Saturday, January 2, 2010

Afghanistan, Land of Opportunity

A few years ago I heard Francis Bator give a talk to a small group at the Kennedy School about Lyndon Johnson's foreign policy. Having for three years been Johnson's deputy national security advisor, Bator was in a good position to reminisce on this subject. He observed, without much elaboration, that Johnson had actually been very adept in dealing with the Russians--as a Senate veteran, he could relate to Kremlin schemers. However, the Viet Cong were another story. They were, according to Bator, deemed by LBJ and those closest to him to be playing an altogether different game than we were--"inscrutable," irrational, and the like. Calamitous decisions ensued.

As I listened to Bator's recollections, it struck me that the "war on terror" just gearing up at the time was likely to lead to a similar trap: by systematically underestimating our adversary's strategic capabilities, we would end up under-utilizing our own.

Fast forward to the outstanding the set of essays in the New York Times Magazine last August about the global imperative to improve the lives of women, including a powerfully written article on a girls' school in Afghanistan. While the Afghanistan article focused, with forgivable journalistic predictability, on the dreadful battery-acid attack that victimized 11 girls at the school, it also contained the following interesting bit of data: "In 2001, only a million Afghan children were enrolled in school, all of them boys. The education of girls was banned. Today, approximately 7 million Afghan children attend school, of which 2.6 million, or roughly a third, are girls." While the article points out that attacks also occurred at other schools, the numbers are still striking: 2.6 million is a lot more than 11. So perhaps a claim for improvement can be made here.

Another example from a different domain: In a recent issue of Innovations journal we published an essay by Karim Khoja, founder of Roshan, the Afghan cellphone company. Created with support from the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, Roshan went from serving 80,000 customers in 2003 to serving 6.6 million at the start of 2009. It continues to grow rapidly--now with a rapidly expanding mobile banking service. I heard Khoja speak last year. He tells a remarkable story--but, of course, it is one that doesn't get much press.

Roshan is an example of the sort of "positive insurgency" driven by entrepreneurship, technology, and innovation that is the real driver of development. Want to "help"? Provide local entrepreneurs with skills development, mentoring, and other essential support (yes, funding as necessary).

Under Obama as under his predecessors, the corridors of power are full of people who continue either to believe that the world can be comprehended in terms of geopolitics (a concept that in my view lost whatever meaning it once had with the fall of the Berlin Wall); that aid to governments is somehow equivalent, or even superior to, investments that go to directly to entrepreneurs (ref. the outstanding essay by my friend Iqbal Quadir); and that some sort of straight line can be drawn between actions of the U.S. military and the emergence of a democracy, in Afghanistan or anywhere else.

Better to have a few more people, who like Khoja, are looking at Afghanistan and other inevitably ascendant societies as lands of opportunity.

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