Today, the Center for American Progress hosted Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and ten members of his interagency team at a public event here in DC. Aside from his “we’ll know it when we see it” remark on success in Afghanistan, the most interesting thing about the Holbrooke team’s presentation was its emphasis on agricultural development.
Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of the opium crop and the plans to dramatically increase the Department of Agriculture’s presence in Afghanistan. But from what Holbrooke and others said today, it appears the main force of the United States’ counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan – beyond clearing locales of Taliban fighters – will be thrown behind rebuilding that country’s agricultural sector.
It was good to hear from Holbrooke himself that opium eradication efforts were futile and being phased out. Opium production is only a symptom of the much larger problems facing Afghanistan’s agricultural industry (such as it is) after decades of war. Since most Afghans rely on agriculture for their livelihood – 80 percent are involved in farming, herding, or some combination of the two – transitioning from an opium-based illicit agro-economy to a more sustainable and legal one will be critical if the United States is to have any success in Afghanistan.
The overall theory behind rebuilding the licit Afghan agricultural sector is relatively simple: help average Afghan farmers get back on their economic feet, and they’ll be more likely to support the Afghan government and less likely to acquiesce to Taliban rule. Of course security is a necessary component for such an effort, and it shouldn’t be out of sight and out of mind. It’s necessary if U.S. civilian personnel are to get “outside the wire” of security compounds, as Holbrooke pledged to do today. But rural development has long been a staple of counterinsurgency efforts in predominantly agricultural economies facing guerrilla wars.
The Civil Operations and Rural Development Support program is often cited as one of the bright spots of the U.S. effort in Vietnam. CORDS attempted to erode the communists’ appeal by providing an alternate means through which Vietnamese peasants could realize their aspirations, but it was ultimately undermined by a national government that simply did not care about those peasants. In short, if a partner government isn’t on the same page with the United States’ own efforts it’s unlikely the best designed and implemented programs will work.
The same thing could happen in Afghanistan. American and international efforts could do a superb job in rebuilding the Afghan agricultural economy, but it won’t amount to much if those running the Afghan government are concerned primarily with enriching themselves or doling out government posts and favors to cronies. The upcoming elections will hopefully instill some accountability into the Afghan government by either scaring the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai, with surprisingly close results or bringing in a new administration.
Holbrooke should be personally aware of the difficulties facing the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Over 45 years ago, he served as a Foreign Service Officer and pacification adviser in Vietnam at the bottom end of an ultimately futile counterinsurgency effort. Now he’s on the top end of an uncertain counterinsurgency effort, and plans to use agricultural development and political shifts to help turn the effort around.
Today’s briefing by him and his team was a good indication of what the United States plans to do to turn that effort around. But the American public is going to need better than “we’ll know it when we see it” to gauge whether or not our program is going according to plan.