America Needs a Development Plan for Afghanistan Today

Article excerpt

ON A RECENT TRIP to Afghanistan, many Afghans asked me: "What's the American plan for us?" I said I didn't know and I didn't know anyone who knows. There's remarkably little discussion of Afghanistan, and that includes among American presidential candidates, who rarely mention the subject. It is almost as if Afghanistan were an afterthought, an annoying obstacle on the way to remaking the Middle East.

And Osama bin Laden? That man, apparently untroubled by the U.S., is now well entrenched and, from all reports, growing stronger in the lawless region stretching from eastern Afghanistan over the mountains into western Pakistan and planning who knows what.

According to Ali Jalali, former interior minister under Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a possible successor to him, there was no postwar plan: the idea was to mop up fast and not worry too much about the aftermath.

But there is no end in sight to the six-year war that now has lasted longer than World War II. The resurgent Taliban are making gains, especially in the south, where British troops defeat them in battle-but then the poorly paid and trained Afghan army troops assigned to hold the territory fail to do so.

We don't have enough troops there, says U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who should know. Combined U.S. and NATO forces add up to some 50,000, as against the Taliban's estimated 15,000 to 20,000-not enough of an advantage to defeat an insurgency.

The lack of ground troops leads to a greater reliance on air attack, which inevitably takes civilian lives. The United Nations reports that in 2007 U.S., NATO and Afghan firepower killed more civilians, including children, than did the insurgents. President Karzai has repeatedly objected to this on the grounds of inhumanity and flawed strategy. There is no faster way to recruit insurgents who have witnessed the deaths of their loved ones.

Given this military impasse, there are increasing calls, notably by President Karzai, for negotiations with Taliban who might be agreeable to some kind of political settlement. Former Taliban leaders in Kabul have been enlisted in this effort, among them former foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, whom I met on a trip to Afghanistan in 1999 for the Voice of America. He struck me then as a rather droll, understated fellow and a probable moderate. That has proved to be the case.

Another negotiator is Abdul Salam Zaeev, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. He has written a book, so far published in Pushtu and Urdu, about the harsh treatment-e.g., torture-he received at the hands of Americans in Afghanistan and Guantanamo. In a recent interview in Kabul, he told me he looks forward to an Islamic government in Afghanistan but one that moderates the harsher aspects of Taliban rule and is acceptable to the majority of Muslims.

The effort has had one major success. A key Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Salaam, has defected in the south along with many of the insurgents under his control. He has been put in charge of the area he once threatened. How many others will follow his example remains to be seen. A successful counter-insurgency, say observers, depends on dealing with Afghanistan's ever enduring tribes, who even though they do not figure in conventional democratic theory, may well decide the fate of Afghanistan.

Despite the tensions and uncertain future, Afghans do not appear anxious-far from it. In teeming, boisterous Kabul, they are busy at work in all sorts of small shops that stretch as far as the eye can see. Moreover, it's possible to spend three weeks in the country-outside the areas of combat-and never experience a rude word or sullen look. On the contrary, while disappointed with U.S. policy-promises, they say, that have not been kept-Afghans are very friendly and hospitable toward Americans. They don't come in contact with that many, however. U.S. Embassy employees are not allowed outside the compound except with special permission and an armed guard in an armored car. …