Afghanistan's Brighter Prospects
Afghanistan is quietly proving some post-9/11 critics wrong.
“Silk Road to Success” by S. Frederick Starr, in The National Interest (Winter 2004–05), 1615 L St., N.W., Ste. 1230, Washington, D.C. 20036.
The forecasts were for bloodshed, gross corruption, and low turnout, but Afghanistan’s October elections proved the experts wrong. That October surprise is one of several strong indications that the U.S. effort at state building in Afghanistan is now succeeding, contends Starr, chairman of Johns Hopkins University’s Central Asia Caucus Institute in Washington.
That’s a marked change from the situation in 2003, when the effort may well have been in danger of failing. Pentagon planners had paid too little attention to the need for security and governance. But after an April 2003 visit by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the United States and President Hamid Karzai changed course.
Karzai took control of the Ministry of Defense away from Marshal Fahim, “the greatest force for disunity and corruption,” who kept his own militia in Kabul and “cut deals with warlords elsewhere, undermining hopes for a national army.” More than half of Afghanistan’s governors lost their jobs when Karzai’s new interior minister, Ali Jalali, sacked those who were warlords or in league with warlords. Karzai reached out to alienated ethnic groups and built up a national army, 13,700 strong and slated to double in size by 2006. “The scales are tipping against the warlords,” says Starr, “making their demobilization an attainable goal.” Plans called for the demobilization of 18,000 warlord troops in 2004. Now “with a general amnesty in force, Karzai must offer a face-saving role to every demobilized militia commander not guilty of criminal acts.”
Afghanistan remains “the world’s poorest country after Sierra Leone [and] a dangerous place.” While the economy grew by 30 percent in 2003, half the country’s gross domestic product derives from the production of opium and heroin. Most of the profits go to criminals in Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Balkans, and Western Europe; it’s estimated that only 10 percent of Afghans derive any income from the business. Despite the drug trade, Starr believes that Afghanistan “now has a reasonable chance of becoming, over time, a normal and prosperous country.” Last March, encouraged by the progress they’d seen, donor countries decided to give $4.5 billion in a single year, instead of over three to five years, as previously promised.
“Most Afghans are optimistic about the future,” says Starr. “This is affirmed by the decision of two million Afghans to return to their homes from Pakistan and another 1.2 million from Iran.” The demise of the Taliban has provided Pakistan and the new states of Central Asia “the greatest opportunity for positive change since they gained independence.” For the United States, the post-9/11 sacrifice of lives and treasure in Afghanistan is slowly paying off in enhanced U.S. security.