WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 (UPI) — The people of Afghanistan received good news recently when the leaders of the 26 nations in NATO issued a joint statement at their summit meeting that said: "Contributing to peace and stability in Afghanistan is NATO's key priority." Unfortunately, those words alone won't solve the myriad problems of Afghanistan. They must be followed by action.
In Afghanistan today, security is deteriorating as the Taliban step up attacks, the opium harvest is at all-time high, corruption permeates national and local governments, and reconstruction progress is slow in some places and non-existent in the others. Afghans are on the edge and sense of hope is beginning to fade.
The Taliban, flush with heroin money and foreign and local support, are using their radical ideology and cash to recruit disillusioned young men for suicide attacks and the murder of civilians. The Taliban promise the terrorists paradise and a wad of money for the families they leave behind.
The majority of Afghans live in grinding poverty. Makeshift tent cities of recently returned refugees are erected around major cities. Only a few hours of electricity per week are available for the average Kabul resident.
In 2006 alone, more than 3,700 Afghans have fallen victim to Taliban attacks — a four-fold increase over 2005. This is despite the fact that 20,000 U.S. troops and 20,000 additional soldiers from other NATO nations are stationed in Afghanistan.
The need to maintain security and fight Taliban insurgents and drug traffickers has never been greater. But there aren't enough well-trained and equipped Afghan soldiers and police to combat these problems. Five years after the U.S. invasion, only half of the 70,000-man goal for the Afghan Army has been met, and the number of qualified police is questionable.
Hopes for getting more foreign troops in Afghanistan in light of the current debate over U.S. military presence in Iraq and the unwillingness of NATO to increase troop levels in Afghanistan seem unrealistic.
Moreover, the call for more foreign troops, especially a long-term presence, is unwise. Throughout their history, Afghans have demonstrated that they are fierce protectors of their sovereignty and freedom and are suspicious of foreigners in their country. An increased foreign presence could further embolden the insurgency and support for the Taliban.
What needs to be done is clear. America and the other NATO nations need to train and equip enough Afghan security forces to stop the Taliban insurgency, and need to focus aid programs on what makes a difference to ordinary Afghans. In addition, Afghanistan's central government needs to be empowered.
How should America and the other NATO nations accomplish this?
- Training and equipping the Afghan indigenous security forces so they can play a more significant role in combating the Taliban insurgency and other criminal activities should become the central focus of foreign assistance. In addition to fighting the war and keeping the peace, the training should include lessons on democracy, equality and human rights.
- Afghanistan has no shortage of potential fighters. The Afghan government, with U.S. and NATO assistance, needs to make its army and the police attractive careers by raising salaries and providing additional training that can be useful once soldiers and police return to civilian life. Afghan officers should be given more responsibility to lead, so that they can play leadership roles in the government and private industry once they leave the military and police.
- Empowering a professional Afghan security force should lead to further disarmament of illegal groups and create the conditions whereby opium farmers do not fear and rely on the drug lords for security. The farmers can then grow alternative crops.
The NATO nations need to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans by increasing foreign aid with a multiyear development plan that features projects that improve the day-to-day lives of ordinary Afghans. That means a shift from building schools, clinics, and prisons to focus on restoring electricity, clean water and roads.
Major infrastructure developments create badly needed jobs in major cities and give young Afghans reasons to build a future in Afghanistan. The benefits of these initiatives far outweigh their costs.
Finally, Afghanistan cannot solve its problems unless it has a stronger central government. Only 20 percent of foreign aid is now managed by the Afghan government. The bulk of assistance funds are managed by international and non-governmental organizations.
Some donors have expressed reluctance to give more to the Afghan government out of the fears of mismanagement and embezzlement. Certainly, the Afghan government should be held accountable, but the government needs foreign help to establish a system where disbursement of funds and project performances are managed carefully with complete transparency to the donors.
Afghanistan stands at a crossroad and needs the help of the international community to take the right road. There is a lot at stake. The NATO alliance has bet its future on the success in Afghanistan and the battle is the frontline in the global war on terror. The world gains from a prosperous and secure Afghanistan that does not depend on others for its security and economic health.
© 2006 United Press International
Obaid Younossi is a senior analyst at the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He grew up in Afghanistan.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on December 19, 2006.