Volume 79, Number 19 | Oct 14 - 20, 2009
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Talking Point

Build stuff. Then leave. Our new Afghan mission

By Ted Rall

Eight years into the longest war in American history, we’ve learned what doesn’t work in Afghanistan. What will?

More troops won’t help. But neither will the prescription now being floated in Washington: maintaining bases of small commando units that could be called upon to wage covert counterinsurgency operations across the border in Pakistan.

Now it’s time to fight the war for hearts and minds the way it ought to have been done from the start — instead of hostile troops, Afghanistan needs civil engineers. Stop blowing up wedding parties and start building bridges. Pack away the Predator drones and string up fiber-optic cable. It’s time to give Afghanistan what it needs most, and what Afghans crave: the gift of infrastructure.

More than anything else, Afghans need paved roads. The second priority is electricity. Third is telephone service. An Afghanistan possessing these three building blocks of nationhood could modernize its own economy and political system at an astonishing speed. And it would have the people of the United States to thank.

According to the Pentagon, fewer than 15 percent of Afghanistan’s roads are paved, but most of these include roads that no American driver would deem passable. N.G.O.’s say fewer than 1 percent are in decent shape. Either way, moving people or goods from one place to another is a daunting prospect in Afghanistan. Distances that can be covered in the U.S. by a 15-minute drive require hours of torturous travel over backbreaking, axle-shattering ruts and blast craters.

The U.S. recently spent $1 million to help Afghanistan open its first national park, in the relatively peaceful Bamiyan province. But no one visits the park — due to the state of the roads.

“The drive to Band-e-Amir from the Afghan capital of Kabul, 150 miles away, takes as long as 12 hours over rocky roads,” reports USA Today. “Trucks easily overturn, and the talc-like dust of the high desert regularly chokes the air filters of even the hardiest vehicles.” In addition, hundreds of bridges have been blown up during 30 years of civil war, forcing motorists to ford rivers. Cars get washed away all the time.

A local eco-tourism guide says the park is a waste of money.

“We need a road. We need electricity. We need an airport,” says Jawad Wafa, 22. Afghans have been pleading with the U.S. to stop bombing and start building for years. The U.S. makes promise after promise, but the bulldozers never arrive. Americans blame corrupt Afghans. Afghans complain that the Taliban makes construction too dangerous. Billions of dollars have vanished; little has been accomplished.

With relatively few natural resources and little arable land, Afghanistan is economically most notable for the countries it separates. Its only hope for prosperity relies on trade. Pakistani truckers want to ply a new Silk Road by shipping cheap manufactured goods from India and China into Central Asia, the Caucasus, Russia and Eastern Europe. The Afghans could collect tolls and customs duties on products passing through their territory. But this traffic will remain a mere trickle as long as the roads remain impassable and unsafe.

Farmers currently account for 85 percent of the population, and some of them could be persuaded to stop growing opium and return to traditional Afghan crops — pomegranates, apricots and almonds — if decent roads allowed them to get their produce to markets.

Electricity is another vital component of a modern state. But only 7 percent of Afghanistan has any electricity whatsoever. Even Kabul suffers daily blackouts. Were the Afghan electrical grid to become widespread and reliable, people wouldn’t have to rush home before dusk to avoid gangs of roving rapists and murderers. It would be harder for Taliban forces to plant roadside bombs and ambush vehicles on brightly lit highways. Factories and offices could remain open, run computers and operate after dark. Water pumps would become more efficient and ubiquitous.

A broad communications network is the third prerequisite for economic viability. When I was in Afghanistan during fall 2001, I was struck by how easily misinformation could be used to fleece people.

“The U.S. dollar is down versus the afghani,” a money-changer told me, “because many U.S. cities have been destroyed.” By whom? I asked. “The Taliban!” Nice try. But others believed him.

On another occasion, I needed to know whether the Uzbek-Afghan border crossing at Termiz was open. There was no way to find out.

It’s impossible to conduct business without the reliable exchange of information. But only 8 percent of Afghans have access to any form of telephone service, including public call booths. Those with a dedicated phone number — where people can reach them any time — are even fewer. Without telephone service, it’s impossible to know when a truckload of goods is due to arrive. Casual conversations that could lead to innovation (“What? You can’t get them in Kandahar? They’re cheap here in Herat.”) never have a chance to take place.

Investment in infrastructure would allow Afghans to stand on their own feet economically. As happened in the U.S. a century ago, rural electrification and highway construction would bring outsiders to communities cut off by war and rugged terrain. Radios and televisions, currently useless, would introduce 21st-century mores to 14th-century cultures. As has occurred in many parts of the world — whether for better or for worse — popular culture would have a liberalizing influence on Afghans. How long would women tolerate the burqa after they learned that it’s an anomaly within the Muslim world?

The United States should offer its expertise in building infrastructure with no strings attached, while renouncing all interest in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Regardless of who runs the show in Kabul — even the Taliban — we should continue to help. And it should be free. No loans.

First rebuild Afghanistan. Then leave. After all, we broke it.

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