Politics & Policy

Nation-Building in Afghanistan

It is past time to do some hard strategic thinking about why we are still in Afghanistan.

When told that Congress had passed the continuing resolution so that he would get paid this month, a U.S. combat soldier in Afghanistan replied, “I guess I can throw away my ‘WILL FIGHT FOR FOOD’ sign now.” He was advised to keep it for another day.

In 2003, when the U.S.-led Coalition invaded Iraq, I was an embedded journalist for Time Magazine with the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division (see my final thoughts on the invasion here). Toward the end of several days of heavy fighting in and around the town of Najaf, I saw something that caught me by surprise: Food was moving into the city. American tanks were still lined up along the main highway, but weaving in and out among them were a dozen large trucks filled with farm produce. Farmers were not allowing a little thing like a war get in the way of making a living.

From that point on, I began noticing other little things: men fixing irrigation pumps, digging wells, opening shops, etc. In the midst of the fighting, people kept doing business. Admittedly, Najaf had a lot of problems in the wake of the American invasion, but it was always able to feed itself. With virtually no food support from the United States, a city of nearly 600,000 was able to draw food from the hinterlands without interruption even as a foreign military invasion was in progress.

More amazingly, Baghdad’s five million inhabitants rarely missed a meal either. Somehow, despite all the chaos around them, the Iraqis maintained a functional market system capable of moving food and other necessities to points of shortage. Moreover, they did it without any help or direction from us. In fact, where the Coalition did involve itself, it tended to foul things up.

The same thing struck me as I flew into Kandahar a few weeks ago. Below me was a city of approximately 800,000, and it was working. In fact, it has been working since Alexander the Great created a Macedonian military colony there almost 2,500 years ago. Do the city’s markets function with the efficiency you would find in the developed world? No. But they do function. Every day 800,000 persons get fed, without the help of American soldiers or any foreign-aid workers. If every westerner left Afghanistan tomorrow, they would all still get fed.

This raises a question: What are we still doing there? If the answer is nation-building, then it is time to declare victory and leave. The nation is built. It may fail again later, but that will be a problem for the Afghans. As of this moment, Afghanistan has a functional society and a working economy. How it works is ugly beyond measure, but it works, and everyone gets fed.

As we are not going to pour hundreds of billions of dollars a year into bringing Afghanistan up to Western economic standards, we must accept that all we can do from this point forward is tinker around the edges. One needs to ask — as I did before I left for Afghanistan three weeks ago — if it is worth the cost in blood and treasure just to stick around and tinker.

If, however, the answer is to stop al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base, then it is time to bring a taste of strategic reality to the picture. Al-Qaeda and its associated movements have moved on. Their main bases are now in countries like Yemen and Pakistan. I would also expect to see cadres moving into some of the Arab countries that are experiencing political upheaval. Al-Qaeda loves nothing more than taking advantage of chaos and instability.

Where you will not find al-Qaeda is in Afghanistan, at least not in any substantial numbers. While I was in Kandahar, General Petraeus announced that the Coalition faced about a hundred al-Qaeda fighters. Did anyone do the math? There are over 140,000 Coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, or 1,400 for every al-Qaeda fighter. As it costs about a million dollars a year to deploy and support every soldier, that adds up to $140 billion, or close to $1.5 billion a year for each al-Qaeda fighter. In other words, we spend more each year hunting down a single al-Qaeda fighter, hiding in some barren cave, then the entire annual GDP of the poorest 20 nations on earth.

In what universe do we find strategists to whom this makes sense?

At a time when our debt has grown to the point where soldiers joke about the need for “WILL FIGHT FOR FOOD” signs, surely our country can make better use of its strategic resources than this?

Finally, the troops have performed magnificently. They have taken the fight to the enemy and sent the Taliban reeling back into Pakistan. The day I arrived, one of the battalions (2-327) in the same brigade of the 101st Airborne Division I was embedded in back in 2003 destroyed a Taliban stronghold, but lost six brave men in the process. The following week General Petraeus reenlisted nearly 150 soldiers in that same battalion whose time in the Army had nearly expired. While their brothers are fighting, these soldiers would never consider being anywhere else.

They and many thousands like them will continue to do everything America asks of them.

It is time to stop asking.

Afghanistan can swim on its own. If it sinks, the blame lies with the Afghans. We have created an army of over 400,000 Afghans, who are paid twice the rate of the average Afghan worker. That army is well trained and well equipped, and it outnumbers the Taliban by more than 40 to one. Let’s wish them well and let them get on with building their own nation. It already works well enough.

If the Afghans want it to work better, let them do it.

Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is also the author of The First Clash. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Department of Defense of any of its members. 


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