kabul. There are still many areas where it is incredibly dangerous for anyone to travel to. Even my Afghan guides avoid travel to the southern provinces. However, the true value of a country and its people can’t be determined by GDP or exports. The vast majority of people in Afghanistan are good people that are simply caught in the cross fire. The British were a part of the problem in the 1800s, the Russians in the 1900s and the coalition forces certainly played their own role in the 2000s. However, that is in the past and we must look to the future.
ISIS continues to be a growing problem in the region. The Taliban has a stronghold in the south and occasionally forays into the north as well. Luckily sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni is not the issue. The true issue is not an ideological issue between otherwise good people. It is a clash between radicalism and righteousness. I met dozens of Afghans and all of them were very welcoming. They have no tolerance for the Taliban and even less for ISIS. They want to live their lives without the threat of violence that has lingered over their heads for decades. Why should we help, and how?
Despite being a distant nation they still are our neighbors. If someone is breaking into your neighbor’s house and holding them hostage you help. That’s just what we do. Afghanistan is our global neighbor. I’ve never been to a nation with kinder people. Children playing soccer, merchants selling their wares, students going to school…this was the Afghanistan that I was able to see when I visited. That simple daily life is worth protecting and promoting. They deserve better than bombs and beheadings. They have a rich and ancient culture of food, art, music and sport. They would be a world class tourist destination if it was not for the violence. Should thousands of US troops and NATO forces die to protect that? Perhaps, perhaps not. They have in the past, but they won’t have to in the future. The time for mass troops and large scale battles is in the past. The payoff of freeing a society from tyranny and violence is well worth the expense that it would cost the West. We must not abandon our neighbor, especially when we have already started to remove the wolves from their midst. The hardest part is done. How do we help them going forward?
We have the means and the resources to help them. State building has failed in the past in Afghanistan because we have pushed our own system of democracy on nations that have never had a democracy like that. That’s fine, we should let them govern themselves with a decentralized government if they wish to do so. They can’t do that without stability though. We must continue to train the Afghan army and police. Military experts and contractors need to continue to train them to govern and police themselves. They don’t have the expertise to train themselves our reign in their own violence.
One of the problems in Afghanistan is a lack of trust and a dislike of anything associated with outside forces. We saw this in Iraq and Yemen as well. Terrorists are able to recruit and thrive based on ideology. If the population hates the West they will either join radical cells, or at the least they will shield them from being found. We can combat that by causing minimal loss of life to civilians. In Yemen we were losing the war on terror because our drone strikes were killing civilians, while the radical cells were opening schools and hospitals. Then we switched strategies and started targeted drone strikes only when we knew there would be no civilian damage. We also allocated funding to building schools, hospitals etc. As a result, the terror cells were largely pushed back, especially after some of their own bombings killed civilians. The population begin turning over the radical cells instead of shielding them. We should follow a similar strategy in Afghanistan. Targeted strikes on terrorists only when we know there will be a very minimal damage to the civilian population, increased funding for schools and hospitals. Simply put, we must become the good guys, and allow the Afghan police/army to be the good guys as well. The Taliban was able to take over because they offered some positive benefits to society. We must show them that they have more to gain by pushing them out of power in the south.
This strategy is an over simplification of many complex issues. It is going to take a long time, but as younger Afghans have a more positive view of the West they will slowly disallow the radical sects of Islam to thrive. My hope is that one day they will be pushed back to a degree that bombings and murders are an anomaly and not a daily event. If we pull out experts, contractors and troops that day may never come. Afghanistan is a country worth saving, and we can lead the way in helping them.