How Not to Assist Afghans

Imagine a secure Afghanistan where warlords and tribalism are banished, bandits don't operate freely, farmers don't grow poppies for heroin, and foreign donors give money generously.

Wouldn't that be enough to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming the global launchpad for terrorists?

No. Because that actually describes Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996 until US bombs sent the radical clerics to the hills a few months ago.

Building a new Afghanistan that won't be a threat to the world will require different concepts of security from the Taliban's. Their idea was to impose a wholesale revolution by quickly and ruthlessly trying to change human behavior - especially in women - while also hosting foreign terrorists who tried to do the same to the world.

Social change doesn't work that way. And foreign donors who lined up in Tokyo this week to pledge billions to rebuild Afghanistan have that advantage over the Taliban: They know change can't come quickly or easily.

What the international community still lacks is a strong track record in rebuilding nations. In the last decade, attempts to rebuild Haiti, Somalia, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor (or create a Palestine state) have faltered for various reasons.

Lessons from those mistakes have yet to be fully learned, so it bears watching how a country as devastated as Afghanistan will be put on its feet.

That devastation is daunting. There are millions of land mines and few roads; a drought that drives farmers to grow poppies; no central government and plenty of warlords; millions of hungry, displaced people, with half the population under 20 and largely illiterate.

Two tasks dominate: Securing the countryside with foreign peacekeepers and giving credibility to the temporary government in Kabul. From those can flow aid for schools, water, roads, etc.

But many donors appear reluctant to funnel money through a central fund, fearing corruption and lack of control or desiring to direct aid money back to their own national aid workers or companies. Most are likely to set up aid programs with their own flags flying high.

That won't help build up trust among Afghans in their new government, which is the essential element needed to banish tribal warlords, who could be influenced from neighboring Iran, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.

Misdirected generosity can end up not being generous at all.

Postwar Germany and Japan were rebuilt with aid flowing through a central government. Afghans require no less. And Americans wanting to prevent terrorist havens require it, too.

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