ISLAMABAD — The U.N. secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, could not have chosen a more precise way to underline Afghanistan’s predicament. During his latest trip to the central Asian country, he favored spending more on reconstruction and development work to rebuild a badly broken infrastructure rather than on the U.S. military campaign.
“If we spent a little bit more on helping the people of Afghanistan, we would probably do much better in preventing Afghanistan from becoming a breeding ground for terrorism,” he said, emphasizing what should otherwise be conventional wisdom.
Brahimi’s message, coming ahead of the first anniversary of last year’s terrorist attacks in the United States, could not have been more aptly timed. Just as trading guns for bread and butter remains the route to sanity, so does the logic that the root cause of terrorism can only be tackled by attacking a host of social and economic problems that aggravate poverty and have ultimately contributed to the staggering rise in militancy.
Months after the U.S. sent its land forces to attack those who gave sanctuary to the al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan, the outlook for the country as well as the future of the war against terrorism both appear uncertain. Individuals such as al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other senior figures in the network, wanted in connection with terrorism, remain on the run.
Although a large number of militants have been arrested and many shipped to far-flung places such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for thorough interrogations, the fear of armed militant attacks is far from over. The worldwide concern over the threat of new terrorist violence says it all.
Although continuing military operations may be unavoidable given the active threat from terrorist groups, the long-term outlook for the antiterror campaign needs to be aggressively revisited with deeper analysis. Brahimi’s concern helps to amplify the obvious reality. Despite the validity of an aggressive military response to terrorism in the short term, the long-term outlook for militancy remains tied to three basic conditions that only add to the terrorist threat:
(1) While the leaders of terrorist causes in many instances may indeed be ideologically charged and not necessarily the products of socioeconomic injustices, many of their followers are driven by poverty. Younger people from poorer neighborhoods with no hope for a decent life have all the more reason to turn to an armed response as a means of salvation.
Afghanistan’s badly broken infrastructure perhaps offers one of the best examples of the inherent linkage between lost economic opportunities and the rise of militancy. With the international community promising to pump in a large international package for reviving the war-battered country, many Afghans may well feel frustrated as they watch global promises fast becoming hollow. Many average Afghans see themselves teetering on the brink of economic desperation in the near future.
(2) While ideology may not be an accepted excuse for militancy, it’s difficult to argue against ideologically charged behavior when individual groups or communities are confronted with long-term turmoil. One of the best cases in point is the Palestinians, who have been the butt of more than three decades of Israeli aggression that shows no sign of ending. Another example may be the population of Indian-administered Kashmir, where even the promise of free and fair elections in September has not attracted universal support from Kashmiri groups.
Similarly, the tragedy in Afghanistan, while perhaps unrelated to the right of self-determination, is certain to eventually turn in a direction that requires the U.S. to maintain troops in the country, thereby triggering mounting public opinion against Washington’s involvement. Eventually the continuing loss of economic opportunity is bound to inflame the passions of a large segment of Afghanistan’s younger generation who see little hope for the future.
(3) While the primary emphasis on military engagements may help to create the feeling of progress in the short term, it provides only limited opportunity for laying the basis for dialogue between Afghanistan’s interest groups and the outside world. By contrast, an expansion of international economic engagement inside the country could be a credible step toward expanding linkages between Afghanistan’s nongovernmental sector and the outside world.
The world may not immediately see the consequences of the continued emphasis on U.S.-led military intervention, but the rot that accompanies the absence of economic opportunity is bound to aggravate Afghanistan’s internal security situation, posing challenges to and possible consequences for the outside world — as the tragedy of last year’s terrorist attacks vividly illustrated.
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