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I am engaged in some rethinking of our Afghanistan policy, and trying to look at Obama’s proposed strategy with a fresh outlook. This is more challenging because I am generally a fan of Obama’s policies rather than a critic. As a starting point, Obama’s idea of linking Afghanistan and Pakistan policy together is predicated on an assumption that they are two halves of one problem:

The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan. In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al Qaeda and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier. This almost certainly includes al Qaeda’s leadership: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They have used this mountainous terrain as a safe haven to hide, to train terrorists, to communicate with followers, to plot attacks, and to send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.

True, there are overlapping regions of tactical interest, and Al Qaeda does move between the two. But given that much of our strategy involves the fate and circumstances of the Afghans themselves, does that really make strategic sense? I think it’s worth reviewing some basic information about Afghanstan in order to evaluate it.

Using the CIA World Factbook, we see that Afghanistan’s average life expectancy is just under 45 years. Infant mortality is over 15% (1 in 8 babies do not live past 3). The median age is 17.6 years, ie 50% of the population is under the age of 18. Basic literacy (for adults aged 15+) is 28.1%, ie more than 70% of the adult population cannot read or write. These numbers alone give some sense of the profound challenge the average Afghani faces in just staying alive, let alone providing for a family. Comparing this information with Pakistan is illuminating – here’s a quick tabular comparison to drive the point home:

Afghanistan Pakistan
land area 647k sq km 800k sq km
population 33 million 176 million
average life expectancy 45 years 65 years
infant mortality 15.2% 6.5%
median age 17.6 years 20.8 years
basic literacy 28.1% 50%
unemployment rate 40% 7.4%
average annual income $800 $2600
urban population 24% 36%

There’s a lot here to mull over. Given these differences, I think that it makes more sense to talk of a Tribal policy or a Waziristan policy than it does of a Afghanistan-Pakistan policy. I don’t see why we really need to involve ourselves directly in Pakistan at all – a true partnership of the kind Obama is talking about would involve coordination of American efforts and Pakistani efforts, in Waziristan. Direct action by ourselves in Pakistan runs a risk of weakening Pakistan’s sovereignity, which is as dangerous if not more so than any outcome across the border. Unfortunately, the framework of a joint strategy seems to be encouraging more intervention deeper within Pakistan than just the border with Afghanistan.

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