Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan (Oct. 2, 2001)

So far, the unusual war against terrorism is shaping up like a usual war, with more emphasis on attacking than on positive incentives.  Where are the unconventional aspects?

There’s plenty of news about aligning nations to fight, about aircraft carriers and the complexities of warfare against the experienced Afghans and all that.  There is some tired talk about freezing financial assets.  But there is no Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. We have tapped no Mother Teresa, Mohandas Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. to articulate the creed of a spiritual struggle.

We are not hearing much about Radio Free Kabul or a Central Asian PBS.  There appear to be no plans to communicate an image of America or the West differing substantially from what the target audience already thinks it knows about us. We have already written off the Afghan fighters; there is no discussion of a war for their hearts and minds that might prompt them to ask what they’re fighting for. We mean to kill them, pure and simple, and nothing could be better calculated to whip up their fighting spirits.

Americans may now be willing – more willing than at any time in the past half-century – to endure some hardship for the sake of a well-conceived struggle, one that we can believe in.  We believe in ending terrorism; but we will not continue to support carnage that only stimulates a new generation of would-be martyrs to hate us.

Instead, we now have a rare opportunity to create, in a place outside our own borders, a showcase for the best elements of our worldview.  Like West Berlin during the Soviet occupation, Free Afghanistan can be an enclave, large or small, that our troops secure within the borders of today’s Afghanistan.  It can be a place that welcomes new arrivals from the oppressed portions of that land and gives them food, shelter, and the liberty to dress, speak, and think as they wish. We believe in competition; let’s take this opportunity to give the Afghan warriors a real competitor on the battlefield of ideas.

We will need conventional armed forces to create and defend the borders of Free Afghanistan. We will also need unconventional warfare and high security to protect the residents of that enclave against terrorist attacks – just as we would seek to protect ourselves, if we were living there.

Nor will our warfare be purely defensive. We can expect our adversaries to dislike the embarrassment of seeing their entire population vote with their feet. To surmount a Berlin Wall of coercion, our troops may need to attack those who would try to prevent civilians from entering the protected enclave. To provide more routes to freedom, we may establish additional, satellite enclaves.  Over time, if we do indeed offer what the Afghan people want, the warriors out in their hills will find themselves increasingly alone and hungry.

The greatest need for unconventional warfare will arise within the free zone. Western aid agencies can operate without hindrance there, but it should not be a foreign place to its largely Afghan populace.  It is, after all, the seed of their nation’s future. The police force and, generally, the civilian government should consist, as much as possible, of relatively familiar types:  fellow Afghans, Central Asians, and Muslims from other nations.

Having seen the travails in Russia and other newly democratizing nations, we should not begin with a sink-or-swim approach, but should rather install a starting skeleton government and hand-pick its initial occupants from candidates, Afghan or not, who appear to believe in diversity and tolerance. These people will need to understand and facilitate the growth of organizations (e.g., charities, newspapers, schools, sports teams, agricultural cooperatives) that can give people of different tribes a reason to work together.

We can expect such a government to stumble, and perhaps to fall, repeatedly over a period of years.  We believe, however, that this type of government can succeed, and we owe it to ourselves, and to our ideas of worldwide democracy, to take this opportunity to try. With patience, it – and we – may succeed in giving Afghanistan a positive image of what it can become.  The big stick of military action, by itself, can never do that.

The World Trade Center attack was a terrible blow.  But those people have not necessarily died in vain. If their deaths motivate us to bring freedom to millions of Afghans, and to present to all of Asia an example of how good government can work on their soil, then those American martyrs may cause a wonderful result that we would never have achieved without them.  This, we can then say, is what martyrdom means to us: not the dead-end of malice and destruction, but rather the creation and improvement of life for others.

(This item was previously posted in my ideas blog.)

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