Will Rockets or Schools Tell the Tale of Afghanistan?

Afghan schoolTwo pieces in Wednesday’s New York Times allege progress on two key fronts in the United States’ engagement in Afghanistan. Reporter Carlotta Gall offers a comparatively jubilant piece valorizing a supposed “rout” of Taliban forces in the vital province of Kandahar. Comparing the success favorably to the ill fated and highly publicized Marja incursion of last year, Gall credits much of the advance to the skillful employment of the new High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or Himars, a precision rocket-delivery system that has enabled coalition forces to attack Taliban supply routes, command centers, and weapons facilities. Taken aback by the intensity of the strikes as well as the perceived unfriendliness of some local residents, many Taliban soldiers have buried their weapons and fled for the time being to Pakistan.

While NATO commanders express a great deal of encouragement at the development, there remains ample space for skepticism. No amount of expensive innovation in armaments can provide for a sustainable counterinsurgency operation – witness Iraq, where insurgents hobbled the massive Pentagon apparatus with the development of the IED, which is said to cost no more than a pizza. Clearing a field of weeds is of little efficacy without the sowing of a strain of seeds suitable to local conditions. While the Afghan National Army remains a relatively popular national institution, its shortcomings are well documented. However thoroughly the area is cleared of Taliban soldiers, it is difficult to imagine anyone other than the Taliban returning, as they have promised to do, or else a local warlord filling the void, the latter of which would hardly be alien to the greater thrust of American strategy in the country. While some warlords have pressed down on the Taliban, it was the very proliferation of such disreputable figures that created a climate favorable to the Taliban in the first place.

Thus even at its most successful, a military-led counterinsurgency campaign remains inherently unsustainable. This is particularly well illustrated by a PBS Frontline piece from last year called “Obama’s War,” which documented the incursion into Marja. The piece features footage of American soldiers speaking with local residents as Taliban soldiers fire shots off in the distance. The bullets are not meant to strike anybody but rather to disrupt the conversation and remind the villagers of an undeniable political fact: the Taliban will remain long after NATO has declared victory and gotten out, and they are keeping track of who speaks to whom. With such an unmistakable cue within one’s own earshot, where would you hedge your bets?

Nicholas Kristof, in yet another piece on mountain climber turned master school builder Greg Mortenson, offers a tale of progress of a different sort. Kirstof reminds us that Mortenson has been able to bypass the security blankets of bullets and bombs to build schools even in Taliban-held territory. Staffing his development crews entirely with locals and consulting with village elders, Mortenson has provided for an education program that locals are willing defend against the Taliban, even while the organization eschews the protection of NATO soldiers.

“Aid can be done anywhere, including where Taliban are,” Mr. Mortenson said. “But it’s imperative the elders are consulted, and that the development staff is all local, with no foreigners.”

In volatile Kunar Province, which borders Pakistan, the Taliban recently ordered a halt to a school being built by Mr. Mortenson’s organization, the Central Asia Institute. But the villagers rushed to the school’s defense. The Taliban, which have been mounting a campaign for hearts and minds, dropped the issue, according to Wakil Karimi, who leads Mr. Mortenson’s team in Afghanistan.

In another part of Kunar Province, the Central Asia Institute is running a girls’ primary school and middle school in the hear

t of a Taliban-controlled area. Some of the girls are 17 or 18, which is particularly problematic for fundamentalists (who don’t always mind girls getting an education as long as they drop out by puberty). Yet this school is expanding, and now has 320 girls, Mr. Karimi said.

While the construction of schools is not a silver bullet for the Afghanistan werewolf, surprisingly simple elements of Mortenson’s approach offer a refreshing contrast to military-led efforts. Aligning educational priorities with those of local leaders, he has created space for local Taliban leaders to do the same by demonstrating the value of such projects to locals and reconfiguring the Taliban’s incentive structure. The success of this approach is born out in the experience of other Track II organizations as well:

Government schools regularly get burned down, but villagers tell me that that’s because they’re seen as alien institutions built by outside construction crews. In contrast, CARE runs 300 schools in Afghanistan and not one has been burned down, the aid organization says. The Afghan Institute of Learning, run by a redoubtable Afghan woman named Sakena Yacoobi, has supported more than 300 schools and none have been burned, the institute says. Another great aid organization, BRAC, runs schools, clinics and microfinance programs — and operates in every single province in Afghanistan.

Then there’s the Global Partnership for Afghanistan, which is based in New York and helps Afghan villagers improve agricultural yields in the most unstable parts of the country. Some Taliban commanders have even sent word inviting the group into their areas.

One hopes that it is not passé to invoke the celebrity at the center of Three Cups of Tea. But given that we seem to have defined our Afghan strategy along a willful conflation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and given further that the Taliban are unlikely to disappear in the near term (even if they must camp out in Pakistan for a time), it seems eminently pragmatic to align our stars with those who can improve the condition of Afghanistan and nourish its hearts and minds even while keeping neighborly company with the Taliban. To invoke the lexicon of civil society, acts of solidarity will carry themselves much further than acts of imposition.

However precise, no expensive rocket system will accomplish that.