by Austin Bay
May 21, 2003
Do we remember Afghanistan? We'd better. America's firstmilitary victory in the War on Terror remains America's first test case forrebuilding a brutalized hard corner of the planet, the kind of corner thatbreeds and sustains anti-American terrorists.
Though we've erased the immediate threat of international terrorsuccored by Afghanistan's former Taliban regime, the long-haul "campaign forAfghanistan" continues.
And it is a campaign -- a long and vital campaign on the highground of Asia.
The current news portrayal of Afghanistan seems uniformly bleak,with warlords, gun battles, bloodshed and political ineptitude. At best, thepicture is one of a fragile security situation with scant hope forreconstruction with cinder blocks, much less a renewal of civil society.Iraq has an educated populace, while most Afghani adults are functionallyilliterate. Iraq has oil. At the moment, Afghanistan's biggest resource isrubble. Democracy? Forget it.
But forgetting leads to defeat, and defeat leads to more 9-11s.
Security in Afghanistan is iffy. The military victory 18 monthsago, though agile and impressive, wasn't absolute. Military operationscontinue against active opponents who lurk in the region, opponents who fearthe long-term consequences of a stable Afghanistan.
The long-term consequence they fear is development, an Americansponsored success. The battle for development -- for roads, clinics, safevillages and concrete political change -- doesn't make for 30 seconds of hotTv footage. Providing security in a war-savaged land and building democracyamong fractured tribes who historically chafe and shift beneath warlords anddictators require patience, focus and endurance, as well as money.
The pay-off to America, however, is enormous. If genuine, securedemocratic change emerges from Afghanistan's rubble, Osama bin Laden and hiscohort of Islamo-fascists will follow the Soviet Union into history'sdustbin.
Afghanistan is where Osama, the United States and the SovietUnion intersected. Soviet savagery left a devastated society. Americansupport for the Afghan Mujahadeen helped defeat the Soviet invaders. TheRussians defeat in that long conflict gave Bin Laden the idea that the worldwas ripe for his brand of revolution.
The United States failed Afghanistan by losing interest when theSoviets left. Bin Laden didn't lose interest. In the mid-1990s, desperatematerial poverty and relentless fighting among warlords turned the populacetoward the Taliban. The Taliban began as a reformist movement with themission of ending the incessant fighting and political corruption. TheTaliban, of course, proved to be just another form of thug -- a thugspouting scripture.
Has Washington failed to focus on Afghanistan?
Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Dr. Ishaq M.Shahryar, isn't ready to forget Afghanistan. The cynic might blameShahryar's optimism on his four decades in America. OK, he's anAfghan-American, a taxpayer with a hyphen. He's done well as a scientist andbusinessman, inventing a low-cost photo-voltaic (solar) electric generatingcell in 1972.
In Washington last week, Shahryar acknowledged the fragilesecurity. He argues, however, there's news, then there's the real story. Thereal story is a brick by brick business, with little media sizzle.
It's also the way peace is created, by raising physical andpolitical structures that create and maintain security and wealth. "Expectno immediate miracles," Shahryar cautioned, "this is the slow work ofdetails."
Some of the details are tough --rebuilding roads, putting in arailroad to connect the country.
The "model village" Shahryar is promoting may sound likesomething from the land of toy trains --it ain't. For an Afghan villager,it's hope -- and it's one of several projects Afghanistan is pursuing on itsown and in conjunction with its Private Sector Development Task Force.
The model villages project intends to replace the rubble withcost-effective, simple houses built in Afghanistan by Afghanis with outsidecapital and aid. Shahryar discussed one village design that uses simplesolar panels (with generator back-up) to produce electricity. Each villagehas a school, a clinic and a satellite dish.
Is it doable?
"We're doing it," the ambassador said. "But we need continuedsupport. Afghanistan is a model for other Islamic countries that start fromrubble or ground zero." He ended with a history lesson. "Central Afghanistanis the high ground. Hold it, and you will influence for good or evil thatwhich flows into Europe and Asia."