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On Point

Remember Afghanistan?

by Austin Bay
May 21, 2003

Do we remember Afghanistan? We'd better. America's first military victory in the War on Terror remains America's first test case for rebuilding a brutalized hard corner of the planet, the kind of corner that breeds and sustains anti-American terrorists.

Though we've erased the immediate threat of international terror succored by Afghanistan's former Taliban regime, the long-haul "campaign for Afghanistan" continues.

And it is a campaign -- a long and vital campaign on the high ground of Asia.

The current news portrayal of Afghanistan seems uniformly bleak, with warlords, gun battles, bloodshed and political ineptitude. At best, the picture is one of a fragile security situation with scant hope for reconstruction with cinder blocks, much less a renewal of civil society. Iraq has an educated populace, while most Afghani adults are functionally illiterate. Iraq has oil. At the moment, Afghanistan's biggest resource is rubble. Democracy? Forget it.

But forgetting leads to defeat, and defeat leads to more 9-11s.

Security in Afghanistan is iffy. The military victory 18 months ago, though agile and impressive, wasn't absolute. Military operations continue against active opponents who lurk in the region, opponents who fear the long-term consequences of a stable Afghanistan.

The long-term consequence they fear is development, an American sponsored success. The battle for development -- for roads, clinics, safe villages and concrete political change -- doesn't make for 30 seconds of hot Tv footage. Providing security in a war-savaged land and building democracy among fractured tribes who historically chafe and shift beneath warlords and dictators require patience, focus and endurance, as well as money.

The pay-off to America, however, is enormous. If genuine, secure democratic change emerges from Afghanistan's rubble, Osama bin Laden and his cohort of Islamo-fascists will follow the Soviet Union into history's dustbin.

Afghanistan is where Osama, the United States and the Soviet Union intersected. Soviet savagery left a devastated society. American support for the Afghan Mujahadeen helped defeat the Soviet invaders. The Russians defeat in that long conflict gave Bin Laden the idea that the world was ripe for his brand of revolution.

The United States failed Afghanistan by losing interest when the Soviets left. Bin Laden didn't lose interest. In the mid-1990s, desperate material poverty and relentless fighting among warlords turned the populace toward the Taliban. The Taliban began as a reformist movement with the mission of ending the incessant fighting and political corruption. The Taliban, of course, proved to be just another form of thug -- a thug spouting scripture.

Has Washington failed to focus on Afghanistan?

Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Dr. Ishaq M. Shahryar, isn't ready to forget Afghanistan. The cynic might blame Shahryar's optimism on his four decades in America. OK, he's an Afghan-American, a taxpayer with a hyphen. He's done well as a scientist and businessman, inventing a low-cost photo-voltaic (solar) electric generating cell in 1972.

In Washington last week, Shahryar acknowledged the fragile security. He argues, however, there's news, then there's the real story. The real story is a brick by brick business, with little media sizzle.

It's also the way peace is created, by raising physical and political structures that create and maintain security and wealth. "Expect no immediate miracles," Shahryar cautioned, "this is the slow work of details."

Some of the details are tough --rebuilding roads, putting in a railroad to connect the country.

The "model village" Shahryar is promoting may sound like something from the land of toy trains --it ain't. For an Afghan villager, it's hope -- and it's one of several projects Afghanistan is pursuing on its own and in conjunction with its Private Sector Development Task Force.

The model villages project intends to replace the rubble with cost-effective, simple houses built in Afghanistan by Afghanis with outside capital and aid. Shahryar discussed one village design that uses simple solar panels (with generator back-up) to produce electricity. Each village has a school, a clinic and a satellite dish.

Is it doable?

"We're doing it," the ambassador said. "But we need continued support. Afghanistan is a model for other Islamic countries that start from rubble or ground zero." He ended with a history lesson. "Central Afghanistan is the high ground. Hold it, and you will influence for good or evil that which flows into Europe and Asia."

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