Winning Afghanistan



They stood out sharply against the worn concrete buildings and battered cars on the potholed road our convoy followed: two soaring solar-powered street lamps provided by the US Army. Kholbesat Bazaar is a back-of-beyond district capital in the eastern Khost Province of Afghanistan, poor even by Afghan standards, and one of the two of 12 Khost districts still classified as “red” or insecure. Yet even here, change is coming.

It’s not just the lights that allow shopkeepers to stay open past dark and increase safety, or the fact that Kholbesat now has a clinic with a female doctor and can thus accommodate female patients. The US Army is building a 40-kilometer blacktop road from the Pakistani border to Kholbesat and onward to Khost City at a pace of two kilometers a week. When it is completed in spring 2008, the speed of local transport should triple, jumpstarting trade and allowing locals to make the trip to Khost City in a half-hour rather than an hour and a half.

The future should hold more improvements in locals’ lives, given the close cooperation between the government and American soldiers who are scheduled to move into a barracks in the district center. Rapport has increased, and residents are calling in the locations of improvised explosive devices, denying insurgents safe haven in their houses, and generally obeying the law.

Of course, a handful of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are not so lucky. In some, NATO troops have been unable to intimidate the insurgents on the battlefield – Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan. (This should not have been surprising. For instance, the Dutch, who have roughly 500 soldiers in Uruzgan, have only 22,000 troops total in their military and haven’t won a war since, what, the 18th century? )

In a few others, mainly desert or mountains, there is little or no Coalition presence (Nimroz, Farah, Nuristan). In these provinces, a mixture of bandits, drug gangs and Taliban create varying degrees of insecurity.

But the media’s perception that the country is “slipping into chaos” or “the forgotten war” are wrong. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice correctly pointed out how far America has to go in Afghanistan during her surprise trip to the country this week, the progress in Khost shows how many things are going right.

In fact, while military efforts often are criticized and the colorful Afghan President Hamid Karzai praised in American coverage, the actual situation deserves the reverse.

If Afghanistan had a strong, effective national government, which provided security and services to its citizens equally, the differences between regions would not be so stark, five years into American efforts. As Rice said this week, “The Afghan government has responsibilities, too.” This is about as close as a diplomat can come to saying that Karzai – perceived as ineffectual, vacillating and worse by most of the Kabul diplomatic community and our military leadership – has to step up to the plate.


While talking about NATO efforts, it’s important to understand the context. The “reconstruction” of Afghanistan is itself a misnomer; there was little infrastructure to repair even before the US attack in 2001. Afghanistan has been a poor country for a long time.

In the 1890s, 5-10 percent of Afghanistan’s population were slaves; 80 percent of the population were landless well into the 20th century.

Then, from 1980 to 1999, the years of Communist domination, the resistance to it, and the civil war, Afghanistan’s GDP contracted by one-tenth of one percent, placing it still further behind.

Given where it is coming from economically, Afghanistan as a whole is doing well today, with GDP growing an average of 9.375 percent a year from 2003 to 2006. This is more than the 8.9 percent growth rate of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) between 2001 and 2005.

The International Monetary Fund projects real GDP growth of 13 percent for the March 2007-8 fiscal year and believes that Afghanistan will meet its goal of covering its operating budget with domestic revenue within seven years.

The World Bank ranks Afghanistan first of nine South Asian countries in ease of starting a business, third in paying taxes, and fourth in employing workers. Overall, it ranks 24th out of 178 countries in ease of starting a business and employing workers and 38th in paying taxes.

The problem is that most of the economic growth is occurring in the northern and some of the eastern provinces, while remote, mountainous areas like Nuristan and parts of Ghazni, and the insurgency-ridden south, show little progress. There’s a direct correlation to success in provinces that either have few Pashtuns and thus little tolerance for the Taliban (the north) or a well-implemented American counterinsurgency strategy (Khost) and economic growth.

Most of Afghanistan could not remotely be described as a war zone; there is simply no military activity in much of the country. Yes, there are occasional incidents of banditry or clan or criminal feuds that spin out of control, but no more so than in many developing countries from South America to Africa.

Those provinces which have an American military presence are relatively secure, thanks to the sort of counterinsurgency strategy working in Khost. Of the 85 districts in six eastern provinces under the responsibility of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, 20 were termed “green” or under government control in early 2007, which increased to 58 by year’s end. And because the American military has been building roads in the eastern and southern provinces, even provinces like Laghman and Ghazni, long among the poorest in Afghanistan, are starting to show economic progress.

Contrary to what the liberal media would have you believe, there is almost no shooting going on in many of the US-patrolled provinces for the very good reason that the Taliban are afraid to begin attacks that only end in their annihilation. The Taliban have not even won an engagement against the Afghan National Army in Regional Command East since April 2007. Instead, IEDs are their major tactic.

The US soldiers who have given their lives for Afghan freedom have largely died in IED attacks, which have accounted for 50 percent of US military casualties in Afghanistan.

But most of the casualties of insurgent bombings are Afghan security forces (618 National Police officers and 183 National Army members) and Afghan civilians. Just 83 American soldiers died from hostile causes in 2007, of around 25,000 stationed in the country. Meanwhile, 4,271 insurgents were slain by Afghan and foreign troops.

The good news on the IED front is that once the locals are fully onboard, their cooperation in reporting the planting of explosives or the planning of attacks can greatly reduce them. In Khost, admittedly the best-controlled Eastern Province, there were 69 IED explosions in 2007, killing 33 Afghans (but no Americans). But 59 explosive devices were either found or turned in by Afghans.

In the areas where other NATO troops have the responsibility, little progress has been made in improving security, infrastructure, or the legitimate economy. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates rightly lambasted the British forces for ineffective performance in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, which seem to have shown no progress in the last three years.

“Our guys in the east are doing a terrific job. They’ve got the [counterinsurgency] thing down pat,” Gates said on Jan. 16. “But I think our allies over there, this is not something they have any experience with.”

This is not quite accurate; the British conducted a successful counterinsurgency in Malaysia and more recently in Oman. But something is very wrong with what they are doing in Afghanistan and we need to get it right fast. The best idea might be to relieve them of their responsibilities in the volatile south, sending them instead to less critical areas, while allowing American troops to implement the counterinsurgency strategy that has worked well in Khost Province.


The major crisis, however, is economic. While Afghanistan has benefited from the business-friendly laws and procedures Karzai’s ministers have implemented under USAID guidance, economic growth and foreign investment is constrained by the massive corruption of his administration and the glacial pace at which needed economic reforms are taking place.

For example, the banking sector in Afghanistan has expanded rapidly, but mainly in terms of taking deposits. Lending activity is pathetic, mainly because Afghanistan still does not have laws entitling lenders to seize collateral in the case of borrower default. (Needless to say there are no mortgages in Afghanistan, because if a borrower stopped payments, the bank could not take his house.) The necessary laws have been mired in various parts of Parliament and Karzai’s office for nearly two years.

Corruption is pervasive, and reaches ridiculous levels. Afghan businessmen complain of having to pay bribes at the Large Taxpayers’ Office to pay their taxes. Ordinary non-violent crimes are rarely reported to the police because Afghans know they will have to pay a bribe to get any response.

Afghans have little respect for Karzai, who has tolerated cronyism and criminality in his immediate family. One brother, Ahmed Wali, is said to be among the largest drug dealers in the country. Another, Mahmoud, was part of an investor group mysteriously awarded a contract for a cement factory before the Afghan government commissioned study meant to guide the development process was even completed. (He has no experience in cement or any allied industry.) He was also given a 41-year lease for a beet factory. A cousin of Karzai, the former Taliban spokesman “Rocket” Popul, has been awarded a hotel construction contract in Kabul.

These truths are starting to emerge, as Western leaders lose patience with Karzai and as American leaders lose patience with NATO forces’ poor performance in both kinetic and counterinsurgency roles.

Unfortunately Karzai is hinting that he may run again for president in 2009; it would be a disaster if the US foisted him on the Afghan people yet again. There are Afghan governors, legislators and Afghan-Americans like Zalmay Khalizad who are far better qualified to lead.

Given where they came from, Afghans are making great strides today. They need our military to keep the peace – and that military presence will help in other ways, too. A 2005 Heritage Foundation study found that countries with long-term American troop deployments grow faster than other countries, controlling for other factors. The authors believe this is due both to improved security and to the diffusion of American political and economic ideas over time.

If we stay the course in Afghanistan, I have no doubt the same thing will happen there, too.

Ann Marlowe has published two memoirs, and reports frequently from Afghanistan. She was embedded with the US military in Regional Command East twice in 2007.

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