What to make of the troubling reports from Afghanistan?
Recent news stories cause great concern: “Karzai Is Said to Doubt West Can Defeat Taliban.” “U.S. Intelligence Puts New Focus on Afghan Graft.” “Kandahar Offensive Not on Schedule.”
Meanwhile, U.S. casualties increase even as troop numbers and costs escalate. And President Hamid Karzai recently sacked two of the West’s favorite Afghan reformers, Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar and the head of the National Security Directorate, Amrullah Saleh.
There is much to be concerned about in Afghanistan. The war is far from won — whatever that means.
Indeed, it is not clear that we can achieve even the modest goals needed for a reasonable exit: some semblance of stability and an Afghan state strong enough to prevent the insurgency from taking over as we leave.
But there is more reason for hope than these headlines would suggest.
Two stories stand out. The first focuses on a trip Karzai took with Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Kandahar on Sunday. The second is a new Defense Department report that Afghanistan may hold more than $1 trillion in mineral wealth — not entirely new information but a more careful analysis than was previously available.
They do not add up to a major turn of the tide in Afghanistan. Critics on the left are correct to point out that mineral wealth cannot substitute for battlefield progress or for greater legitimacy and effectiveness of the Afghan government. But these realities still should, at least, help balance much of the negative news of late.
First, Karzai’s trip: His June 13 visit was a sharp contrast from the one earlier this spring. On that trip, Karzai displayed ambivalence about McChrystal’s plans for a major military buildup around that crucial southern city, where the Sept. 11 attacks were planned.
Karzai effectively gave local leaders a veto over any major operation.
But Sunday, Karzai asked local leaders for assistance on the tough road ahead. “This operation requires sacrifice,” Karzai pleaded with the crowd, “and without sacrifice you cannot restore peace to Kandahar.”
“Will you help me?” he asked. Many in the 400-strong throng stood and expressed support.
He played the role of commander in chief as well as Washington could have hoped. His rhetoric was fully in tune with the challenges to be faced in coming months — in security terms as well as governance terms.
The U.S. and NATO military commands have also helped, emphasizing more clearly that the core of the Kandahar operation will not be a major military offensive but what McChrystal calls a “rising tide” of security and governance. It is planned to take months, not days or weeks.
To be sure, actions speak louder than words. And we are sure to need Karzai’s help in Kandahar to counter corruption — including from his own powerful half-brother — and ensure adequate Afghan contributions to the operation.
But the notion that Karzai was a leader who doubted the ability of current plans to defeat the Taliban — as reported in one New York Times article — was belied by his inspirational and resolute words.
Second, the mineral deposits: The Defense Department’s office for economic investment activities in war zones, headed by the formidable Paul Brinkley, has concluded that Afghanistan may, in fact, be rich. Not just in its poppies, or its ability to attract foreign aid, but in actual resource wealth buried in the ground.
Its iron, copper, lithium and other deposits may be worth more than $1 trillion. If they can generate even $10 billion a year for the Afghan state, that would nearly double the nation’s gross national product. This could also provide a long-term funding source for Afghan security forces and other major national needs.
Critics and skeptics point out that resource wealth is often corrupting, especially in developing countries. Some of the world’s biggest producers of key minerals, gems and oil, for example, are among the world’s most kleptocratic economies.
For such income streams often benefit only a narrow stratum of society rather than the population as a whole. They can also skew exchange rates, in what is known as “Dutch disease” — making it harder for farmers and small businessmen to sell goods abroad.
Such concerns are real, and Afghans have to be attentive to this risk as they design contracts for the mining work. But mineral wealth will hardly introduce corruption, which is already well established in the country.
Indeed, mineral wealth could provide the Afghan government and international community with opportunities to tackle some key economic problems that have long plagued the country. With the right strategy, it could even help reduce corruption.
First, it could provide a long-term funding source that could gradually replace foreign aid. It could pay for Afghanistan’s army and police force, schools, health clinics and infrastructure, like the irrigation systems and roads needed by farmers.
Lack of such prospective funding is partly why Afghanistan’s government has not been able to build adequate security forces or infrastructure.
Second, with the money from natural wealth, Kabul could increase salaries of key ministers and other government employees. This would, in turn, deprive these officials of the excuse to take bribes to compensate for unacceptably low paychecks.
Combined with improved means of ferreting out corrupt officials — which has already led to arrest or indictment of as many as 20 officials this year — the new funding source could help address corruption over the long term.
Claiming a big turnaround from this recent news would go too far. The Taliban and Haqqani network still need to be weakened on the battlefield, and Afghan governance needs to improve quite a bit.
But there is indeed reason for hope in Afghanistan.