Sunday, November 22, 2009

Afghanistan--What's To Become of Us?

by Richard Crews
We can't put more troops into Afghanistan--the Afghans won't stand for it and the U.S. populace doesn't like it either. On the other hand we can't not do it, either. At least we can't let the country disintegrate into anarchy; that would be both a humanitarian disaster and an international political disaster.

The Afghans would be able to muster the soldiers and police--and the patriotic will--to provide for their own welfare and civil defense if they had access to training and equipment. So maybe that's what we should provide. But the widespread political corruption would make that very difficult to manage. We would have to accept the necessity of putting as much money and effort into administration and accounting for the training and equipment as into the people and goods themselves.

Afghanistan has significant untapped natural resources--gold, silver, copper, zinc, and iron ore in the Southeast; precious and semi-precious stones (such as lapis, emerald, and azure) in the Northeast; and potentially significant petroleum and natural gas reserves in the North. The country also has uranium, coal, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, and salt. Although the primitive political structure, the endemic corruption, and the frequent dangerous security issues make developing these resources difficult, helping the Afghans develop some of these with careful selectivity as to location and project type could be useful.

Finally, Afghanistan is not geographically a uniform problem. Some parts of the country are relatively accessible and tamable; some parts will surely remain wild and primitive despite any efforts.

If we withdraw our focus from some areas, providing the Taliban with safe havens for world-wide terrorism would not be a significant problem as I understand it. They simply cannot realistically be routed out of the harsh mountainous regions anyway, plus they already have safe havens in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa and Asia.

Providing the Taliban additional funding from expanded opium trade has also been a concern. But apparently that isn't a significant problem either. Efforts have been made to eradicate opium poppies and to substitute cultivation of rubber, tea, and deciduous fruit trees (apples, pears, apricots, peaches, and persimmons); in some areas the development of factories and mines has also been significant. With suitable government and NGO assistance a typical rural family can increase their annual income by a factor of 10x when they give up illicit opium growing.

Ultimately, the problem of illicit opium cultivation should be handled by undermining the criminalization of demand. This could be done by making opiates (including heroin) legal for use (though probably not for trade and transport) worldwide. In countries where this has been tried, it has generally led to both decreased criminal activity and decreased (not increased) drug use and related health issues.

So the gist of the solution to the problem of "what is the U.S. to do about Afghanistan?" seems to be:
(1) focusing not on providing U.S. military forces but on training and equipping indigenous security forces
(2) recognizing that different parts of the country are amenable to different levels of administrative support (some can be tamed; some must be left wild)
(3) selecting through careful analysis specific infrastructure resource development (e.g., certain mining, factory production, and cultivation of substitute crops)
(4) providing heavy administrative and accounting support wherever we put resources in including requiring reduction of corruption in the Afghan government
(5) revising our anti-narcotic laws to decriminalize non-prescription personal use of opiates in the U.S. and encouraging this worldwide.