Afghanistan's biggest problem - poverty - can be solved

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President Bush has said that the US role in Afghanistan will not end when our immediate military goals are achieved. What remains to be done there?

First, Afghanistan will need a government. To be acceptable, a new regime in Kabul must meet four conditions: First, it must represent the entire country and not just one or a couple of its many ethnic groups. Second, it must be out of the terrorism business. Third, it must be committed to wiping out the opium poppy crop. And fourth, it must meet some minimal international standard of human rights.

Only Afghans themselves can create such a government. The United States and other countries must stay out of the kitchen. Over the centuries, Afghans have proved to be masters at manipulating foreign powers attempting to shape their government from the outside. Besides, US (or other foreign) fingerprints on the new government could doom it. But the US must be prepared to recognize any government that meets these conditions. And it must even now provide firm assurances that it will organize and help fund major international assistance.

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Such aid is not mere philanthropy. Without economic and social development, even the best Afghan government will surely fail. It is common in the West to trace the region's woes to religious and ethnic conflicts, which by definition are almost intractable. But these are effects, not causes. The root problem is poverty, the essential seed ground from which religious and ethnic strife sprout. This is true not only of Afghanistan, but of impoverished and conflict-torn mountain regions worldwide, including the Balkans, Chechnya, Chiapas in Mexico, Colombia, Kashmir, Nepal, Peru, and Tajikistan.

Can mountain poverty really be alleviated? Or is economic and social development under such onerous conditions a quixotic dream? A 20-year project in Pakistan's northern Karakorum Mountains adjoining Afghanistan provides living proof that sustainable development is possible, even under the most daunting physical circumstances. There, the Aga Khan Development Network has worked at the most local level to enable people to feed themselves, set up their own small businesses, establish communal institutions, and build schools. What was once a hotbed of drug trafficking and conflict is now a peaceful and developing region.

More recently, the Aga Khan Development Network has extended this same effort to the people of the harsh Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan's eastern territory of Badakhshan, adjoining Afghanistan on the north. Throughout the 20th century, this forbidding region imported most of its foodstuff from elsewhere. After a mere five years, Badakhshan has become self-sufficient in food. Drug trafficking and civil conflict have fallen off sharply.

Today, the Aga Khan, along with the presidents of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, is working to build a region-wide educational institution to train local men and women in the skills essential for economic and social development.

The University of Central Asia's main campus will be at the Tajik town of Khorog, situated at 9,000 feet directly on the Afghan border. Satellite campuses will be placed in Kyrgyzstan's Tien-Shan Mountains at Naryn and in the Altai and Allatau Mountains of Kazakstan, adjoining China. The university will be private, secular, and coeducational. (I am rector pro-tem until the institution is up and running and a local person can take my place.) Through undergraduate and graduate programs and through a Division of Continuing Education that will use the latest communications technology, the university will prepare entrepreneurs in sustainable development for both the private and public sectors, from village to capital.

The University of Central Asia's innovative program of development studies will eventually extend to Afghanistan. In a land from which nearly the entire educated middle class has fled, graduates of UCA will make the difference between hope and the despair that breeds religious and ethnic conflict - and terrorism.

Together, these three initiatives are proving beyond doubt that economic and social development are attainable goals, even in some of the world's most forbidding and impoverished mountain environments. Focused efforts at the grassroots level cost far less than the grando-maniac development schemes of a generation ago. Yet they bring dramatic and positive results. The price tag, under any circumstances, is far less than what inaction would eventually cost us.

S. Frederick Starr is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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