For an overwhelming majority of Americans, weary of the longest war in United States history—which has cost trillions in taxpayer dollars and exacted more than 2,300 deaths and 20,000 wounded among U.S. soldiers since Operation Enduring Freedom commenced on Oct. 7, 2001—Afghanistan is a lost cause.
The latest National Intelligence Estimate, the considered analysis of all 16 of the U.S. government’s intelligence agencies, predicts that Afghanistan will eventually descend into chaos, that the central government in Kabul will be increasingly marginalized as the once-ousted Taliban gains power and influence, and that much of the social progress and security improvements will ultimately be reversed. All this will come to pass, even if the United States leaves behind thousands of troops and keeps pouring billions into the hard-scrabble, impoverished country of 30 million souls that borders Pakistan and Iran.
Yet that depressingly bleak assessment is not universally shared. During a high-level panel discussion of Afghanistan’s future at New York’s Asia Society on Wednesday, the participants offered a vision of hope and change.
“It’s very difficult to predict what will happen if the Americans and the international community completely disengage,” said Afghan media mogul Saad Mohseni, who took part in the discussion moderated by MTV founder and former Viacom chief executive Tom Freston, who lived in Afghanistan as a textile exporter in the 1970s. “What we’re seeing today, and what’s very interesting, is 85 percent of all military operations are conducted by the Afghan forces,” continued Mohseni, whose Moby Group runs the country’s dominant television and radio outlets. “They are capable now. They’re beginning to take a lead role, which they have been for some months now. So things are falling into place.”
Mohseni—whose right index fingernail was covered in dark ink to indicate that he’d voted in Afghanistan’s April 5th presidential elections—argued that the United States and other western democracies have a vested interest in continuing to support his homeland.
“There’s no doubt that we will require international assistance for some more years,” he said. “The cost of our military is five billion dollars and Afghanistan cannot afford to pay for that. A stable Afghanistan is good for the region…We talk about counterterrorism and Al Qaeda, but even more, a stable Afghanistan will bode well for the future of Pakistan…If you look at predictions for 2050, Pakistan will have a population of almost 400 million people—it will be the fourth largest country in the world—and Afghanistan will have a population of 100 million. It will be the 16th largest country in the world…A stable Afghanistan is very important for the world.”
Mohseni was joined in his measured optimism by Afghan women’s rights activist and government reformer Aarya Nijat and Pakistani business advocate Faiysal AliKhan, a Carnegie fellow and a national security expert at the New America Foundation. All three suggested that the fact that 60 percent of eligible Afghan voters lined up for hours at the polling places—displaying courage and determination in the face of Taliban threats of violence (and an estimated 20 deaths and 43 wounded from Election Day attacks on voting centers)—proved that a thriving democracy in Afghanistan is a realistic ambition. Freston noted that the election to replace President Hamid Karzai, who is making good on a promise not to run again, will be the first peaceful transition of power in Afghan history.
Millions of ballots are still being counted—with the winner expected to be announced by mid-May—but the three front-runners, Mohseni said, are all highly educated, multi-lingual, sophisticated public servants, “aspirational modernists” who could do a credible job reforming the historically troubled country.
“Space and time is very important for us,” he said, mentioning the bloody Soviet invasion of the 1980s. “We have certainly needed these years for the wounds to heal. Afghanistan was basically an instrument of the West in its proxy war against the Soviets. Our population in the late ‘70s was 12 million. We lost a million individuals in that war…and another million were handicapped. Afghanistan sacrificed a lot for the world, and it’s going to take us time to get up again.”
AliKhan, who spent a lot of time in Afghanistan during the election campaign interviewing voters and candidates, said rampant corruption remains a problem, with only 38 cents of every foreign-aid dollar making its way into the local economy.
As for the Taliban—which has enjoyed protection from Pakistan as well as the respectful attention of other governments in the region—Nijat pointed out that the extreme Islamist and violent group is deeply unpopular in Afghanistan, even in the southern part of the country where its political base resides. Mohseni said a recent survey conducted by his Tolo television network indicated that the Taliban had around 8 percent support overall (even worse than the U.S. Congress!).
“Violence attracts attention,” Nijat said, “but it’s not going to go a very long way” to help the Taliban’s bid for power. She added that the Taliban has tried to capitalize on the resentments of Afghans who are “socially alienated” and “disappointed in the lack of public service delivery and the lack of law enforcement” by the Afghan authorities.
Mohseni, for his part, warned against naïve efforts to negotiate and compromise with the Taliban, especially recent attempts at constructive engagement by the U.S. state department, lest the violent extremists are “legitimized.” He said the Taliban typically dangle peace talks as a time-buying tactic, and “believe they will win on the battleground.” Only when that proves not to be true by the end of 2016, Mohseni predicted, will the Taliban seriously consider its non-violent options.
“By overdoing it, you’re legitimizing the Taliban and also creating the impression that they’re going to become a very important part of the Afghanistan of 2015 and 2016,” Mohseni said, referring to the period when the planned drawdown of U.S. combat troops is scheduled to be completed. “We have to be careful of that, because they don’t deserve to have an equal partnership just because they’re violent.”