Austin Bay

By the first week of October 2001, American's chit-chat class had lost patience with America's new war in Afghanistan. Television's hype-drenched talk shows claimed the Pentagon had botched it. The gloomiest prognosticators (most of them from the political left) foresaw a Himalayan defeat, with U.S. soldiers outsmarted by wily, inspired "resistance fighters." As fighting raged and Afghan winter blizzards arrived, millions would starve.

A column of mine published during that period argued for patience, perseverance and a little faith. "Afghan demographics -- religious, tribal and ethnic fractures -- create a politically fragmented society," the column noted. "It takes time to seed CIA and Special Forces teams among rural tribes, particularly in the Pushtun-dominated south. Developing personal relationships with tribal elders is a glacial process. Green Beret majors have to sit down and sip a lot of tea, as chieftains scrutinize promises of aid. Uncle Sugar wants my warriors now, but where will the Americans be in three years?"

Why should the locals worry about three (or more) years of American commitment? After the 1975 American bug-out from Vietnam -- which ultimately led to the deaths of millions of innocents in Vietnam and Cambodia -- citizens of the world had good reason to doubt U.S. commitment and staying power. When the United States quit Somalia in the wake of the "Blackhawk Down" battle in Mogadishu, enemies like Osama bin Laden concluded America was "a weak horse."

But come September 2007, six years later, the Afghan chieftains who lined up with America know they made a good decision. Fundamental change takes a long time, especially when a war-ravaged society like Afghanistan must expand the "human capital" of modernity -- produce the skilled teachers, accountants, electricians, nurses, policemen and farmers who brace stable, prosperous communities.

U.S. and international-sponsored Provincial Reconstructions Teams (PRTs) play a critical role in this type of "capacity building," Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Said T. Jawad, told me in a phone interview earlier this week. PRTs have a number of responsibilities, including classic developmental tasks like building roads and power-generation infrastructure.

However, "the best way of making use of PRTs is to engage them in building capacity," Jawad said, "... by training teachers, teaching tax collectors, helping police officer to be truly professional."

Jawad suggested that, at the moment, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) aren't as effective as PRTs at this kind of training. But these types of skills "are the ones that must be enhanced to build a civil society."


Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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