While most Yalies were busy studying for final exams, the first wave of soldiers left for Afghanistan following President Obama’s Dec. 1 announcement of a troop surge. They joined the nearly 70,000 troops from more than 40 countries already serving in Afghanistan; the remainder of the surge’s 30,000 troops will join them by spring. In describing those troops’ mission to reverse Taliban gains, Obama stated, “The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will be an enduring test of our free society and our leadership in the world.” His statement vocalized an important recognition: there exists no magic bullet solution to extremism.
Regrettably, his actions do not. The war strategy Obama is pursuing fails to attack the underlying causes of extremism which include grievances about corrupt and authoritarian governance, lack of educational and economic opportunities and societal marginalization. Hamas in Palestine, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in western China and the Chechen separatists in Russia are just a few names on a lengthy list of extremist groups that have flourished in such environments. Unfortunately, all of the conditions that give rise to extremist movements are alive and well in Afghanistan and have fostered the growth of the Taliban. Though it does not enjoy widespread public support, the Taliban has proved a difficult force to defeat. While an influx of troops may repel the Taliban from population centers, Obama’s new war strategy lacks provisions to ameliorate the basic conditions in Afghanistan that breed extremism. The troop surge, then, can attempt to treat only the symptoms of Afghanistan’s instability.
To treat the root causes of the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan, President Obama and our allies must emphasize economic development. The estimated $30 billion cost of the new troops should instead be channeled towards school and hospital construction, infrastructure redevelopment, job creation and grassroots development projects. Development projects in villages, especially those directed by village and tribal leaders themselves, can improve standards of living, empower communities, and create an atmosphere of optimism and cooperation, all of which would lead Afghanis to more vehemently oppose the destructive forces of the Taliban.
In his Dec. 2 column (“Johnson, Gorbachev, Obama.”), New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asserted that for the annual cost of a single soldier, 20 schools could be built in Afghanistan. While one soldier is unlikely to bring down the Taliban, 20 schools could begin to shape a generation of educated, moderate youths, a group that will ultimately be responsible for lasting peace and development in their homeland. By creating educational opportunities and a viable economy in civilian society — that is, making civilian life an attractive alternative to extremism — we can draw potential supporters away from the Taliban.
Admittedly, the complications we face in Afghanistan are not easily resolved. As shown by the Dec. 30 suicide bombing of a CIA base, in which more intelligence officers were killed than had died in the previous eight years of war, our situation in Afghanistan remains unstable. Afghanistan has been called the place where great armies go to die, and the country’s mountainous geography, mostly rural population and tribal allegiances, as well as the steadfast resolve of its people, make militarily defeating the Taliban nearly impossible. Historic invasions of Afghanistan, from the Mongols in the early 13th century to the Soviets in the 1980s, have largely been prolonged and unsuccessful. At worst, the troop increase will be a tangled mess reminiscent of our involvement in the Vietnam War. At best, the surge provides only a temporary solution to the problems facing Afghanistan.
While it is likely too late to halt the deployment of American troops, on Jan. 28, representatives from the UN, NATO and the EU will meet in London along with leaders from the U.S., Afghanistan and Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. The conference will focus on security, development and governance and creating a sound regional framework, and I hope that the delegates consider the impact their proposals will have in the long-term. If our troops drive off the Taliban but abandon the population with a corrupt central government, failed economy and crumbling infrastructure, we will only succeed in creating a power vacuum to be filled by the next extremist movement that will eventually rise from the rubble. Instead, we must ensure that Afghans have the agency and resources to maintain peace and increase prosperity. While the troops already in place should remain for the time being, any further policies should seek to sow the seeds of long-term development and stability in Afghanistan.
Jessica Shor is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.