Last night, on Greta van Susteren’s Fox News show, Brit Hume said that Afghanistan is what was left over after all the other central Asian nations were formed. He needs a good history lesson. Afghanistan existed long before most of its neighbors became countries. It was independent long before India and Pakistan broke from the British Empire. It was its independence from the British Empire that gave it the nickname “graveyard of empires.” But, it has always been a country of deep divisions and tribal wars. About the only thing that ever united Afghans was an outside invader…like us.
On the tail of President Obama’s signing of the withdrawal agreement with the Afghan government comes an idea from the United Nations that could facilitate the kind the government we would like to see in Afghanistan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, would like the member states to donate $1.9 billion to help return the estimated 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran to their home country. They are actually just the latest wave of refugees from Afghanistan, a country that has been in a state of war and/or resistence to occupation since 1978, following just sixty years of peace and independence. The majority of Afghans have never known peace.
The $1.9 billion would support the building of homes and the creation of jobs. Both are needed to provide the enticements for the refugees to go home. There would also be a need for fulfillment of the President’s promise that the civil rights of all Afghans would be respected. The refugees will not return if the Taliban has enough power to enslave women and impose extreme Sharia law. They will not return if one of the Muslim sects has all the power. They have no interest in becoming a repeat of Iraq’s sectarian war.
So, how would assisting their return help stabilize Afghanistan?
The United States is committed to helping Afghanistan develop its economy. The country contains an estimated three trillion dollars worth of mineral reserves and is the prime location for pipelines wanted by the Central Asian “stans” to get their oil and gas to the Indian Ocean. The economic potential is great, if the nation can be stabilized. By starting with the basics that Guterres wants – housing which creates jobs which create other jobs in a ripple and the building of the infrastructure needed to support economic development, we can better assure the transition of Afghanistan into a stable, independent country. And, there is the population factor. By returning to the country those who have fled it because of the Taliban’s repressions and insurgency, we would help increase the power of moderate Afghans in their government.
Guterres’ request is a perfect compliment to our goals, and carries with it an extra bonus. The UNHCR works with people like Jeffrey Sachs, people who specialize in third-world economic realities, not stupid Western corporate exploitations like handing Halliburton and RGB rebuilding contracts that were better done by the Iraqis themselves. We know what we did wrong in Iraq, handing over the rebuilding to companies with ties to Dick Cheney instead of letting the Iraqis rebuild the country they had built. Iraq was a far more industrialized country than Afghanistan, and we managed to totally screw up the reconstruction. Working with Guterres and his experts, maybe we could really help Afghanistan the right way.