Talks are going on as I write in Brussels regarding NATO’s troop contributions to the revamping fight in Afghanistan, that endless conflict that sucks the air out of everything it touches. The response so far from the NATO countries is tepid, and perhaps rightfully so. After more than a decade of less than clear objectives and accomplishments, the countries of the world are weary, as are the Afghan people. How can this conflict finally be ended? It won’t be easy. Weary international allies of Afghanistan must convince the weary Afghan people that they are the only ones who can really achieve a victory. Let me explain.
I worked in Afghanistan. Nine years. Seven of them were spent running a hybrid press service funded by the United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) and the Afghan Government. We helped to train young, talented Afghan journalists, not in the technical aspects of reporting, which they had, but in the dissemination of accurate, encouraging reports to inform their people that there really were good things going on and that they could be hopeful. Our reports weren’t all sunshine and light, however. Along with the good news that the International Community was there to help in an unprecedented way were reports that told the Afghans that there were responsibilities attached to that help. The Afghans were told that the massive investment by other countries in building them a modern national infrastructure included their participation as citizens accountable for its maintenance. They would have to pay for their new electricity, drive safely on the new roads and send all their children to school. Yet, no one told them that also in their hands was the safety of the country. No one told them that unless and until they took responsibility for the activities of groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda and now, ISL, within their borders, nothing substantive would ever change. They would not attain their “bright future”.
Why does this matter? It matters because it will only be when the Afghan people relinquish their old tribal affiliations dysfunctionality and begin to think of themselves as one people and act as one people that they will be strong enough to defeat the immense evil that has plagued them.
How can they, though? Their history has been anything but a cohesive tapestry, with no real heroes, high guiding principles or ever-increasing progress. Decades of war have left their mark. A huge percentage of the Afghan people do not think things will ever get really better, so many of them spend their time getting all they can while they can. There is no broad, overarching sense of hope, much less advancement.
It will take the encouragement of the countries involved in Afghanistan. It will take real leadership and mentoring from those countries who have already overcome those barriers. To do this, they must talk about matters that have been seen as internal Afghan matters. Yet is it exactly what is needed. Only a massive campaign directed at the Afghan people and assisted by the International Community that speaks of real changes in ways of thinking we work. A campaign that will instill hope and provide real facts about the future and their choices about it, will change the dynamic.
If that can be done, then Afghans will begin to feel that they can make a difference and that they can defeat their enemies once and for all.
And that will make all the difference.