The Afghan war grows unpopular in a financially stricken America, and every time that US President Obama talks of withdrawal he encourages Afghan corruption. Knowing that if America scoots, in less than five years the Taliban will return, every petty official is encouraged to fill his desk drawers with as much loot as he can to support his children against the promised American retreat and the impending 25 years economic hardship, misrule, and brutality. Bigger officials steal more, much of it taken in backhanders from US contractors. The promise of sustained US support would not end corruption, but would diminish it.
Hamid Karzai was a friend of mine starting 26 years ago, and (although I’ve only seen him once since he became president and he might have changed with power) he was bright, brave, honest, stable, and admirably selfless. He was too kind and too conservative, not radical enough to shatter old coalitions that would have freed him from dealing with too many rat-bags whom he believed were needed to retain a vestige of order. Perhaps he was right, but many Afghans disagree even though many still respect him. Meanwhile, a new study from Chatham House correlates insurgency with injustice from warlords, government and its allies.
Every week for at least the last year, leaks obviously generated from Washington intentionally humiliate President Karzai in front of his countrymen, weaken his fragile national coalition when there is no viable democratic alternative waiting in the wings, and—importantly—attempt to mask American policy failures. And boy, what failures!
America subsidises the Pakistan military that supports the insurgency that kills American soldiers. As the US Congress confirms, American contractors pay bribes to the Taliban who blow up American troops. American contractors and spooks provide millions to strengthen brutal warlords and corrupt officials against whom American leaders rail, usually blaming President Karzai. Ten years of often-failed American development work, and little cooperation to help Afghans build their own government, policies, and priorities, have still had a few good results—but almost none of which are visible to ordinary Afghans who believe it was all a trick and America stole back the money it promised. American agencies fight each another within the US Embassy and on Capitol Hill, lobbying for one another’s budgets and mandates, mindless of the work thwarted and the damage done to Afghanistan. Americans say they support dialogue with the insurgents while the CIA helps the Pakistani intelligence services arrest those Taliban leaders most likely to parley.
Every American ying has its yang, every American policy to help Afghanistan has another American policy working against it—or malign bureaucratic incentives that accomplish the same. What is President Karzai to do? To which contradictory American policies is he disloyal or uncooperative in a Kafkaesque Afghanistan largely of America’s making? “An unstable ally,” the pot calls the kettle.
Even so, America has helped Afghanistan with some major achievements despite inconsistent policy, poor performance, and an arrogant unwillingness to cooperate that has less to do with malice than with the incompetent default positions of the US government agencies. So there is indeed progress afoot and democracy is one example supported by America. It may be part of the USA’s lasting legacy there.
Millions of Afghans risk mutilation or death to vote while millions of Americans don’t bother because it is raining or they need to collect their kids from soccer practice. There is definitely fraud at the polls, but in the last parliamentary elections the ever-stronger democracy watch-dog agency disqualified around one quarter of the ballots—can anyone tell me of steps against voter fraud in the famously corrupt, Democrat machine-controlled Cook County, Illinois, home to President Obama, where dead people have voted for generations? In Afghan presidential elections last year, Southwestern Pushtoon Hamid Karzai carried northern minority provinces even adjusting for irregularities, while the perceived-minority candidate, Dr. Abdullah, ran stronger than expected in the Pushtoon Southwest and East—the popular canard that Afghanistan is a political fiction, comprised only of ethnic tribes and cliques, was disproven at the polls. The Hazara minority, Shi’ite Muslims in the Central Provinces, go so far as to say that women must vote as a religious responsibility as well as a civic one. In the allegedly Taliban-ridden Nimruz Province, on the Iranian border, both recently elected Members of Parliament are women: is there an American state with two female US Senators? Afghans like democracy and settle in to its practices.
Education is another success thanks partly to American support: 7 million Afghan children attend 9,000 public and private schools. Less than half a million studied in Taliban days, none of them girls who now comprise 40 percent.
Afghanistan has become media-rich, with largely unfettered national and provincial television and radio: the country is the size of Texas and just as rich in broadcast media. Religious broadcasting is popular, and Kabul’s drive-time radio mullahs explain why good Muslims respect and protect Jews and Christians.
Another success is that Afghans no longer live in a vacuum. In the first Afghan delegation that I met in Washington in 1982 there came a merry pair of mujahideen from Ghor, one of the most remote provinces: these two hobbits had not seen electric lights until they entered Pakistan two weeks before. Now, after years of global diaspora, tens of thousands of Afghans are online, millions have television sets and most families have radios. The Afghan agriculture minister recently asked Pushtoon traders in the north if they used his ministry’s monthly commodity price lists and one laughed, whipping out his cell-phone to get that morning’s spot wheat prices in four Afghan cities plus Pakistan from his brother in another province. “What do you want to know next?” he laughed. “I also have brothers in London, Berlin, and New York.” With new access to technology, Afghans adopt heightened aspirations both economically and socially. Today’s Afghans are not the hairy, 19th Century primitives that the British former politician thinks they are.
An economic boom is in its starting phase, promising to generate off-farm jobs and provide alternatives to young insurgents who fight in return for food. Americans buy Afghan raisins produced in Afghan factories with ISO-9000 certification. Canadians, Britons, and continental Europeans start their mornings drinking Afghan pomegranate juice made in Kabul’s state-of-the-art juice-concentrate factories. Afghan trade delegations to Delhi, Dubai, Moscow, and elsewhere sell out their entire stocks of gourmet dried fruits and nuts on the first day, no matter how much they bring. Crisp apples and melons are air-freighted to India for the first time ever, Saudis cannot get enough Afghan table-grapes, and rich ladies in Dubai, when told that the apricots came from Afghanistan, produce business cards and request that they be phoned as soon as the next delicious shipment arrives. Costly, labour-intensive saffron, a new product for Afghanistan, is being test-farmed across the country and is said to be even better than the leading varieties from Iran.
The problem is boosting production to meet global demand, but the Afghan government recently made its own strategy, chose its own agricultural priorities including irrigation, and—finally—the donors have agreed to cooperate and let the Afghans lead. This is essential because security concerns mean that the foreigners rarely leave their embassies or forts, while Afghans can travel to see what their farmers or agribusinesses need. Among Afghan-identified, US-supported solutions fully underway is agribusiness development and marketing; farm-credit (whereas only drug gangsters lent money before); and a modern, transparent, one-stop shop to lease government-owned land to investors in agriculture or agribusiness. It’s real progress. So is the recent, Obama-era American promise to cooperate with Afghan government, sincere at the top but as yet unproven amidships.
Mining, still five to ten years away, follows agriculture with contracts recently signed for gold and oil, and vast copper and iron mines being developed. If the insurgents can be held at bay, economic growth may solve much of the problem.
Donors have finally agreed to help Afghan ministries by topping-up salaries for upper and mid-level officials, so multitudes of well-educated, enthusiastic, patriotic, young Afghans throng the better-run ministries—earning less than they would in the private sector but enough to feed a family. In some rural areas Afghan youths, sent abroad by their neighbours to study medicine, return home to be paid in potatoes and chickens rather than settle in the more lucrative cities as young doctors do in many developing countries.
Government reform is Afghan-led. President Karzai’s cabinet regrouped itself into ministerial clusters to tackle complex problems across related sectors. At the July 2010 Kabul Conference, teams or clusters presented intricate, prioritised policies that forced donors to abandon some arrogance and let Afghans take the lead in solving Afghan problems.
Those Afghans who see the foreign aid and diplomatic missions close up do not expect these behemoth governments to ever function efficiently. While much money is spent building Afghan administrative capacity, some Afghans joke about the Americans, saying the superpower needs practical Afghan capacity-building to sort themselves out. These aggressive and educated young Afghan officials know that their country needs foreign money and technical assistance and—appalled by the American waste, bureaucratic infighting and contradictory policies—they hope that it lasts just long enough for them to go it alone. They sense that Afghan self-sufficiency is five to ten years away and not more.
Meanwhile, Afghan intelligence agencies corroborate that the American-led military offensives are succeeding in Helmand and Kandahar, the chief insurgent strongholds. This time it does not sound like superpower propaganda, and increased agricultural and agribusiness activity there seem to confirm the good news. President Obama’s recent strategic review of the war draws no real conclusions, meaning that he has concluded to stay the course for now.
The alternative, a swift US withdrawal, leads to this. Americans bolt, their allies follow and the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda re-establish training camps. Radical Islamist insurgency picks up speed moving north into the former Soviet Union where it already has found an audience among people who see communism and state capitalism as equally materialistic, decadent, corrupt, soulless and unsatisfying. It also moves south, possibly taking over nuclear-armed Pakistan that supports radicalism while arrogantly assuming that its generals can control it. The Saudis keep hedging their bets and pour in money while disillusioned young Muslims flock in for arms-training and further radicalisation. The result is a nuclear-armed, radical, Sunni-Islamist empire spanning from Chechnya to the Indian Punjab, from the Caucasus into Western China, with control of oil wells, gas fields and pipelines. Unrelenting American support for what even moderate Muslims see as unfairness to the Palestinians, and America continuing to prop up kleptocracies making a mockery of democracy from the Magreb to Egypt to the Pacific Basin, make her the primary enemy of the radical new Caliphate. Were this to happen, and it is not unlikely, one might not wish to own shares in American skyscrapers.
The lesson for American conservatives is this: shrink the size and aspirations of government at home and abroad; shun future foreign entanglements as General Washington advised; but keep cooperating more closely with Afghans and stick it out for America’s own lasting safety. If American leaders can survive the impatience of their electorate, success may be closer than those old British losers believe.
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