US Policy on Afghanistan (Or Lack Thereof)

For its own sake, US should resume a leadership role

For those of us working on the ground in Afghanistan, it's not clear the United States has a policy here. The US is mysteriously absent from efforts to negotiate peace, alleviate suffering, and rebuild this country, into which, from 1979 to 1992, we poured $3 billion into defeating the Soviets and a Soviet-backed regime in Kabul.

In collaboration with neighboring Pakistan, the US eagerly distributed arms to various factions of the mujahideen, forcing the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 in this final confrontation of the cold war.

Because of war and the mismanagement of resources, the United Nations ranks Afghanistan as the fifth-poorest country in the world. Now the US has largely turned its back on the Afghan people. Doesn't it have a moral obligation to press for peace and assist in rebuilding Afghanistan? We at CARE believe so, though it has not been done in more than a perfunctory way.

The US absence is ironic given its rhetoric at home - the war on drugs, the fight against terrorism, and support for the new states of Central Asia. These issues are directly affected by a lack of policy in Afghanistan.

Take drugs, for example. Lacking alternative sources of income, farmers in certain parts of the country have turned to poppy cultivation. Poppy production has increased tenfold since the Soviet invasion. Opium and its byproducts are believed to have become the country's main export commodity. Even though poppy cultivation violates Islamic law and ethics, many communities feel their only other alternative is poverty.

This drug highway is also an arms highway, creating problems in neighboring Pakistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere. Many are also concerned that Afghanistan is being used by others as a training ground for terrorism. An unstable Afghanistan will impede the development of the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics. Afghanistan has the potential to be a bridge between these countries and the rest of the world, promoting jobs, regional growth, and stability.

Instead of policy so glaringly contradictory to the values and political goals of the US, CARE proposes a policy of American leadership and reengagement in Afghanistan that includes the following:

*Take a more visible and stronger leadership role in helping to broker a peace settlement in Afghanistan. Peace and a stable Afghanistan is without doubt in our national interest.

The US is in a relatively strong position to influence the foreign countries fueling the conflict, especially Pakistan, Russia, India, and Saudi Arabia. In doing so, the US should avoid the perception of taking sides in the conflict, be it for the exiled king or against one or more of the factions.

*Reinstate aid directly to Afghanistan. The withdrawal of US bilateral assistance to Afghanistan in 1993 was based more on the fact that the US Agency for International Development's Afghanistan and Pakistan programs were administratively combined than on the needs and problems of Afghanistan. When the Pressler Amendment forced USAID to close its operations in Pakistan, the Afghanistan program followed as a matter of course. Since 1993, the US has provided assistance to Afghanistan through United Nations organizations such as the World Food Program, UNICEF, and the United Nations Development Program. Unfortunately, American identity has been lost. Most Afghans believe we are doing nothing.

*Invest that aid in stable parts of the country. USAID and other bilateral donors have said withholding aid will act as an incentive for the various factions to reach a settlement. CARE believes that withholding aid will only perpetuate poverty, ignorance, and war. Lacking alternatives, more and more youths will take up arms, and more and more farmers will cultivate poppy. Aid should be strategically targeted to those provinces that are stable and where economic development has begun. Such investments will pay social and economic dividends not just in the lives of immediate beneficiaries, but also in rebuilding the foundations of Afghanistan's civil society.

*Invest in health, education, income, and the removal of land mines. Initially, aid should focus on improving the health of women and children, educating youth, and increasing household income through increased agricultural production and strengthening access to markets. Agricultural production and access to markets is stymied by some 10 million land mines - 40 per square mile. The US should make the removal of land mines one of its first priorities.

*Work through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Currently, the best vehicle for providing aid to Afghanistan is through international and Afghan NGOs that are working to rebuild Afghan civil society from the ground up. These NGOs have existing agreements with governors to work in their provinces. The US should take advantage of this, developing strategic partnerships with a core group of NGOs to implement a program of reconstruction and development in those provinces that are stable.

CARE is committed to helping the people of Afghanistan rebuild their country. We encourage the US to reestablish its leadership position and play a constructive role in the peace and reconstruction process. Helping to build a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is in Americans' interest, is within our power to accomplish, and is our moral duty.

* Dan O'Brien is CARE's Asia Regional director.

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