December 05, 2009


After the American Century

Imagine you are in Obama's inner circle. You have inherited Bush's foreign policy, including the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What do you do? Pulling out immediately would invite the Taliban and Al Qaeda back into the country, and it would also expose the new president to fierce criticism from the Republicans. No president wants to lose a war in the first year of his administation, and no American politician can survive very long if he seems be doing favors for Osama Bin Ladin. But if the Americans are going to continue to lead an army in Afghanistan, what are the realistic possibilities for success? This was such a difficult issue that the Administration took a year to decide.

The answer has now been made public, and in essence it is to escalate the war for almost two years and then begin to pull the troops out. This resembles in some respects the "solution" to the Iraq situation, which conceivably still could work. The idea seems to be that a nation torn apart by centuries of religious, ethnic, and tribal differences can and will pull itself together if given a timetable for withdrawel, support in developing new democratic institutions, and the promise of control of its own destiny. But will the Iraqi or the Afghan people will take responsibility for their own fate if they know that soon all the foreign troops will leave? The answer is still unclear in Iraq. On the positive side it was long a secular state (albeit a dictatorship) and the presence of vast oil reserves gives it an economic foundation and a good reason not to let civil war paralyze exports. On the negative side, the Kurds want indepdence, the religious factions tend to kill each other, and Iran is not a model neighbor.

Unhappily, things are less promising in Afghanistan, which is a far less developed country than Iraq. Under the Taliban it had one of the world's most repressive, fundamentalist regimes. And it does not have oil. Rather, the proverbial undiscussed elephant in the room, and a rather sweaty demanding elephant at that, is the drug traffic that has been a central part of the Afghan economy for a long time. Afghanistan produces about 90% of the world's opium. Worse, the size of the poppy crop has been growing not shrinking. (For more about that click here)

This is not a new or casual illegal business, nor one that be eradicated easily. Profits from opium sales are a central source of funds for the Taliban and also for semi-autonomous local leaders. Farmers can make more money growing poppies than anything else, and if they do so they also gain protection from powerful neighbors.

However, the Obama speech about Afghanistan did not discuss this aspect of the problem very much. In one passage declared, "To advance security, opportunity, and justice - not just in Kabul , but from the bottom up in the provinces - we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. That is how we can help the Afghan government serve its people, and develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs."

This is surely correct. At least in theory something like a special Peace Corps for Afghanistan ought to have been part of the Afghan strategy from the beginning. George Bush failed at the arts of peace in both Iraq and Afghanistan, however, leaving Obama with two very large problems to solve without much capital to do it after saving a collapsing banking system.

But where are these agricultural specialists and educators and engineers going to come from? How can they work effectively in an environment permeated by the opium trade? Who will protect them day to day? Who is going to pay their salaries and guarantee them medical treatment for the rest of their lives if they are maimed or wounded? Unemployment may be high, but it will be hard to recruit people for such dangerous work. Yet it is essential work. If Afghanistan remains focused on producing opium, it will have a large renegade economy that pays no taxes, works against the state, and funds war lords and insurgents.