The Speech Obama Must Give on Afghanistan
by ralphlopez, Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 09:30:07 AM EST
From my time in the country, I promise if this speech is given, there will be fireworks over Kabul and Afghans cheering in the streets at three in the morning.
Today we are at a crossroads in our foreign policy, and in how we respond to the challenges abroad which lay before us. For too long we have refused to acknowledge mistakes and new ways of thinking, of thinking "outside the box," and there was never a more important time for new thinking than now. Acknowledging mistakes, and correcting course from those mistakes, is never a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. Today I have made my decision on how we will proceed in Afghanistan.
The hard fact in Afghanistan is that we need stability, and we need to be assured that this does not become a haven for Al Qaeda. Now the question is, how do we do this most efficiently, and how do we do this with the least danger to our troops? Our troops will always accomplish their mission, but how do we as policy makers prepare the ground, diplomatically and economically, to make it possible to accomplish this at the least possible human cost? These are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors. I have promised them I will never send them into harm's way unless it is absolutely necessary, nor into a situation more dangerous than it has to be. And I'm going to keep that promise.
We know that in Afghanistan, the Taliban ideology is not popular, and Afghans, the vast majority of them, welcomed the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001. Let's remember the Taliban shot its way into power after the chaos of many years of civil war, and ruled by force and fear. Friday night at the National Stadium was execution night, stoning night, and mutilation night. Today few Afghans want to see the return of the Taliban, just as after World War II, few Europeans in war-torn Western Europe wanted to see communists come into power. But before the Marshall Plan, extremist ideologies in Europe were making gains nevertheless. This is because amid the ruins of World War II, hunger and even starvation threatened the continent, and the lure of extremist ideologies promising utopia was strong.
Fortunately, in the Truman administration, General George C. Marshall, President Truman's Secretary of State, saw the needful, and announced in a Harvard Commencement speech in 1947 the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan was not nation-building, for only the people of a nation can build that nation. It was a helping hand, designed and implemented for a short duration, at a time when a helping hand was badly needed. Four years later, Europe was walking on its own, and the world enjoyed an unprecedented period of economic expansion in relative peace.
Mistakes have been made in Afghanistan, especially as regarding the reconstruction. Eight years after the overthrow of the Taliban, 35% of Afghans are malnourished according to the UN, and one out of five infants dies before the age of five. It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to give childbirth, due to lack of basic medical supplies. Our troops have been doing their jobs, but too many of us, here in Washington, have not done ours. And as I have been part of Washington since the liberation in 2001, that means me too. But mistakes can be made right. A fumbled ball can be recovered.
In Afghanistan today, too many young men are losing hope. As in Europe after World War II, some are succumbing to the lure of an extremist ideology. And with its opium money, acting as the middle man between poor farmers who must feed their families and the world drug trade, the Taliban is able to pay insurgents anywhere from $8 to $10 a day in a country where unemployment is running at 40%, higher in the countryside. As our former Pentagon spokesman in Afghanistan, Col. Tom Collins said in 2007, "There is a low percentage of the total Taliban force who we would call ideologically driven. We refer to them as Tier 1 people who believe their ideology, that what they're doing is right. The vast majority of Taliban fighters are essentially economically disadvantaged young men." And our distinguished Ambassador to Afghanistan, General Karl Eikenberry, who was the commander of US forces there in 2006 and 2007 told the House Armed Services Committee in 2007 that "much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to support their families."
Today we announce a new compact with the Afghan people, who will become one of our best and most reliable partners in the struggle against extremism. To the terrorists, the Taliban high command, and Al Qaeda we continue to say, we will hunt you down. There is no place to hide. To the Afghan people who, after 30 years of war and strife, want nothing more than peace and a normal life, building your own country, and feeding your families through hard work, we say, no one can build your country but you. But we will provide the tools, the technical assistance, and the project funding so that you can feed your families, for a period of time so that the well-known Afghan entrepreneurial spirit can take over. Your children will have clean water, and you will be able to grow food again after the devastation to your irrigation systems and waterways of 30 years of war, and the path of your growth will be determined by you, as it should be.
There is no shortage of work to be done. Many of the country's irrigation systems are in shambles. The country's canals and karezes, which are the traditional and ingenious underground channels which bring water down to a village, are clogged with debris. There are many, many miles of unsurfaced roads which could benefit from the work of Afghans with hand tools and gravel trucks, which will employ many, many Afghans. At at the end of each day or week, they will be paid in cash, to use as they see fit.
How will we deliver this aid, this new compact with Afghans which will keep many young men out of the hands of the hated Taliban? It is too simplistic to say that no part of President Karzai's government works properly. The fact is there are many capable and dedicated Afghan administrators and bureaucrats who work with dedicated and capable foreign technical experts on the evaluation of work projects, even today, which reach the lives of ordinary Afghans. The problem is not that cash-for-work infrastructure projects cannot work in Afghanistan. They are working, you can see them today. The problem is there aren't nearly enough of them. The task is to take what works, expand on it, and keep trying to fix what doesn't work. Opium farmers will be given other, profitable crops to grow, as well as work, and the base of the enemy's financial power will be destroyed.
Today we recognize the work of the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, which has created over 22,000 Community Development Councils, which are committees at the village level which include nearly half women, which work with the Ministry and the NSP, the National Solidarity Plan, to determine which projects would be of most value to communities in Afghanistan, and help the most people.
We will not to tolerate an economically-driven insurgency, just as we will not tolerate one driven by a dark, nihilistic ideology. When you win a war, you win it by attacking on many levels, not just one. Plans for work projects, with the input of the Afghan people, will commence immediately, because the hunger will not wait. I will not tolerate one more American soldier coming under fire by men who fight because, and only because, they have no alternatives. The cost of this program, which can bring stability, will be modest compared to the cost of a long, protracted war in which we shortsightedly do not address the economic drivers of the renewed insurgency.
Today we start fresh with the Afghan people, some of the hardiest, most resilient, and most talented people on Earth. Look it up: Afghans have always placed well in Olympic wrestling, as poor as the nation has always been. Afghans, after their liberation, recently scaled the nation's highest peak for the first time. We look forward to the day when the Afghan nation brings to mind not war and strife, but wonderful accomplishments in athletics, in science, and in literature, the latter in which Afghan authors are already becoming distinguished, such as Khaled Hosseini, author of the Kite Runner.
Failure is not an option. With Afghanistan firmly embraced in the community of nations, as partners all nations can face the challenges which face us as a planet, as an international community. Failure is not an option, and the destiny of the Afghan and the American people can only be one thing: friendship. And this friendship will be the rock upon which the world moves forward. Thank you and God Bless America.
The diarist is the author of "Stabilizing Afghanistan Through a Cash-for-Work Initiative" and co-founder of Jobs for Afghans.
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