Skip to main content

Commentary: War on terror not the answer for Afghanistan

  • Story Highlights
  • Tamim Ansary: Eight years after start of Afghan war, U.S. strategy isn't working
  • He says U.S. should replace war on terror with program to aid rebuilding
  • Ansary: America can't save Afghanistan but it can help that nation rebuild
By Tamim Ansary
Special to CNN
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

Editor's note: Afghan-born Tamim Ansary's best-selling books include "Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes" and "West of Kabul, East of New York." His new novel, "The Widow's Husband," is available at online bookstores this month. In 2001, immediately after 9/11, an e-mail Ansary sent to a list of friends, giving his view of the events, spread virally through the Internet to millions. Ansary moved to the United States in 1964 at the age of 16.

Tamim Ansary says it's time to abandon the "war on terror" and help Afghanistanis rebuild their nation.

Tamim Ansary says it's time to abandon the "war on terror" and help Afghanistanis rebuild their nation.

SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) -- More troops or fewer? That's the only question we seem to hear about Afghanistan these days, and it's the wrong question.

Eight years ago (in an e-mail that went viral on the Internet), I warned that bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age in retaliation for the events of 9/11 would backfire on America and the world.

To my mind, it's still true that U.S. interests in this region are served only by Afghanistan becoming a coherent society again, with a credible sovereign government that actually governs. And what can best bring that about? That is still the question.

The first step is recognizing that this is a pulverized society suffering from deep social and psychological wounds. "Reconstruction," the usual word for efforts to restore a country, can be misleading here because it evokes images of bulldozers, rebar, concrete and other material things.

But the restoration of Afghanistan isn't primarily about things. It's about restoring a social fabric. It's about families again imagining they can plan for the future. And young people again finding their way into stable marriages. And parents regaining a sense of control over how they raise their children. And older Afghans again feeling themselves part of a social network that assures them of the care and dignity Afghans once took for granted.

Above all, Afghans must recover ownership of their own narrative by reconnecting to values and ideas that inform their emotional and spiritual life in times past, and do so with pride, not defensive resentment about the world seeing them as primitives.

Restoring Afghanistan means rebuilding a social framework within which poets can make poetry, mystics can acquire followers for their wisdom and musicians can touch hearts, a place where Afghans can pray together and feast together, plunge into raucous enjoyment of Afghan sports and crack jokes that tickle sensibilities across ethnic lines.

Of course Afghanistan also needs buildings, factories, roads, power plants and other such infrastructure, but in every instance, what's most important is not the thing produced but the participation of Afghans in the design and production of the thing and in the decision to produce it in the first place.

The time has come, then, to rethink the U. S. role here. Let's abandon the notion of "a war on terror." In Afghanistan, fighting this war is causing this war. And it's a war "the terrorists" are bound to win.

Next, let's recognize that America cannot save or even fix Afghanistan. That's for Afghans. All America can do is advise and help. American policy in Afghanistan must therefore be implemented by a network of people on the ground who are familiar with the culture, tolerant of the customs and fluent in at least one of the major languages.

Their function will be to hear proposals from Afghans, supply small grants and provide technical aid upon request. Better a million thousand-dollar projects than a single billion-dollar one.

Will such advisers be in danger? Yes, they will -- so they'll need protection. That's where the military comes in: not as an aggressive force in the country hunting down terrorists but as a defensive force protecting Americans who are in the country to help Afghans help themselves. The troop level won't be set by the number needed to fight an insurgency but by the number needed to protect an adequate corps of these peace-promoting advisers.

Will this work along the border with Pakistan?

No. Forget the tribal belt along the border with Pakistan. No government has ever controlled that area. There are other areas in Afghanistan where people still want American help. Those are the places to go. If cultural restoration is carried out successfully, some areas will begin to recover a modicum of peace, a modicum of economic vitality.

From places that begin to bloom and flourish, stories will spread. People in areas adamant about expelling Americans will then have a decision to make: go on supporting their own insurgents' clamor for isolation? Or restore contacts with the government and get in on this revival? Good publicity is what America needs most in Afghanistan, and in this cause, military victories can actually be setbacks.

The policy changes I'm suggesting will demand something extraordinary from ordinary American voters. It will require approving expenditures that return no benefits to them but only benefit a distant country.

American progress in Afghanistan depends on the appearance of disinterested generosity, and sometimes the only way to create that impression is with actual disinterest and generosity. It's not the way governments usually operate, I know, but in this case, believe me: selflessly doing the right thing serves our most cynical self-interest in the long run.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tamim Ansary.

All About AfghanistanTerrorism

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print