Send The Peace Corps, Not More Troops, To Afghanistan

I’m not gloating but two New York Times columnists agree with my assessment that U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is untenable although neither go as far as my desire to pull out all our troops.

Normally, opinions by New York Times columnists are not those that sway the powers in Washington. But in the case of Afghanistan the White House and Pentagon should be taking notes. One columnist is Thomas L. Friedman, arguably the most authoritative voice in the main stream media on Middle Eastern affairs. The other is Nicholas D. Kristof whom I’m not so sure about but at least he’s talked to the folks there.

Writes Friedman:

It would be one thing if the people we were fighting with and for represented everything the Taliban did not: decency, respect for women’s rights and education, respect for the rule of law and democratic values and rejection of drug-dealing. But they do not. Too many in this Kabul government are just a different kind of bad. This has become a war between light black — (president Hamid) Karzai & Co. — and dark black — Taliban Inc. And light black is simply not good enough to ask Americans to pay for with blood or treasure.

Friedman argues after eight years we do not have a reliable partner to hand off to.

The strategy that our new — and impressive — commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is pursuing calls for additional troops to create something that does not now exist there — a reasonably noncorrupt Afghan state that will serve its people and partner with America in keeping Afghanistan free of drug lords, warlords, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. His plan calls for clearing areas of Taliban control, holding those areas and then building effective local, district and provincial governments — along with a bigger army, real courts, police and public services. Because only with all that can we hold the support of the Afghan people and avoid a Taliban victory and a return of Al Qaeda that could threaten us. That is the theory.

What it amount to is a shift in policy from baby sitting a nation to adopting it, Friedman says.

“I feel a vast and rising ambivalence about this in the American public today, and adopting a baby you are ambivalent about is a prescription for disaster,” he concludes.

Kristof is worried President Obama will increase troop levels in Afghanistan in which he cites military and CIA officials as a recipe for disaster. The group fears sending more American troops into ethnic Pashtun areas in the Afghan south may only galvanize local people to back the Taliban in repelling the infidels.

Many Pashtuns I’ve interviewed are appalled by the Taliban’s periodic brutality and think they are too extreme; they think they’re a little nuts. But these Pashtuns also admire the Taliban’s personal honesty and religious piety, a contrast to the corruption of so many officials around President Hamid Karzai.

Some Taliban are hard-core ideologues, but many join the fight because friends or elders suggest it, because they are avenging the deaths of relatives in previous fighting, because it’s a way to earn money, or because they want to expel the infidels from their land — particularly because the foreigners haven’t brought the roads, bridges and irrigation projects that had been anticipated.

The group Kristof cites includes Howard Hart, a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Pakistan; David Miller, a former ambassador and National Security Council official; William J. Olson, a counterinsurgency scholar at the National Defense University; and another C.I.A. veteran who does not want his name published but who spent 12 years in the region, was station chief in Kabul at the time the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and later headed the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center.

Kristof supports a nation building approach.

The solution is neither to pull out of Afghanistan nor to double down. Rather, we need to continue our presence with a lighter military footprint, limited to training the Afghan forces and helping them hold major cities, and ensuring that Al Qaeda does not regroup. We must also invest more in education and agriculture development, for that is a way over time to peel Pashtuns away from the Taliban.

What turned me sour on Afghanistan as a hopeless rebuilding entity is a 2007 report by the World Bank in which I posted columns in May and June. One of the bank’s subsidiaries loaned the Karzai government $65 million to begin restoring its rural irrigation system. Success was marginal at best and was marred by corrupt and inept officials within the Interior Ministry.

In efforts to improve the country’s agriculture development, why not send in trained experts in horticulture and irrigation engineering from members of our civilian Peace Corps.

Afghanistan with its tribal customs will take years to bring into the 21st century. The end game is no where near in sight.

It’s time for our soldiers to leave.

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Author: JERRY K. REMMERS, TMV Columnist

Jerry Remmers worked 26 years in the newspaper business. His last 23 years was with the Evening Tribune in San Diego where assignments included reporter, assistant city editor, county and politics editor.

  • Jim_Satterfield

    They might have a point but I wouldn't send civilians in there until the Taliban is much weaker than it is now. There would be a lot of murders. I'm not saying that we have to be the ones to achieve that level of peace but I would be terrified for any one going there soon after an American withdrawal.

  • Leonidas

    Send in ACORN. No matter which way it turns out we will be rid of one extremeist group.

  • archangel

    I'm with Jim S. The peace corp sign ups are often skilled in many ways, in agri, and teaching, water tech, languages, construction and many others fields, but not in military flash response or readiness in any way. Many in peace corp are not only young, but often middle aged and elders as well.

    I like your idea Jerry; and wish it were stable enough there for a group of helpers to go in at the level you suggest.

    It would be effective now, I think, to have a strongest student exchange program from Afghanistan to the US.

    We could as average citizens, start there. Asking our local colleges and univsersities what their student exchange programs are focusing on, and support to encourage them to lean more deeply into this part of the world far away.

    just my two cents worth, as I think about how to incubate the future …

    dr.e

  • TheMagicalSkyFather

    Sorry you would have to surround them with special forces troops otherwise they would get their heads sawed off or something equally gruesome. The muslim world may be calming with Obama in office but the extremists know that if they can get him to flail like they did Bush they will again become legit to muslims and that would just be playing into their hands. The army engineers on the other hand is good, or Peace Corps surrounded by special forces troops may work but we would then have to fight in such a dirty way that it again may cost us more credibility on the world stage. I still think the best route is a scorched earth policy with a heavy boot for any that oppose and to help the people build an infrastructure while we get rid of all the tribal leaders or at least the ones that act like lawless goons. We made deals with these people instead and left them largely in charge which I think is some of the cause of our current situation there.

  • jkremmers

    I agree there's not enough security at this point in time to bring in the Peace Corps. The thrust of my thinking is that repairing the Afghan infrastructure must start at the bottom up, not top down as has been tried and failed.

  • elrod

    Well, my parents were Peace Corps volunteers in Qandahar, Afghanistan from 1966 to 1968. So, yes, the Peace Corps does – and has done – wonderful things in Afghanistan – even in the Pashtun hotbed. I still marvel at the fact that my parents lived for two years in what is now the epicenter of the Taliban – and expressed more fear of wild dogs chasing them on bicycles than religious or political extremists. Times really have changed.

    As for today, the Peace Corps could continue to do wonderful work there. But the Peace Corps cannot work in an un-secure environment. Perhaps soldiers could begin the work that the Peace Corps does. And if and when things come down, the actual Peace Corps could come in and replace them.

  • Frith_Ra

    I volunteered to go to Afghanistan right after we first entered the country. Until the drumbeat for Iraq started I figured this to be a simple one, two, step aside military action. Then it became a forgotten war as we distracted ourselves needlessly elsewhere & the US Govt. told me to stay home.

    I'm still here. I hear from a Dutch friend that the entire Netherlands presence there is civilian.

  • Frith_Ra

    Perhaps the UN should go in there before the Peace Corp?

  • archangel

    “The thrust of my thinking is that repairing the Afghan infrastructure must start at the bottom up, not top down as has been tried and failed.”

    I think that is a wise position, and maybe top, bottom and middle?

  • vey9

    I'm not sure if people know this, but the Taliban was successful because they kicked out the corrupt — they go by various names in the Western Press, War Lords, Chiefs, whatever. Those war lords became the Northern Alliance (an alliance of ex-war lords).

    When the US went in, it supported the Northern Alliance against that Taliban and put the corrupt War Lords back into power. The War Lords, by definition, are corrupt and unelected. They levy a “tax” on every transaction.

    Looking at things from his side, I can't see any advantage to a War Lord to allow any sort of elections or democracy. Why would he want to risk his position to a local election? And why would he want a strong Federal government telling him what to do? So he did what anyone would do, he pledged to support Karzai and the elections knowing that Karzai couldn't oppose the War Lords and paid the US lip service.

    If the Peace Corp people went into an area free of Taliban, then they would have to pay the War Lords. Unlike other countries, where there is a Federal Government to swoop down on the Chief as in Africa, the Karzai government is not so moved.

    So, before we can make the place safe for civilians, and work from the bottom up, first we have to eradicate the Taliban, then we have to topple all the War Lords. Then we have local elections who elect a new federal Government.

    If the US doesn't want to sign on to this project, then we need to get out. Now. There is no point in staying.

  • Jim_Satterfield

    BTW, they are sending over National Guardsmen with expertise in agriculture and have been for a while. NPR interviewed some of the people from the Kansas National Guard that were being sent over.