An Asian Answer in Afghanistan

Chandran Nair
Project Syndicate

In short order, Afghanistan has seen copies of the Koran burned at the United States’ Bagram airbase, 16 people – including children – killed by a US soldier, and, just last week, brazen insurgent attacks on Kabul that claimed the lives of eight policemen and three civilians. Now it has come to light that some American troops like to pose for photographs with the body parts of their enemies.

These events have brought into sharp focus the futility of the conflict in Afghanistan. Finally, the US and NATO are doing some soul-searching.

American commentators have started to revisit the words of former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia….should ‘have his head examined’...” But many in Asia could have given that advice a long time ago – especially about Afghanistan.

After all, Afghanistan is in Asia, sharing borders with Pakistan, Iran, and China. Yet the US and its NATO allies have neglected to consult experts from Asian countries, with the possible exception of India. In 2010, for example, US President Barack Obama should have conferred with Asian authorities before deciding to send more troops.

Given the region’s history, Asians are skeptical about occupying Western armies. So, despite the West’s best efforts to cast its actions in an ennobling light, Asians – even those who are sympathetic to Western agendas –are not easily taken in by facile good-versus-evil narratives. They do not believe that everyone, Afghan or otherwise, who opposes occupation supports terrorists. Oppressed people fight invaders; indeed, many Afghans likely have picked up arms in the tradition of resistance to a foreign army.

Unwilling to accept the Western media’s depiction of events, Asians look to regional sources for a more balanced perspective. They refuse to be misled, as they were during the Vietnam War, when the Vietcong were portrayed as bloodthirsty commies.

While Asians appreciate the dangers of a failed state in Afghanistan, Western military intervention, in their view, is not the solution. On the contrary, they regard the idea of foreign forces elbowing their way into a Muslim country, and then preaching democracy and human rights, as the height of political foolhardiness.

But not only Muslims disagree with a foreign-policy approach that harks back to the nineteenth century. As long as Western politicians continue to refuse to accept responsibility for creating the current quagmire – not to mention new ones, such as Libya – their armies will not inspire faith in Asia.

Moreover, while Asians abhor Taliban extremism, they do not fear the Taliban marching across the region and spreading their beliefs. Although Islamic fundamentalism has support in certain quarters, most Asians believe that it is containable through dialogue, despite the radicalizing effects on the fringe of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other unfortunate US foreign-policy decisions in the region.

So what should the US and NATO do now in Afghanistan?

First, they should get out. They must accept that in a Muslim-majority country, a non-Muslim army cannot win. If they stay, they will only beget more violence. Second, they should support a truly radical peace strategy that seeks to involve all Afghans, including the Taliban, with no preconditions or Western leadership.

To accomplish this would require, first and foremost, an immediate ceasefire, with all foreign forces leaving the country within six months. NATO must begin working with key Asian countries on the details of a peace treaty to be signed by the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership. The treaty should establish the terms of a partnership between the government, the Taliban, and other key players, and require implementation by Afghans – even if that implies a certain amount of chaos.

Ultimately, a new international alliance would be created, comprising Afghanistan’s key neighbors – Iran, China, Pakistan, and India – and led by a regional power, like Turkey. This alliance, chaired by a distinguished global figure, such as Kofi Annan, would lead a truly international effort to aid Afghanistan’s development over a ten-year period.

As part of the strategy, companies from Asian countries like South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Turkey, as well as from emerging economic powerhouses like Brazil and South Africa, should be invited to take on major development projects. The terms of their contracts would stipulate that the majority of people employed must be locals or returnees.

More importantly, projects must be selected according to Afghans’ needs – not Western development experts’ opinions. For example, to foster support for the peace treaty, a center of Islamic studies, culture, and art should be built in every tribal heartland, offering vocational training and health-care services. Similarly, heating systems should be a top priority, given harsh winters that many children do not survive.

Such projects would win friends and sow the seeds of peace, enabling greater investment from within the region and fostering diplomacy that works to Afghans’ strengths by leveraging their legendary hospitality and code of honor. With hard power having failed in Afghanistan, Western powers should make room for regional players who may know better what works.