Afghanistan Six Years on

Austin Bay

9/19/2007 12:01:00 AM - 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."

"Six years after 9-11," he said, "while we have made significant progress in Afghanistan in the formal building of institutions -- particularly the (Afghan) Army -- we will need to enhance the capacity of Afghan government to deliver services." Education of "service deliverers" is essential to improving that situation."

"The Afghan people still do not feel safe," the ambassador acknowledged. "Protection provided by international forces and the Afghan government is not adequate."

Since this is particularly true along the Afghan-Pakistan border, I asked Jawad if a "cross-border counter-attack" by Afghani and allied forces to destroy Taliban and al-Qaida bases in Pakistan was inevitable.

"There is no doubt that the sanctuaries are operating on the other side of the border," he replied. Pakistan has a capable military but "lacks full commitment" to deal with the terrorists. Pakistanis must be convinced that "it is in their best national interest, and in the interest of regional and global stability, to act."

At the moment, Afghanistan prefers to pursue a long-term diplomatic strategy with Pakistan. "Afghanistan has promised Pakistan we will be their best ally," the ambassador said. "We will provide them access into Central Asia. ... I think more and more Pakistan's administration and military are realizing supporting terrorism is a very dangerous game. It completely undermines Pakistan and destabilizes it, as well."

To pinch a phrase from 2001, Afghan diplomats are "sipping a lot of tea" with their Pakistani counterparts. Their diplomacy is a frustrating process -- as they talk, suicide bombers kill on a daily basis. NATO, the Afghan Army and the United States may launch a cross-border counterattack, but the diplomatic approach acknowledges Pakistan's political fragility. It is encouraging that the Afghanis are assuring the Pakistanis that Afghanistan is a "committed ally."