9/11/2001. The Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Afghanistan. It was a time of rude awakenings and hope. Terrorism had literally hit home for the US, resulting in thousands of American deaths and unfathomable heartache. Yet it was a time of rededication to the notion that America was better than its enemies. It would help to rebuild the very place that had harbored those whose hatred for us was so great. The United States would go into Afghanistan with its international allies and would build and stabilize its infrastructure, its systems and its people.
That was more than a decade ago. Now everything about Afghanistan is as depressing as it is frustrating. Reports of corruption, waste and ineffectiveness fill the media along with the news that most Afghans still do not fully understand the US mission in their country. There is suspicion and mistrust on all sides, and those who once held out a great hope for that desolate country must face the reality that while some things may have changed a little, most have stayed the same.
One question that is being asked is, now did the US mission become so murky? Surely the efforts of the world’s beacon of democracy were not all about its own selfish interests? Money, materiel and human resources were poured into a country that was beyond broken to help its people and give them a chance at a better life. All the projects were not bad. There were even small glimmers of hope early on as Afghan children began attending schools once more and their parents participated in the first open, democratic election ever. But that was then. Now the US is taking a long and painstaking look at what it did wrong in Afghanistan.
But perhaps the focus should not be solely on what was done wrong as what could have been done differently. It is a question that has larger repercussions as well, since the US continues to become embroiled in foreign countries and money continues to flow to places that really do need help. Perhaps part of the answer is how the US sends that money and who is given authority over it. It is a sad fact that bureaucrats and military leaders seldom live for long periods of time on the ground in the countries in which they work. They must rely heavily on the advice of others. Often this advice comes from locals with their own agendas. Sometimes it comes from genuine experts who have genuine insight. Yet often the advice of those who know best is marginalized because what they say might be a better way to proceed, but it might also offend the funding process, which is to say, might rock important political boats.
But what would happen if the US approached situations like Afghanistan more cautiously, putting people on the ground who know how to evaluate both the culture and the mind set of those they are trying to help. Then imagine that as these shared their gained insights, policies were made. Imagine that the US talked to the people of the country about what was happening. Imagine that along with the projects to modernize and make better, the US helped to educate, inform and encourage the indigenous populations of broken, war torn places about what was happening around them in ways they would really understand. How many more hearts and minds might be gained by doing things just a little differently?
Unfortunately, that is not how it is currently done and hearts and minds have not been won the way we would have liked. Doing it differently is a more difficult way to do things. It would take more time, but the outcomes of our involvement might be so very different if we would try.