A military surge won't defeat the Taliban. A jobs surge could.
President Obama is leading two surges this year. One is for Afghanistan, where US troops are trying to secure the war-torn country. The other, in the form of business tax credits and government spending, is for the beleaguered US economy.
What do Afghanistan and the US economy have in common? Both need job creation to succeed.
While Democrats and Republicans debate the best ways to create job opportunities in the United States, the debate over how to stabilize Afghanistan has focused on military and security issues, to the neglect of economic ones.
Military operations unaccompanied by the reintegration of former insurgents and other armed groups have failed in the past - in Afghanistan and elsewhere. A shift in US strategy to focus on job creation and effective reintegration could keep Afghanistan from sliding into what it was before 9/11: an Al Qaeda sanctuary.
Despite its potentially large human and financial cost - estimated at about $30 billion - a surge on its own is not going to improve the region's security. In fact, it may well fuel further extremism.
Get the Taliban to quit
The best chance for US forces to start coming back home in the summer of 2011 as planned is if they can persuade a significant number of Taliban and other armed militants to abandon the insurgency.
Doing so requires a two-pronged strategy.
First, we must severely curtail the drug trade that finances these armed groups. Attractive alternative employment incentives could entice farmers away from producing poppies into producing legal crops or engaging in light manufacturing and services. With the price of opium plummeting, this seems like an ideal time to adopt a policy to compensate farmers for the switch. A combination of credit, subsidies, and trade preferences should be put in place for this purpose.
Second, we must identify and finance a number of venues through which Taliban and other groups can reintegrate into society and engage in productive activities once they give up their arms.
Such reintegration is not impossible. El Salvador has done it. So have several African countries. In Afghanistan, former combatants could be given the option to join the national security forces, run for political office, work for any number of legitimate businesses, or set up their own microenterprises.
Finding new jobs for former militants and poppy farmers will be difficult enough, but Afghanistan has another major employment challenge on the horizon: creating jobs for the millions of young people who are about to enter the labor force.
Afghanistan's population is one of the youngest in the world. Nearly half of Afghans are younger than 15 years old. Thanks to efforts by private citizens, nongovernmental organizations, and the international community, many of these children and teens - including girls - are being educated. …