[I wrote the op-ed below in January of 2011. Reading this article, it still seems relevant. Noor Jahan Akbar, who is quoted in the piece, is correct: “A mind-set built over 100 years takes longer than 10 years to change.”]
As Americans assess our progress in the war in Afghanistan, we are right to question whether this war can actually be won. After ten years of struggle, Taliban fighters still operate unchecked in large parts of the country, and the Afghan government remains corrupt and weak. Indeed, even the White House has characterized the gains that have been made as “fragile and reversible.”
However, I think it is proper to view the war as entering a new and unavoidable phase in which gains can not solely be expected to be generated by the military. Our armed forces have already succeeded in clearing the Taliban from Afghanistan ’s major cities, as well as in making those population centers secure. Now, if the work of nation building is to continue, a large-scale civilian effort is needed to establish educational institutions in the areas that have been secured, and to encourage intellectual exchange between the people of our two nations.
With regard to the importance of establishing educational institutions, it is important to recognize that this is a war of ideas. Consequently, education is a critical means to success in Afghanistan. To understand why, consider that the number of enemies that we could potentially face in Afghanistan is limitless because what makes a person a Taliban is not who they are, but what they believe. The only way to defeat them, therefore, is to destroy their argument, and the only way to do that, is to articulate a better one.
For this purpose, a military presence alone is not enough. To address the non-military problems of misinformation and misunderstanding that abound in Afghanistan , non-military personnel are required. For example, as was recently suggested by Professor Dominic Tierney in the Los Angeles Times, Afghanistan needs administrators to establish cultural and educational institutions. It also needs teachers to confront its astonishingly low literacy rate, which Professor Tierney places at thirty percent – less than the literacy rate of America in 1650.
In addition to establishing an educational system, a relationship must be fostered between the people of the United States and Afghanistan, since a large part of the animosity that exists between us is premised on a false concept of who we actually are. It is unrealistic to expect this to be accomplished through the medium of a camouflaged Marine riding in an MRAP, shouldering an M16. Appreciation and respect for one another can only be achieved through direct civilian contact.
There are many ways in which this contact might occur. Instituting an exchange program whereby people from each nation can learn about one another might be one useful program. There are others, but the specifics of these do not really matter. What does matter is that the people of our two countries be allowed to engage with each other. This will, of course, be expensive, risky, and difficult, but it is also necessary if we are serious about establishing true democracy in Afghanistan .
Finally, there will be those who say that Afghanistan is already lost. The wiser course, they may argue, is to cut our losses and leave. My response is that, although we have spent years prosecuting this war, to what extent have we acted with the understanding that this never was a conventional war of battlefields and front lines, but an unconventional one of ideas? In other words, how much effort have we spent in enlightening, rather than merely securing, Afghanistan ?
“Ignorance is of a peculiar nature,” wrote Thomas Paine. Once dispelled, “it is impossible to re-establish it,” for ignorance is “the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant.”
The Taliban seek to keep the people of Afghanistan ignorant of who we really are and what we really stand for. If we commit to the education of the Afghan people – for example, by making a concerted effort to increase the literacy rate – reason can prevail over ignorance. Furthermore, if we show that we are invested in them by helping them build the institutional foundations that are necessary for their prosperity, we may come to respect, rather than fear, one another. In these accomplishments lie the seeds of victory.