America's three Afghan challenges
America's campaign in Afghanistan has succeeded beyond its planners' wildest dreams. But after the Taliban's sudden collapse, the United States faces three new challenges. Any of them could throw Afghanistan back into chaos. How will US planners handle these challenges? The signs are far from encouraging.
The first problem arose when the Northern Alliance flaunted the US's explicit requests and pushed prematurely into Kabul, setting itself up as a nationwide government. It sent in its own president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik; took over the "power" ministries; began appointing governors; offered government posts to friends; and told the UN not to send international peacekeepers.
Nothing could be more calculated to inflame the passions of the plurality Pashtun population, not to mention the 16 million Pashtuns in nuclear-armed Pakistan. This fact was lost in the euphoria of Kabul's fall. But as soon as the Taliban is out of the way, Pashtuns will turn against Mr. Rabbani and his fellow usurpers. A new war will surely follow.
Even though the northern warlords have agreed to attend this week's UN-sponsored conference on governance in Berlin, they have otherwise ignored requests to step back. But there is a way to correct the problem: Hold Russian President Putin responsible for this situation and demand that he rectify it.
Why Putin? Because the Northern Alliance is entirely a Russian project, a tool for reviving Russian hopes of controlling Afghanistan. Every Afghan knows Russia has used the alliance as a Trojan horse. In an act of naiveté, the US helped the horse into Kabul. The Russian-Northern Alliance actions replicate the Russian Army's brazen rush into Pristina during the Balkan war, and are equally dangerous. Even before his US visit, Putin backed it to the hilt, declaring that Rabbani must head the future government of Afghanistan.
So the US must now hold Putin rather than Rabbani alone accountable for this foolhardy action. He must pull Rabbani out of Kabul, declare his support for the UN-sponsored peace process, and end Russian support for the Northern Alliance.
Second, a new government is needed. All parties agree it must be national in scope, out of the terrorism business, opposed to cultivation of opium poppies, and adhere to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. But then the discord begins. Germany Foreign Minister Joshchka Fischer and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage are talking of a decentralized arrangement or even a federal system. This is a formula for disaster.
But surely federalism has worked in the US and Germany, not to mention Switzerland? True, but there the units and borders were clear. None were dominated by warlords who based their relations with neighbors on zero-sum thinking. In Afghanistan, a federal system would legitimize and undergird the power of warlords. The very process of defining internal borders would be a casus belli.
Instead, Afghanistan should be ruled by a unitary and effective central government based on the existing and historical 29 provinces. Central power must be reinforced, so that it can patrol the borders, collect taxes, provide services equitably, stamp out opium poppies, and act on the world stage as a single state. The US must insist on this as a condition of postwar assistance.
Third, even the best government will fail without international aid. Fortunately, Washington and other capitals understand this. Several donors' meetings are scheduled.
What else is called for? Americans have rhapsodized about an Afghan Marshall Plan. Members of Congress have called on the US to rebuild infrastructure, e.g., highways, airports, power plants, and phone systems. Such projects will eventually be necessary, although they are a stretch in a country from which the entire middle class has fled. Unless people are first enabled to feed themselves and create remunerative jobs for themselves, Afghanistan will quickly descend once more into anarchy.
Afghans are not America-haters. They know we provided massive aid before 1979, stood by them against the Red Army in the 1980s, and provided most of the emergency assistance even under Taliban rule. But they fear two things: that either the US will cut and run or, if it does not, that US assistance will focus on big projects that subsidize the leaders more than the common people. Until the former Afghan fighter sees direct benefit from our help, he will be an easy recruit for the next warlords or terrorists.
What kind of aid is needed? The issue that has transformed Afghanistan and its neighbors into the world epicenter of desperation is definitely not ethnic or religious differences. After all, the same people who are now killing each other lived in relative peace for long periods through the past two centuries.
The core issue in Afghanistan is deep poverty, which prevails throughout the vast mountain zone of inner Asia. Poverty defines the lives of the 60 million inhabitants of the western Himalayan chain - the Hindukush, Kohi-Noor, Pamirs, Tien-Shan, Karakorum, and Allatau-Jungaria ranges.
Fortunately, experience proves that mountain-based poverty can be alleviated, but not through Marshall Plans. Twenty-five years ago, Pakistan's northern areas were as poor as Afghanistan is today, and a hotbed of killing and drug trafficking. Working quietly at the village level, international development projects have turned the situation around. Today the region can boast more trekkers than narco-traffickers.
There are other successes. As recently as five years ago, Tajikistan's Pamir region was locked in civil and interethnic war, with all parties also fighting over control of what was then the biggest drug route in the world. Religious extremism was rising. Neither Tajik Badakhshan, as the region is called, nor the adjoining region of Afghanistan, could feed themselves.
In a mere half decade, development projects have helped the people of Tajik Badakhshan make their region self-sustaining in food. Violence is down, and the main route for drug-trafficking has shifted westward. The method by which this happened is astonishingly simple. It involves work with local people to reopen mountainside irrigation channels, obtain better seeds, establish communal organizations of self-government, and extend small loans.
In the end, Afghans are practical. The experience of 2,000 years living along the Silk Road has made them dealmakers. If they see a likelihood of improving their lives by joining a new political force, they will seize it. If they don't see it, it's our fault, not theirs. Make no mistake - these incentives work.
Six years ago, the valley of Garm, Tajikistan, was one of the nastiest spots in the region. Religious extremism, terror, drug dealing, and Mafioso-type killing were rife.
A local mullah typified this mood. Armed with a Kalashnikov, he exuded hate, as did his young contemporaries, who met daily at the village mosque. Then international development workers came in. The mullah took out a $500 loan for Dutch potato seeds. Over three seasons, he amassed $21,000. He paid off his loan, rebuilt his house, bought a used car, and provided new clothes for his children.
Recently, a fellow Tajik who had known the mullah during his fighting days encountered the man. When asked, "Where's your Kalashnikov?" the mullah replied, "I turned it in to the government." When asked whether he still hangs out with fighters, he said, "No. I don't have time for that now."
America and other donor countries can and must move quickly to multiply his story a million-fold, throughout Central Asia. Experience shows this is entirely possible, and does not call for rocket science.
S. Frederick Starr is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS.