Why Afghanistan Is Far from Hopeless

March 18, 2011 |
... Afghans want what everyone else wants: a slightly more prosperous and secure future. Slowly, very slowly, that goal is being met.
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In winter, a noxious fog sometimes descends on Kabul that is so acrid, you can actually taste it. It's a toxic brew of fumes from traffic jams and thousands of charcoal fires, and it's a testament to the fact that in the decade since the fall of the Taliban, Kabul's population has gone up sixfold, from 500,000 to about 3 million.

This gets to the paradox of Afghanistan today: despite the enormous level of government corruption and the Taliban's resurgence in parts of the country, there is another story here — of Afghan recovery and progress. But this story is not well understood by many Americans, 6 out of 10 of whom now oppose the war in Afghanistan.

Consider that under Taliban rule there were only a million children in school. Now there are 6 million, many of them girls. During the Taliban era, the phone system barely existed; now 1 in 3 Afghans owns a cell phone. Basic health care has gone from being a luxury to being available to most of the population, and annual economic growth is over 20%.

These kinds of advances explain why 6 in 10 Afghans in a poll last fall said their country is going in the right direction. The positive feelings Afghans have about the trajectory of their country seem counterintuitive given Afghanistan's deep poverty and feckless government, but they become more explicable when you recall what life under the Taliban was like. The Taliban incarcerated half the population in their homes, massacred thousands of Shi'ites, hosted pretty much every Islamist terrorist and insurgent group in the world and were pariahs on the international stage. Simultaneously, they presided over the collapse of what remained of the economy. And before the Taliban, there was civil war and rule by warlords; before that, a communist dictatorship; and before that, brutal Soviet occupation.

No wonder that 6 in 10 Afghans today have a favorable opinion of the U.S. military presence in their country. They understand that the U.S. is a guarantor of a future that is somewhat better than the Afghan past. They are not, of course, expecting Afghanistan to be turned into a central Asian nirvana, but they are hoping for more security and prosperity, and there is reason to believe they are right to do so. The war in Afghanistan still claims far fewer victims than the war in Iraq, a conflict widely believed to be all but over. Last year about 4,000 Iraqi civilians were killed by warring factions, while in Afghanistan, which has a larger population than Iraq, some 2,800 civilians died in the conflict. That makes the death rate of the Afghan war 9 per 100,000. (The murder rate in Washington is 22 per 100,000.)

The Taliban are getting squeezed where it hurts. The southern province of Helmand is the linchpin of Afghanistan's opium trade and a region where the Taliban once roamed freely. Now it might as well be Marine-istan, so effectively does the U.S. control most of it. A recent BBC poll found the proportion of Helmand residents who say their security is "good" has jumped from 14% to 67% since 2009. And in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, the religious warriors have been pushed out of key districts. The International Council on Security & Development, a think tank that has done field work in Afghanistan for years and is generally critical of Western policy, released a report last month that concluded that the U.S. troop surge in Helmand and Kandahar had improved security significantly.

This makes the prospect of "reconciliation" with elements of the Taliban more plausible. Insurgents do not make peace deals when they think they are winning, but they might if they begin to think they are losing. Richard Barrett, the U.N. official responsible for monitoring the Taliban, says, "I have heard of 12 different initiatives designed to engage the Taliban in talks." And such initiatives are pursued with a large national consensus that this is the right way forward; more than three-quarters of Afghans favor negotiations with the Taliban.

President Obama has also shifted the calculations of the Taliban by announcing that American combat forces will stay in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, a sea change in U.S. policy that has surprised the Taliban and even dovish members of Obama's Cabinet. When Obama announced the surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan in December 2009, he said they would start withdrawing in 18 months. Vice President Joe Biden subsequently opined, "In July 2011, you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it."

Extending the deadline is enormously important. The fact that there will be large numbers of American forces in Afghanistan for the next four years has major implications for all the players in the country. Taliban detainees have told their U.S. interrogators that the prospect of fighting for another four long years is sapping their morale. And more years on the clock will allow the buildup of a much larger and more effective Afghan National Army — one that is more capable of resisting the Taliban — while giving Afghan politicians sufficient time to organize to defeat the Karzai mafia, which now dominates the country.

There is also some real hope that Afghanistan's economy can be based on more than just international aid and opium production. In January, an obscure Pentagon office, the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, released a report about Afghanistan's mineral wealth. The 49-page study details the size and location of an estimated $900 billion worth of mineral deposits across Afghanistan, the fruits of "remote sensing technology" of satellites, buttressed by the work of geologists on the ground taking samples.

The Pentagon report concluded that Afghanistan could become a "world leader" in lithium, which is used in making batteries and other industrial processes, and it found a massive copper deposit just south of Kabul and next door to another giant copper seam for which the Chinese have already paid $3 billion for the right to mine. The report also identified substantial gold deposits; three months ago the Afghan government approved a deal brokered by JPMorgan in which Western investors will invest an estimated $50 million in a gold mine in northern Afghanistan.

With such potential wealth below the surface, Afghanistan can "become either South Korea or Somalia," an official in the Afghan Foreign Ministry explained to me. Afghans already lived through their own version of Somalia during the civil war of the early 1990s and the subsequent rule of the Taliban, who restored order at the price of imposing a brutal theocracy. They don't want more of that; fewer than 10% of Afghans in a number of polls hold a favorable view of the Taliban. There's nothing like living under Taliban rule to convince one that the group's promises of Islamist utopia here on earth don't pan out. Instead, Afghans want what everyone else wants: a slightly more prosperous and secure future. Slowly, very slowly, that goal is being met.