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
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
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
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
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."