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March 24th, 2009
Obama Should Avoid Bush’s Iraq Errors in Dealing With Afghanistan

By Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and Rep. Mike Honda(D-CA)
This oped was originally published in Roll Call on March 16, 2009

Before Afghanistan becomes for President Barack Obama what Iraq became for former President George W. Bush — a seemingly incurable conflict that alienated America’s allies and increased insecurity regionally — we recommend an augment to the Afghanistan approach.

The plan is primarily military, with bolstered U.S. troops and barely $1 billion in nonmilitary assistance. While the president is right to focus his energies on Afghanistan, this approach will fail to garner the security that he seeks. While Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is right to seek Iran’s assistance, mirroring aid offered in 2001 post-invasion, it will only be successful if acted in concert with initiatives below.

The need for improved focus on Afghanistan’s infrastructure, leadership capacities and homegrown mechanisms for managing tribal conflicts is paramount. We cannot leave in our wake another country ill-equipped to cohesively govern. Obama knows this, which gives hope that the economic, political and social components mentioned here will not elude the president.

First, on the economic front, the country’s infrastructure is nearly nonexistent. This is a serious security issue. The lack of an adequate transportation grid for healthy trade makes poppy the crop of choice for Afghan farmers. Poppy produces quickly in dry climates, harvests in three months and withstands long journeys to market. Since Afghanistan provides 92 percent of the world’s opium, strategies to transition farmers off poppy must rely less on eradication and more on providing alternative crops — pomegranate, sugarcane, vegetables, maize, cotton, rice, squash, legumes and potatoes — and viable market routes, regionally, nationally and internationally. Add training for traders, market managers and small-business people, and a program to empower women economically (business is profitably boosted when gender-balanced), and a new Afghan economy emerges.

Furthermore, by freeing farmers of the financial fix offered by poppy, you undermine the Taliban’s hold. The Taliban protects and finances farmers who face crop eradication, a dependency that establishes unwitting loyalty. If we intervene by providing farmers with alternative options, we reduce the Taliban’s reach and employ communities that are facing unemployment rates of 40 percent to 80 percent. Other ways of reducing Taliban influence include the construction of schools (enrollment is dangerously low at 25 percent) and hospitals (provinces like Helmand struggle to equip even two hospitals for 700,000 residents). As long as Kabul quits the nation on both accounts, the Taliban is eager to substitute.

Second, on the political front, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai considers snap elections, the U.S. must refocus its sights on leadership at all levels of society, not solely Kabul. Afghanistan’s vast network of tribes was never conducive to a centralized capital, but America’s reconstruction efforts left little local leadership. Instead of rigorously training mayors, judges, police, drug interdictors and provincial officials, U.S. contractors consulted but did not equip leaders with the skills needed to be successful.

Obama must end post-war profiteering, a practice profligate under Bush, and ensure that American investments in the country’s political future leave a lasting, local footprint. American fatigue with Karzai may be warranted but all the more reason to ensure the country is replete with reliable politicos in every province. Just like America’s democracy does not thrive on Washington, D.C., alone, so too must Afghanistan’s political fabric be geographically, economically, tribally and gender diverse. The last point is particularly poignant. Parliaments with female representation average stronger economies. We have not sufficiently helped the country do this; we must.

Lastly, on the social front, we must work within pre-existing cultural norms and mores when navigating local conflicts and building tribe-based coalitions. We do not recommend an Anbar-style approach by exchanging munitions and monies for allegiance, because the tribal tapestry is more diverse and more opposed to U.S. intervention. We do recommend an approach that is tribe-centric, working with tribes to strengthen their ability to create local peace agreements and local peace zones. The loya jirga is the Pashtun’s indigenous forum for disputing, adjudicating and resolving conflicts. If we want to quell Afghan conflicts, we must enable traditional mechanisms to carry a culture of peace forward.

The president’s intent is right, to help a beleaguered country realign itself. But lest Obama miss the opportunity to learn from the previous administration’s mistakes, a concerted effort to realize these economic, political and social goals is necessary. We recognize that the answer to Afghanistan remains elusive, as it has puzzled outsiders, from Britain, to Russia and now America. But we need to do right in a country that is failing fast. The ground for gain, economically, politically and socially, is vast. We trust the president is ready to pursue it.

Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

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