Education: Another Option for Helping Afghanistan

Here’s another option Obama overlooked on Afghanistan: funding a national educational system.

The thesis of “Hammering Islamic Radicals” was that Obama’s troop surge into Afghanistan solidifies U.S. relapse into the neo-con foreign policy based on force, effectively institutionalizing an aberrant, extremist position that ignores a broad range of policy options. While a few of these options were noted, the article’s thesis stands on weak ground unless it can be demonstrated that, in fact, the policy options Obama is ignoring truly do constitute a “broad range” of serious options.

Making that case will require significant thought and research. Any reader with suggestions is cordially invited to offer them. Here, I simply wish to add one option that was suggested by a reporter interviewed on Dalgit Daliwan’s TV news program on December 4:

Fund a national educational system for all the Afghan students currently studying in madrassas so as to expose them to a modern education rather than an education that will arguably prepare them to be Taliban recruits.

I do not know how radical the curriculum of Afghan madrassas may be. One could also question the degree to which, given the deplorable condition of the Afghan government at all levels, how radical education should be in order to prepare young Afghans to build the kind of government they need. But “funding an Afghan educational system” should not be taken to mean imposing regime-controlled curriculum; indeed, the experience of an innovative new compromise madrassa in, of all places, violent Helmand Province, suggests that education might actually be a topic on which radicals and the regime can hold a useful dialogue.

But when the total cost of such an educational system for a year would only be equivalent to the cost of some 20 U.S. soldiers, according to the interviewee (i.e., $20 million)—cookie crumbs off the $30B table of military expenses for Obama’s new military surge, this is obviously an option worth considering. In fact, even under the violence-addicted Bush-Cheney Administration, the U.S. invested money in the Afghan educational system, one small Republican idea that would have been worth focusing on.

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Other options include –

1. Campaign to eradicate heroin labs

2. Stress desire for Muslim rather than Western “boots on the ground”;

3. Offer the police a living wage.

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Does anyone have more information about the current Afghan educational system?

Can anyone offer additional options that Obama might have considered to complement or substitute for his overwhelming focus on military force?

If You Have a Hammer…

A consistent stance toward issues with Muslim societies is gradually emerging from the Obama Administration – emerging out of the optimistic fog of early rhetoric. The stance is simple: the U.S. has one big hammer, and that is what will be used to pound on all issues with the Islamic world.

The overwhelming emphasis Obama put on military force in yesterday’s Afghan policy speech is the cornerstone of this unfortunately shortsighted new policy. Surrender to Netanyahu’s right wing leaders of Israel’s project permanently to colonize the West Bank and collectively punish the 1.5 million helpless residents of Gaza for the presence of Hamas (regardless of whether it fires rockets at or observes truces with Israel) is the second foundation stone of this policy. Unremitting pressure on Iran backed up by enough public threats to prevent any Iranian politician who cares about his neck from advocating any compromise is the third foundation stone. And Obama—take note—smoothly tossed Yemen into the mix yesterday in a glib and false implication that Yemen was no more or less than another front in the mythical global attack on the U.S. by al Qua’ida that requires a full U.S. military response.

Of course, the policy is only “new” in the sense that it contradicts Obama’s early rhetoric of sympathetic compromise. All that is now long gone. The ugly neo-con “principles” of wars of choice, preventive war, arrogant dismissal of international law, cynical “collateral damage” (i.e., the murder of innocent civilians caught in the path of the American military machine) are back to haunt us.

Whatever the mistakes of the past, at this moment, an army of sorts is indeed gunning for U.S. soldiers, although only those actually on Afghan soil. Does that mean that today Obama has no alternative but to pour in more forces? Even if more military force may be required to prevent immediate defeat, making force the core of the proposed path to conflict resolution is hardly the only option.

  1. Obama could have chosen the moral high ground and declared war on Afghan narcotics with a massive economic aid program for farmers and a retargeting of Predators away from the homes of insurgents to the Afghan (Taliban and regime) heroin labs that truly do pose a threat to the world.
  2. Obama could also have used the power of his office and his remaining charisma to call for the Islamic world to rise up and help their Afghan brothers so as to enable American troops to depart. Thanking Erdogan for his recent efforts to find a compromise way forward in the Mideast and inviting him to lead a similar effort on Afghanistan would have constituted one big step in that direction.
  3. He could also have put teeth in his Afghan security policy by announcing a program to provide the new Afghan security forces he is training with salaries sufficient to support a family so those recruits could survive without accepting bribes from drug dealers or insurgents.

Sadly, he seems determined to box himself in as a war leader, and those options were ignored. Both Afghan hopes and Obama’s reputation now teeter on a precipice.

In sum, we are back where we have been for a decade: assuming blindly (without questioning) that the appropriate, indeed, the essential response by Washington to every global sign of Islamic political activism must be a military attack.

Is this an overstatement? Look at the evidence:

  1. Recall the experience of Gaza: Hamas won a democratic election in 2006, after making the historic decision to move from military resistance to participation in the political process only to be robbed of its victory by an Israeli-American plot to provoke Palestinian civil war. Trying once again in 2008, Hamas signed a truce with Israel and, indeed, did a rather good job of living up to its end of the bargain by ending rocket attacks. Israel did not live up to its end, however, because what Israel opposes is not Hamas rockets but the very existence of a Hamas regime and, in particular, the existence of a Hamas regime that is peaceful, integrated in the political process, and successful. I have not noticed any sincere-sounding protests coming out of Washington about Israel’s repressive behavior toward Gaza.

  1. Washington’s refusal to compromise with Iran to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough that seemed finally within its grasp is the second major piece of evidence that we are back where we were under Bush. Instead of accepting the Iranian foreign minister’s idea of trading Iranian for European uranium on Iranian soil as the essence of victory, Washington rushed to reject the breakthrough. International agents on the ground in Iran conducting uranium transfers would have constituted a great step in the direction of permanent international oversight.

These details do not portray Washington as searching for peace, compromise, a win-win solution for the long term. The details are consistent with a desire for total victory over Muslims who demonstrate any desire for independence. The details are also consistent with a simpleminded obsession with force as the answer. Even if the truth is that Washington simply is overemphasizing the one big tool in its hand, the question remains:

Is the military hammer effective?

One hint might be the continuing carnage in Iraq. Another might be the state of affairs in Afghanistan after eight years of U.S. military intervention. A third might be the dismal social disaster known by the name of “Somalia”—a disaster that started not with “Islamic radicalism” but with Cold War superpower competition that wrecked Somalia’s traditional political system several decades ago. A fourth might be the emergence of radical dissent in other countries, such as Yemen. And a huge fifth might be Gaza, where the most abjectly helpless population on earth nevertheless continues to resist external oppression. A rather different hint might be the conclusion in Ankara that finding a middle ground and taking the diplomatic initiative makes more sense than continuing to lean to the West and follow Washington’s lead.

Once there was a superpower that called radical political opponents “terrorists.” A bitter war was fought. Nevertheless, within one generation, the victorious terrorists and the defeated superpower had already begun to team up and remain the best of friends to this day. The superpower was of course Great Britain and the “terrorists” (yes, London actually used that word) were America’s heroic freedom fighters.

So I am not convinced that all Islamic radical political activists must automatically be labeled as enemies of the U.S. (though the U.S. certainly has the power to make them its enemies). However, even if one does so label them, it may still be the case that the U.S. needs a different approach. Battling Islamic radicalism is like battling with glass. Smash it, and it fractures into millions of very sharp splinters. Maybe the U.S. needs a better tool than a hammer.

Measuring Superpower Performance in Insurgencies

Assessing a big power’s performance during intervention in a developing world insurgency is inherently difficult because no single, simple measure provides a remotely accurate tool. Here’s the beginning of a metric for the job – an explanation of the dynamics driving the dual, interacting cycles of regime and opposition decline into the chaos of mutual violence. To the degree that your case study of choice fits this Chaos Scenario, the losers include the local populace and all who dream of peace; the winners are no more than those extremists on both right and left who exploit chaos for power and profit.

A conservative regime desperate to hold power relies ever more on brute force (its own weak force buttressed by that of its foreign patron). The more it does so, the more it comes—fairly or not—to be seen as an (inevitably) illegitimate lackey, consequently undermining its authority and thus pushing it further into a vicious cycle of repression, corruption, and loss of prestige. This process, in turn, makes it ever more difficult for the regime to engage sincerely and positively in the cooperation with reformers so vital to focusing it on the needs of the people rather than the narrow, short-term needs of the regime that enable the strengthening of links with civil society.

Contradictions between reformers demanding a share of power and leaders seeking to retain their personal and class positions come to the fore. Protected by the patron, the regime marginalizes reformers, forcing them into the arms of insurgents. A regime that relies on a foreign patron to maintain its position either is likely already to be composed of conservative politicians seeking power for its own sake rather than idealistic liberals. However it starts, its conservative, selfish tendencies intensify under the stress of coping with increasingly vociferous reformers, increasingly violent insurgents, and a populace increasingly alienated by the inevitable regime war crimes. The patron, lacking understanding of local conditions, trapped by its public lauding of the regime, and ultimately more interested in profiting from its intervention than building genuine local independence, is both sorely tempted not to change horses in midstream and manipulated by its client.

Opposing this elitist coalition is a cynical group of embittered activists whose experience has pushed them over the edge from idealism to fanaticism. Now convinced of their own perfection and the pointlessness of trying to compromise with a regime increasingly addicted to its own form of extremism, the activists-turned-radicals-turned insurgents’ particular form of the corruption of power knows no more bounds than does that of the regime.

The longer the contest lasts, the more immoral it becomes as the two sides compete for the title of “bloodiest butcher of them all.”

The above description is all too familiar. Eventually one side will tire, and the other will gain control of the slaughterhouse. The loser will be society, by then crushed morally and physically.

To the degree that this description comes to reflect reality in a Muslim society where the American Armed Forces are at war, not just the local society but also America will end up a loser – regardless of which side ends up controlling the slaughterhouse.

When taking stock of the Western-Islamic confrontation, this description provides a metric for evaluating the overall course of the conflict. To the degree that it is accurate, “we the people” are losing, and the forces of extremism, of chaos, of exploitation are winning. These forces may be jihadi terrorists or gun-running masters of the military-industrial complex; either way, they are believers in violence, profiteers of chaos. It is this distinction—not “body counts” or the claims of politicians or the emotional drivel of glib media propagandists or battlefield results—that voters need to understand.