Advice for the new Afghan leader

Dear CHAIRMAN Karzai:

My heartiest congratulations on your recent installation as head of Afghanistan's interim government. This is probably one of the hardest jobs in the world - but also one of the most important. My thoughts and prayers are with you as you make a dizzying series of decisions whose effects will be felt by 27 million compatriots for decades to come.

I'm sure you're already getting mountains of advice. Here's some more. I have spent more than 25 years thinking deeply about war, peace, nation-building - and the many areas where these issues overlap. I also have the qualification of having lived as a working mother in Lebanon, for six years of the war there, during the 1970s.

Here are some key ideas:

1. In six months, there are limits to what you can achieve. Your main role will be to prepare for the gathering next June to provide a longer-lasting administration. The best contribution would be a clear and compelling vision of the kind of country you want to build.

2. This vision should be firmly grounded on the simple observation that, "There is no national security without human security." What, after all, is a nation made of - if it is not made up of its people?

How can we define or measure a notion as slippery-looking as "human security"? Over the past dozen years, the UN has helped to do just this, by developing very useful measures of human well-being. One is the Human Poverty Index, which calculates deprivations in such areas as the proportion of underweight children and adult illiteracy. In 2001, your country ranked 89th out of 90 developing countries on that scale.

Such deprivations are linked closely - and in many complex ways - to the more traditional national-security agenda. Broadly speaking, as I saw happen in Lebanon, socioeconomic deprivation breeds instability and war, while instability and war can quickly steal away socioeconomic gains. You already have a deep understanding of these truths, so here are the next steps:

3. In a country as fragile as Afghanistan, real (that is, human) security can only be achieved through a sustained pursuit of demilitarization, demobilization, and political nonalignment. Look closely at Costa Rica, whose longstanding status as a neutral, demilitarized state allowed it to steer a steady path through all the Central American wars of the past 50 years - and also, crucially, to continue to make serious and steady gains in human development. Or Mozambique, where a UN-funded process of demobilization allowed participants in the 1975-92 civil war to return to their homes and learn productive trades while receiving two years' worth of the pay they'd been getting as fighters.

Now - at the dawn of a new era, after 23 years of warfare in your country - is the best time to start articulating and working for demilitarization. Of course, this idea may worry many of your allies, including some within your domestic coalition, and even international allies who may judge their interests tied to the conclusion of lucrative arms contracts, or of military treaties. But even some of the traditional Afghan warlords have started speaking about the need for social and economic development. And, meanwhile, there's a whole new constituency you can start to turn to:

4. Afghan women will be key allies in demilitarization. They are the ones who have struggled to keep the children, the wounded and the sick fed, clothed, and alive throughout the past 23 years. They are the ones who already know that it would be much better to invest national and international funds in health, education, and national rebuilding than to pour them into weapons and maintaining the country's present assortment of ill-disciplined militias. Empowering your countrywomen will massively help the push for demilitarization.

And, for good measure:

5. If you pursue a fair, inclusive, and truly national vision of human security, you may need to disagree politely with some outsiders most eager to help you.

Two examples: advocates of speedy elections and people in the human-rights movement. Sure, everyone favors elections. But any elections should be carefully devised and timed, so they don't end up reopening old political cleavages. And though foreign activists may urge trials or truth commissions to deal with the past wounds, feel free to explore a range of other options in line with Afghan traditions, including forward-looking mechanisms that encourage forgiveness, reconciliation, and the turning of a new leaf. (Hint: Compare the outcomes in prosecution-focused Rwanda and forgiveness-focused Mozambique.)

6. The United Nations has gained valuable experience in helping countries escape the clutches of civil war in the past decade. Some of those efforts succeeded, and some did not. But there are many seasoned UN staffers who have proved capable of learning from mistakes. Make sure you turn to them or to the think tank run by former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias for some solid advice.

In conclusion, President Karzai, let me note how excited I've been to learn about the considerable track record you already have as a conciliator and negotiator - but also, as someone capable of taking bold steps.

Pursuing a vision of a hope-filled, demilitarized Afghanistan would certainly count as a bold move. But for the next few months, you will occupy a position of unique power and leverage: You're the key interlocutor between a reassembling Afghan body politic and an international community that is unprecedentedly focused on helping rebuild your country. Use that power well!

Respectfully yours,

Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is a veteran journalist who writes from Charlottesville, Va.

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