Win by adopting a bottom-up strategy and not suddenly withdawing

October 12, 2010

October 3rd, 2010 by Jake Chapnick

One of the reasons the West fails to comprehensively understand Afghanistan and its people is because there has been limited access to its rural areas. According to the United Nations, there are over 10,000 settlements in that country of 100 or fewer homes and 1000 with 100-250 homes (Mahmood 222). Seth Jones, a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation argues this point in his article “It Takes the Villages” in Foreign Affairs, May/June 2010. He explains that most rural Afghans, who are diverse ethnically and politically, govern themselves according to traditional laws and codes of conduct that have remote connection to policies made by the central government in Kabul. They trust their community’s council more than outside entities like Kabul’s politicians or American and Afghan policy makers.

To be effective, Jones argues that we must adopt a “bottom up” strategy rather than the conventional “top-down”  approach that has worked in most Western countries. It is necessary for there be a mixture of strong central leadership and community based organizing, Jones argues. Jones explains that the Taliban used “bottom up”  strategy to gain control over so much of Afghanistan (2)

An editorial written July 29, 2010 in the New York Times by Nicholas D. Kristof, a regular columnist for the Times, argues that the war can be won at a microscopic fraction of the cost that has been and will continue to be spent. The U.S. has spent more in Afghanistan than “on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War combined” (A23).

The essay notes that the cost of one soldier could build twenty schools in Afghanistan and cites Greg Mortenson, the central figure in “Three Cups of Tea,” a book that chronicles his mission to build schools for girls in rural Pakistan. Today, Mortenson has overseen 145 schools built in Afghanistan and Pakistan mainly with private dononations to his Central Asia Institute. He claims for the cost of only 246 soldiers, the U.S. could fund a higher education plan for all of Afghanistan.

A growing understanding that force will not change Afghanistan is slowly entering the mainstream thanks to people like Mortenson, who is now advising the U.S. army on its counter-insurgency strategy. “Three Cups of Tea” is now required reading for all military personnel. (Bumiller A1). Mortenson says his strategy will take generations, however he says, “Al Queda and the Taliban are looking at it long range over generations…And we’re looking at it in terms of annual fiscal cycles and presidential elections” (Burmiller A1).

An article called, “Afghanistan: What Could Work” by Rory Stewart in the New York Review of Books, January 14, 2010, presents a proposal for a strategy that would reduce troops, but require a longer stay in Afghanistan. Stewart is a former British Foreign Service Officer member who served in Iraq and has extensive knowledge on Central and South East Asia. In 2002, he walked across Afghanistan to witness for himself how Afghanistan had endured the Taliban and chronicled his journey in the “The Places In Between,” published in 2006. Stewart says that the U.S. and its allies should follow through with their call to reduce troops, but in order to maintain a basic level of peace, there must be a permanent military presence. Stewart writes:

The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to restore trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government (63).

Stewart says the type of surge that worked in Iraq will not work in Afghanistan because in Iraq, the insurgents were Sunni Muslims, a minority religiously and politically whose supporters had mostly been driven out of the capital. Plus, Iraq had a central government that was powerful, credible, and largely supported by the masses with its own militias (62). Afghanistan, contrarily, has an insurgency that is far-flung and diverse, spread out across a population of nearly 30 million people, who mainly live in remote areas.

The bottom line is that to prevent terrorists from organizing in any country, there must be a stable and credible government, which provides security and opportunities to its citizens. Education is the key to a prosperous future as well as communication networks. …

Afghanistan still does not have a law that guarantees journalists access to information and most government sources are not willing to co-operate with the media. Journalists face threats, bribery attempts, interrogation and even death from government and insurgents Ketchkenni writes. Over the last four years, ten journalists have been murdered in Afghanistan, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (Auletta 46). Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo TV, said that few years ago his station was offered $100 thousand not to air a certain story, which they ran. “If someone is powerful enough to offer a substantial bribe, ‘what stops him from killing someone?’” Mohseni asks (Auletta 46).

Here is how we can help: Let us start with the lessons learned by Mortenson in “Three Cups of Tea.” He describes how he wandered into a village in the high mountains of Pakistan and developed a bond with its people. He promised to build a school for its children and went back to America to raise funds. When he returned, he had $12 thousand, enough to buy the raw materials, transport them to the village, and pay the workers to build the school, he thought. He soon realized that there were more immediate problems. Before he could build a school, the village needed a bridge to transport everything in. What they had been using for decades was a pulley system to bring in people and other commodities across the raging river in the high mountains. Here is where Mortenson learned one his most valuable lessons, that the needs of the community are not always the same as the ideal visions of philanthropists. He realized that the people were not being selfish, but that they needed other important things before they could build a school.

Another thing Mortenson learned, was a piece of advice given him by the chief of the village, Haji Ali. “Why don’t you leave it to us,” Ali told him. “I’ll call a meeting of all the elders…and see what village is ready to donate free land and labor for a school. That way you don’t have to flap all over Baltistan like a crow again, eating here and there” (177).

“Ever since then,” Mortenson writes, “with all the schools I’ve built, I’ve remembered Haji Ali’s advice and expanded slowly, from village to village and valley to valley, going where we’d already build relationships, instead of trying to hopscotch to places I had no contacts” (177).

The Christian Science Monitor, August 2 issue reported that U.S.A.I.D. has botched a number of jobs that were meant to help rural communities in Afghanistan, but left the people feeling resentful toward the U.S. for not finishing the jobs. One example was a canal dug to bring water to a turbine to create more electricity for the village. The canal cost $1 million, but it was found that the incomplete concrete walls and drainage created landslides blocking the water from reaching the turbine (Arnoldy 26). On the other hand, in some projects where the villagers were able to choose exactly where the foreign aid went, the results made a happy ending. In once case, a small village was given nearly $50 thousand on condition that they would vote on how to use the money and provide as of their own laborers as possible. The village installed micro-hydro turbine that provides reliable electricity to all 78 households. The money was given directly by the Afghan government, part of the National Solidarity Program (NSP) that is funded by international donors including the U.S. government. According to the article, 30,000 villages (nearly 70 percent) of rural Afghanistan have done an NSP project (Arnoldy 32). …

… Reverting to Stewart, if the United States wants to see enduring peace, it must stay the course in Afghanistan and not withdraw suddenly. Obama has said his strategy is to keep troops there long term, but to withdraw large numbers in the near future. It appears that they agree on the premise that Afghanistan needs the U.S. to hold out and not leave if the Taliban are to be truly repelled. But there is disagreement on how long this engagement should last.

Sources Cited

Arnoldy, Ben. “Losing Hearts and Minds.” The Christian Science Monitor 102, Issue 36 (2010): 26-32.
Bowman, Tom. “In Kandahar, It Will Take A Village To Oust The Taliban.” Jun. 24, 2010
Bumiller, Elisabeth. “Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice.” New York Times 17 Aug. 2010: A1.
Grabowski, Christopher. “Warlords Killed My Friend.” Christopher Grabowski: Photography, Documentary, Photojournalism. 2007
Jones, Seth G. “It Takes the Villages.” Foreign Affairs May/Jun 2010
Mortenson, Greg and Relin, David Oliver. Three Cups of Tea. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Lasar, Matthew. Personal interview. 5 Jul. 2010.
Stewart, Rory. “Afghanistan: What Could Work.” The New York Review of Books LV11, Number 1 (2010): 60-63.
Ketchkenni , Zia. “Journalism in Afghanistan: Getting better but still a long way to go”
The Canadian Journalism Project. Mar. 8 2010. http://www.j-
President Obama’s Speech at West Point, Dec. 1, 2009. (full text of president’s speech)

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