By Fareed Zakaria
The controversy over the desecration of copies of the Quran in Afghanistan and the murder of Americans that followed is, on one level, one moment in a long war. But it also highlights the difficult and ultimately unsustainable aspect of America’s Afghan policy. President Obama wants to draw down troops, but his strategy remains to transition power and authority to an Afghan national army and police force as well as to the government in Kabul, which would run the country and its economy. This is a fantasy. We must recognize that and pursue a more realistic alternative.
The United States tends to enter wars in developing countries with a simple idea — modernize the country, and you will solve the national security problem. An articulation of that American approach came from none other than Newt Gingrich during a 2010 speech at the American Enterprise Institute. We are failing in Afghanistan, Gingrich argued, because “we have not flooded the country with highways, we haven’t guaranteed that every Afghan has a cellphone, we haven’t undertaken the logical steps towards fundamentally modernizing their society, we haven’t developed a program to help farmers get off of growing drugs.”
Now, assuming that every Afghan got a cellphone and could travel on great highways, here is what would not change: The Afghan national government does not have the support of a large segment of its population, the Pashtuns. The national army is regarded as an army of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras — the old Northern Alliance that battled the Pashtuns throughout the 1990s.
And, simply put, Afghanistan’s economy cannot support a large national government with a huge army. (The budget for Afghan security forces is around $12 billion. That is eight times the amount of the government’s annual revenue.)
As America has discovered in countless places over the past five decades, there are problems with the nation-building approach.