OP-ED: The War That Should Have Been Over

Imagine that, after World War II, instead of investing in the Marshall Plan in Europe, we allowed the region slide into decay. It is 1953, eight years after the end of the war, and unemployment across Europe is 40%. There are reports of literal starvation in the countryside. There are pockets of prosperity -- the more fortunate are getting televisions and cars -- but the vast majority of the population lives in various stages of misery. Now imagine extreme political factions -- in those days it would have been communists -- making inroads, because they will pay a small but living wage to new fighters who join, plus help with food and medicine. There is no work. This is the employer of last resort. This is exactly what is happening in Afghanistan.

In a country where yearly reconstruction assistance has amounted, in adjusted dollars, to $60 per person versus the $600 per person we spent on the Marshall Plan, 40% of the workforce is unemployed and has no means to support a family. The well-financed Taliban pays $8 a day to its fighters, a good wage in this context, and is always hiring. Go figure why the insurgency is growing. Worse yet, the policy of the new American administration is leaning towards the solution which carries the most risk: more troops. More troops means more resentment of the American presence. Probably resulting in fighting which means more civilian casualties.

As always we are focusing on the "pointy" end of foreign policy. When we are roundly hated rather than warily tolerated, as we still are, we will wonder what went wrong. One of the big talking points among the theories of what went wrong in Afghanistan is the problem of government corruption. This is a problem, but the much bigger problem is the kind of corruption which is officially sanctioned. Out of the relatively measly $60 per capita spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan, roughly 40% goes straight back out of the country in the form of profits for foreign contractors, according to a recent Oxfam report.

Need a school? Hire a foreign construction firm to design it, import materials to build it, rather than scout around for what's local, and import leased heavy equipment to do the digging and clearing, rather than give lots of shovels and picks to men who would do just about anything for $10 a day. It's like giving a man in the desert a thimble of water and taking half of it back.

The gravest misconception in American thinking on Afghanistan is that it is driven by ideology, not economics. Iraqi insurgents have been trying to eject what is perceived as an unprovoked foreign invasion, which gives that insurgency an ideological sheen. In contrast, the Americans, at first, were as welcome in Afghanistan as they were unwelcome in Iraq. The country was relatively stable until a year ago, when the people got tired of waiting for help which never arrived, and the Taliban took full advantage of it.

Unlike Saddam, who had a natural constituency in his Sunni and tribal base, the Taliban has its mysterious roots in the madarsas of Northern Pakistan, and has little popular support saves its ability to force obedience. This was related to me by an Afghan colleague who said how, "if there was a ten dollar bill laying on a street corner, you could come back days later and that ten dollars would still be there." Why? Because if you were accused of stealing it, they would cut off your hand. The Taliban insurgency is growing as a result of economic conditions, not ideological ones. Most Afghans hate the Taliban, but they need to feed their families.

Top British official Captain Leo Docherty has called Afghanistan "a textbook case of how to screw up a counterinsurgency." None other than the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Karl Eikenberry, told Congress in 2007 that: "Much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to support their families." Read that again. This is Karl Eikenberry. General Karl Eikenberry. Even our top military man in Afghanistan was saying we are focusing too much on the military side of the equation.

In a report from Helmund Province a young man told a reporter that it was either the Taliban or watch his family starve. "I couldn't find a job anywhere," said 19-year-old Jaan Agha. "So I had to join the Taliban. They give me money for my family expenditures. If I left the Taliban, what else could I do?" Herein lies the problem and the promise for the Obama administration. They'll keep joining the Taliban, unless we give them something else to do.

Ralph Lopez is the founder of Jobs for Afghans.


Per capita assistance amounts:

Forty percent unemployment:

Taliban pays $8 per day:

Reconstruction assistance recycled back out of the country, 40 percent profits:
ACBAR Report, "Aid Effectiveness in Afghanistan"

Captain Docherty quote:
"Military policy in Afghanistan 'barking mad'"

General Karl Eikenberry Congressional Testimony 2007

Jaan Agha quote:
IWPR: "Few Choices for Helmand's Troubled Youth"

Other Background Sources:

Bloomberg: "Obama's Afghan War Plans May Run Into Weary Public, Deficits"

Food shortages cause grass eating, displacement

Jobs for Afghans outline of legislation:

"Job creation should be top of Canada's Afghan strategy: Kandahar leaders," Canadian Press, May 2008 http://ca.news.yahoo.com/s/capress/080509/national/afghan_cda_jobs

Afghanistan Study Group Final Report,

Starvation, Kandahar Province (YouTube)


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