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Opinion

Road to recovery in Afghanistan goes through the countryside

As NATO troops prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014, donor countries must rethink their aid to that war-torn country. Edward Girardet, who has reported on Afghanistan for more than 30 years, writes that they must focus on rural areas, where most Afghans live.

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• Concentrate aid on two vital social needs: health care and education.

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• Adopt a 20-30 year approach toward helping Afghans achieve full recovery.

• Cut wasteful spending. The international community needs to stop contracting to private corporations that require armed mercenaries in order to operate, plus rely on massive overheads with costly consultants. Instead, donor countries should support NGOs or private initiatives that work closely with local communities as their best security, that hire Afghans, and that are committed to the long-term.

• Encourage a “real” Afghan economy, not one reliant on war. Afghanistan can be a commercial crossroads serving the Middle East and Indian subcontinent, instead of one that benefits foreign militaries or political interests of its meddling neighbors (case in point: Pakistan, which says it will boycott the Bonn conference over NATO airstrikes that killed its soldiers on the Pakistan-Afghan border).

• Adopt a more realistic approach toward the armed opposition by focusing on individuals rather than terrorist labels. The rebels now consist of an array of local and foreign insurgents, including rogue elements within the Kabul government. The term “Taliban” has become meaningless.

While some talks have taken place, the process needs to be stepped up in a neutral location such as Geneva or Istanbul by involving all factions and fronts in a broad-based reconciliation initiative, possibly under UN auspices.

Even if the official Taliban and the Haqqani network say they refuse to negotiate until all NATO soldiers have left, the outer layers of these insurgents can be peeled away through better outreach. It does not help to kill, incarcerate, or torture them. As one aid worker maintained: “Even the most hard-line commander has a family who may need medical treatment, education, or improved farming techniques” – and thus has an interest in Afghanistan’s recovery.

And negotiations must focus on Afghans – not foreigners, as happened with disastrous consequences after the Soviets left the country. Many at Bonn will be tempted to promote a spin that justifies their military-flavored decisions to date. What’s needed, though, is a new approach that helps Afghans rebuild their own country – with them in the lead.

Edward Girardet is the author of “Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan.” He has reported widely from humanitarian and conflict zones in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere for The Christian Science Monitor, US News & World Report, and PBS News Hour. He is also co-founder of the Institute for Media and Global Governance (IMGG) in Geneva and is editor of “The Essential Field Guides to Humanitarian and Conflict Zones: Afghanistan."

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