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Rethink 'fight then talk' in Afghanistan

By Patrick Doherty, Special to CNN
  • Patrick Doherty: Afghan strategy hasn't worked; government mistrusted and corrupt
  • A bold economic, political initiative can counter Taliban influence, Doherty writes
  • Create Development Corps, funded by escrow account using mineral wealth, he says
  • Train skilled workers; talk with Taliban, nearby nations, and all Afghan parties, he urges
  • Afghanistan
  • Hamid Karzai
  • The Taliban
  • Asia

Editor's note: Patrick Doherty is the director of the Smart Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation in Washington.

(CNN) -- Despite tangible military progress in Afghanistan in recent months, the success of the Obama administration's strategy for Afghanistan will be determined by the measure of political and economic progress it brings.

For the last two years, American strategy in Afghanistan has followed the framework of "fight then talk." Under this thinking, the Taliban needed to be weakened before negotiations would begin.

This has not worked in large part because the Afghan state does not inspire the allegiance of the Afghan people. On the contrary, it is wracked by significant corruption, popular mistrust, and a distinct lack of capacity -- offering insufficient contrast with the Taliban. Combined with the insurgents' safe haven in Northwest Pakistan, "fight then talk" cannot win.

Now it is time to pivot the strategy to "fight, build and talk." Security for the Afghans is still absolutely necessary. But at the same time, we must work with our partners to devise and put into play a viable political and economic agenda for the country. For our mission to succeed, Afghans must be willing to fight for a future they believe in and can trust.

Managing the Karzai factor comes first. The United States and other nations must make it clear that President Hamid Karzai must respect his constitution's term limits and that this will be his final chance to build a lasting legacy for his country.

With that established, the Afghan government and the international community, led by the United States, can use the presidential and security transitions, both set for 2014, as the timeline and leverage for a series of bold efforts in the economic and political realms.

Three economic initiatives are essential. First, an Afghan Development Corps -- modeled on the successful U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps from the Great Depression and adopted in principle by Kabul earlier this year -- would provide desperately needed jobs, training, and education for fighting-age males.

Corps members would work on agricultural and civil engineering projects by day and could attend classes in the afternoons and evenings, creating a generation of skilled Afghans able to build a prosperous country. Pay would include a stipend for the workers and an income for their families. As a counter-Taliban recruitment tool nothing has more potential.

An Afghan Resources Escrow Account would provide the Afghan Development Corps with a reliable source of funding. Rather than relying on the whims of foreign aid, Afghanistan can set up an escrow account in a third country, into which the revenues from Afghan mineral and resource extraction would flow and be protected.

Afghanistan has an estimated $1 trillion to $3 trillion worth of copper, lithium, lumber, and other increasingly valuable resources. An escrow account would allow the government, at one stroke, to address universal concerns about corruption while allowing programs like the Afghan Development Corps to be funded from "advances" collateralized by the proven mineral wealth of the nation.

In cities and towns under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force control, an Urban Redevelopment Initiative should be launched to rebuild those cities into vital centers of economic activity, learning, and regional innovation.

Recognizing that the story of the last decade in Asia is one of growth driven by rural to urban migration, Afghanistan's cities, devastated by decades of violent conflict and neglect, can become the backbone and connective tissue of revival.

Instead of relying on humanitarian handouts, Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and other cities can begin to tap into the deep local demand for better housing, sustainable and affordable transportation, and small- and medium-enterprise formation. Drawing on the considerable pool of labor from the Afghan Development Corps and reliable funding from the escrow account, a new engine of growth can be started.

Anchored by an improving security situation and a new economic deal for the country, the case against the Taliban is strengthened and a new political deal becomes possible.

This will require at least three areas of effort: talks with the Taliban groups, talks with the neighbors, and talks among all Afghan parties. Some efforts are already under way, but none is backed by a serious commitment from the key players: the Afghan government, the United States, Pakistan, India, Iran and China.

This must change. Although Washington must continue to encourage Indo-Pakistan dialogue, India has signaled that it is ready to engage as part of a regional task force to negotiate and agree upon Afghan non-interference.

Pakistan, shaken by the 2010 floods, should see this as an opportunity to move away from its ill-considered support for extremists across its northern regions and achieve a major goal in Afghanistan. Iran and China also have significant interests in avoiding further Afghan instability. To orchestrate such talks, especially in the wake of the death of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, U.N. envoy Stefan de Mistura's quiet regional initiative should be elevated to a full-court press.

Time, however, has nearly run out. Years of American distraction after the 2001 invasion followed by the failed experiment of "fight then talk" of the past two years has pushed Afghanistan closer to civil war. And yet, this descent is not pre-ordained.

A decisive commitment to fight, build and talk can offer Afghanistan, the United States and the larger region the future it has desired for so long. It may be our only remaining option.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick Doherty.