Yesterday morning, I came into the Office early for two main reasons.
The first, to try this new coffee I found at my little grocery – it promised Café au Lait à la Chicoree – and it tastes like New Orleans. Lucky, really, that I avoid the Nescafé that I have come to dread, and now I have tasty office-coffee. Win-Win.
The number two reason I came in early (and, to be honest, the real reason)? To watch Obama’s speech from West Point.
Like most of the rest of the world, I had mixed reactions to the speech. It was not as eloquent as some of his previous speeches, despite the very clear allusions to Lincoln’s and Roosevelt’s speeches, and maybe just a little bit more whiny than I have come to expect from this President. Although, it is exceedingly clear, many of the systemic issues that keep us in Afghanistan are the faults of the previous administration’s tactics in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, maybe it was just strange for me to hear the direct accusations and complaints coming from him. I like to hear him give solutions and hope – I think that I, like most of the world, know too well the problems created for us in the past eight years.
I very strongly agree, however, with the idea that more troops are necessary in Afghanistan, that an escalation over the next 18 months will be more beneficial, cost-efficient, and effective in managing the threat of organizations like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and the growing threat of organizations like them – intolerant to the empowerment of women, the advance of education, and connecting communities to the rest of the world – from spreading.
The simple reality is that the reasons why these organizations take hold is a lack of strong alternative. There is no one else providing for them, offering to educate their children, protect them from harm, provide them with opportunities or food – even if it is just a perception that these organizations are the ones that are there for them, offering a sense of community. And, for the most part, it is better to belong to a flawed community than to be stumbling blindly alone, especially for Muslim, Arab, and Central Asian cultures where a sense of community and belonging becomes sometimes greater than the importance of individuality (this is not a bad thing, just a cultural difference that I have come to understand and, often, to admire).
It is the lack of alternatives that push at risk populations towards the groups that provide for them, like Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and it could just as easily be applied to the AfPak border where Al-Qaeda and the Taliban slowly take back control.
So, yes, I agree that more troops are necessary to stop the strengthening of these organizations and the training of Afghan security forces to stem the repetition of this gathering force. I respect his gravity in understanding the way that these decisions will echo around the world, and most strongly at home. I agree wholeheartedly that the role of Pakistan as an equal partner is indispensible, rather than their former role as subservient to the previous administration, and that the contributions and cooperation from the rest of our partners is necessary to share the responsibility in persevering in Afghanistan.
But that is far from solving the problem. The wounds in Afghanistan are too deep to slap such a simple solution on top like a band-aid. To see lasting, permanent change in Afghanistan, this strategy requires more than just eradicating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but it needs to answer the underlying causes of poverty that allow those organizations to take root. And that was what I was so disappointed with in the speech.There was an extreme lack of focus on development as a key tool in the President’s strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan, specifically examining the key institutional, infrastructural problems like education, the role of women, sustainability, and access to information, media, and connecting Afghanistan’s people to the rest of the world. By examining these underlying causes of poverty and finding sustainable solutions that not only, as Oxfam suggests, provide for the needs of people instead of the military or the Afghan government, but also, and most importantly, include the Afghan public from start to finish – providing them with the tools to forge a “new way forward” for themselves, beyond July of 2011.
There are incredible success stories that show Afghans want, need, are ready for the commitment to change. Greg Mortenson built an empire of educated women in Pakistan using only his ability to listen to what his Pakistani friends wanted and needed, and his new book, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, shows that it is possible to inspire change in Afghanistan as well. CARE, by focusing on women and girls, has also made tremendous strides in providing opportunities in the region. Even General McChrystal’s statements have expressed his beliefs to that point, encouraging changing tactics in engaging the Afghan people as equals, investing security of education projects, and fighting corruption while training a lasting security force.
President Obama and Secretary Clinton both began their terms with highlighting the need to reestablish the three pillars of foreign policy, shifting the weight from the military towards engaging diplomacy and effective, sustainable development, and Afghanistan should be the centerpiece of that ambition. Obama described a “new way forward”, but really its the same way forward with a slightly different step. What we need is a way to build a bridge to a new Afghanistan, where everyone is given a way forward and a chance to help build it.