Afghanistan…..a country dominated by religious zealots! A history of feudal, tribal territoriality! An economy propped up by opium farming! Vast regions of virtually uninhabitable areas! A harsh environment! Poverty abounds! And no central government with the will or resources to govern the masses. Virtually the entire population are Muslims (81% Sunni & 19% Shia). Idealistic traditions where minds may never be changed; and an enemy with enormous patience and staying power! Is changing the hearts and minds of this country even possible?
The Afghan economy is a mess! Tw0-thirds of the population lives on less than $2 per day; and as of 2005, the unemployment rate was 40%. The economy began to improve in 2002 due to the infusion of multi-billion US dollars in international assistance and investment. But, as much as one-third of the Afghan GDP still comes from growing poppy, hashish, and illicit drugs including opium and its derivatives, morphine and heroin. Opium production soared to a new record in 2007….3.3 million Afghans are involved with opium production.
One of the drivers of the current economic recovery is the return of 5 million Afghan refugees that had fled the country. Their return has brought fresh energy, entrepreneurship and wealth-creating skills. Also, recently, the US Geological Survey announced that Afghanistan may possess 36 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 3.6 billion barrels of petroleum. This coupled with the discovery of nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits provides Afghanistan with favorable circumstances to significantly transform its economy if the country can be stabilized to permit foreign investment to extract the natural resources and bring them to the world market. The Afghan government could collect billions in royalties and taxes every year if the resources are developed. The lives of Afghan citizens could change forever!
Afghanistan has been embroiled in social upheaval and invasion for hundreds of years. The Soviets invaded in 1979 and occupied the country until 1989. During the Soviet seige, between 600,000 and two million Afghans were killed….and 6 million fled to Pakistan and Iran. The 1989 Soviet withdrawal was the result of international pressure and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” The Soviet withdrawal was seen as an ideological victory for the United States. However, the US and its allies quickly lost interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and did little to assist in rebuilding the war-ravaged country. By failing to follow-up and, possibly, win the “hearts and minds” of the people, an opportunity was lost. As a result, a state of warlordism took place and, in 1993, 10,000 people were killed in Kabul….giving rise to the politico-religious force known as the Taliban in 1994. Within 2 years, the Taliban seized Kabul and quickly spread their influence and control throughout the country. By 2000, the Taliban had captured roughly 95% of the country.
After the 9/11 attacks in America, US and British forces began an offensive by bombing al-Qaeda and Taliban targets (trying to find and kill Osama bin Laden) during “Operation Enduring Freedom.” These attacks dealt a serious blow to the Taliban, who retreated into the northern regions of Afghanistan. In 2002, the Taliban began rebuilding and, in 2003, started using insurgency tactics. Today, President Obama and General Petraeus are engaged in a strategy to dislodge the Taliban from the Kandahar region (where they have re-established their insurgency presence) hoping to make way for a stable government under the direction of President Karzai. Can it be done? Certainly not, if the US holds to Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawal of troops in July 2011.
So, how does America define “victory” in Afghanistan? How much more money is America willing to commit to a battle that is becoming more and more politically unpopular everyday? And, how many more American lives will be lost trying to attain “victory?” Is victory the capture OBL? Neutralization of the Taliban? A stable Karsai government? A real democracy? And, in what time period?
I wish I could answer my own question…but I cannot! If you have the answer, I would love to read it in the comments section! I wonder if anyone in the Obama administration, the Defense Department, or the Congress can articulate an answer. One thing is for sure…..it is a complex question with huge political overtones and consequences. Maybe, Michael Steele’s off-the-record comments were not so far off the mark!