The federal government, the military, the media and the public have largely ignored the war in Afghanistan since the conflict began in 2002. By January of 2003, the Bush administration turned their attention to Iraq and became preoccupied with the logistical and financial aspects of that impending war. Since then, Afghanistan has taken a backseat in importance. Even the death of 500 American soldiers in the region earlier this year wasn’t enough to rekindle media interest in the territory.
Part of the problem is that the war in Afghanistan has never been as critical to Americans as the war in Iraq. This lack of concern only grew with the deterioration of security in Iraq and the recent domestic economic woes. However, it seems that the war in Afghanistan should require as much airtime, if not more, than the Iraq War due to the threat that al-Qaida and the Taliban pose to American interests abroad. Al-Qaida only grows stronger as it gains the support of local populations. That support is either based on ideological sympathy or the belief that al-Qaida can help oppose a greater threat. In Iraq, the support among the Sunni Muslim population was based on the latter, and many Sunnis saw the Americans and Shiites as greater threats. Al-Qaida only lost support once their brutality convinced the Sunni population otherwise.
In Afghanistan, the support for al-Qaida and the Taliban is concentrated in the south, which is predominantly Pashtun- the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan—and is stronger than in Iraq. The support for al-Qaida and the Taliban is based on the perceived threat from the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras—ethnic groups from the north who dominate the central government. The support is also ideological. Despite the faults of the Islamic fundamentalism that the Taliban and al-Qaida practice, many Pashtuns associate it with stability and order. Thus, it is no surprise that the two groups have found a niche in the area.
Militants in Afghanistan have safe havens in bordering countries like Pakistan, the ability to cross the border at will and a large and growing source of domestic income from opium. Consequently, the Taliban and al-Qaida have regrouped since their defeat in 2001. They are able to conduct increasingly numerous and deadly attacks against coalition and Afghan security forces, including a devastating attack in June on the main prison of Afghanistan’s second largest city, Kandahar. In the process, the resurgent Taliban members have re-occupied lost territories. In February, National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell estimated that the Taliban controlled 10 to 11 percent of Afghanistan while the central government controlled 30 to 31 percent. McConnell estimated that local tribes were controlling the remaining 58 to 60 percent. But what can be done?
One solution should involve more representation for Pashtuns in the central government, even if the other ethnic groups are unwilling to share power. In terms of closing the border crossings into Afghanistan, it is unlikely the Pakistani military will be productive because of the territory’s difficulties and resurgent militants who weaken Afghanistan and India, their regional rivals.
The opium trade seems equally problematic. As stated in “The Economist,” opium is mass-produced because it provides huge profits to smugglers and refiners, and huge debt relief for farmers. If the government destroys the opium crops, they could risk a civil war with the southern population and the drug lords who profit from and protect the industry. If the government does nothing, the opium revenues will continue to fund the Taliban and al-Qaida, further destabilizing the central government.
However, this problem will be easier to solve if economic development projects begin to succeed, giving farmers other options in lieu of opium production. While multiple countries have pledged around $15 billion in aid to Afghanistan, questions remain on how the money should be spent.
Some of the answers lie in Afghanistan’s period of stability from 1933 to 1973. During that time, Afghanistan’s government invested in and developed the county’s infrastructure, industries, agriculture and education. Some projects succeeded, but most failed. The failures were in part the results of misplaced priorities.
For example, the government emphasized industrialization over agricultural development, even when the economy lacked the raw materials, training and surplus manpower to industrialize. On top of that, the projects floundered due to a lack of supervision, oversight, coordination between projects, input from the indigenous population and knowledge of the local culture.
More troops are also needed. They can help protect more development projects from attack and decrease the Islamic militants’ major source of funding. We shouldn’t pull all our troops out of Iraq because some security gains there are reversible. Instead, we should begin moving some brigades meant for Iraq to Afghanistan, until the Afghan army can independently hold and protect their country.
With the November election coming up during a weak economic period, the top issues for the public, the media and the federal government will continue to be domestic problems. However, we ignore Afghanistan at our own peril, given the growing strength of the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Wesley Oliphant is a third-year economics graduate student. He can be reached at email@example.com.