This article is cross-posted at the George C. Marshall Foundation. Also at AOC's IO Blog. On December 1, 2009, President Obama announced his Afghanistan strategy and what immediately followed was an expected and unoriginal cacophony of sound bites based on selective memories of the past and shallow and ignorant visions of the present and future. The decline in the public's support for the struggle is surely a delight for Al Qaeda and the Taliban who, unlike our pundits and some in Congress, understand this is foremost a psychological struggle for the minds of people in "Af-Pak" and around the world to affect their will to act.
It is time to stop accepting the propaganda of our enemies. This is about them not us. But exposing the Taliban and Al Qaeda for what they are - a threat to all societies, rapists of men and women, killers of children, drug users and traffickers, violent criminals, and religious hypocrites - is just part of the solution. Denying ideological and physical sanctuary to our enemy requires military and police operations as well as conscious yet subtle efforts to bolster the morale and hope of the people to foster the development of the physical and functional institutions of society. The people must believe that they, not the Taliban or Al Qaeda (or Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai), own and can shape their own future. This creates the incentive to construct schools, expand commerce, and build on their own culture of lawfulness.
We must understand and undermine the real mechanisms that empower the enemy and take "aggressive actions to win the important battle of perception," as General Stanley McChrystal wrote in his August assessment. US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke called it an information war. "We are losing that war... We can't succeed, however you define success, if we cede to people who present themselves as false messengers of a prophet, which is what they do. We need to combat it." Besides the challenges on the ground, the Taliban's global propaganda campaign clearly works: according to the CIA the Taliban pulled in $100 million this year in outside donations.
A successful strategy in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, requires assistance directed "against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos" to "permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist" without which "there can be no political stability and no assured peace." Success is not derived on the dollars spent or the contracts let but how whether locals feel self-empowered, hopeful, and secure. The true value of such a plan is "not so much in its direct economic effects, which are difficult to calculate with any degree of accuracy, as in its psychological political by-products." Written sixty years ago by Secretary of State (and 5-star General of the US Army and later recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) George C. Marshall and his policy advisor George Kennan, these statements are just as applicable to Afghanistan today.
The Marshall Plan was based on development requested by and owned by the people. There are signs such a bottom up approach would succeed in Afghanistan. The National Solidarity Program, a community driven development effort where Afghans contribute capital, labor, and materials, is not targeted by the Taliban because they know it would incur an unmanageable backlash. Instead of envisioning Afghanistan like post-war Germany, as many have, we should think of it more like post-war Europe considering Afghanistan is perhaps the most decentralized "country" on the planet.
Such plans require proactive engagement, follow through, and an invigorated and aggressive public diplomacy to counter the lies and distortions of our enemy. It is not ironic that what we today call public diplomacy was institutionalized by Congress to support the Marshall Plan, a program that was under considerable propaganda attack before it was even funded.
The Taliban coined an expression which our tactical and US-centric approach has only reinforced: the Americans have the watches but we have the time. Six years after Afghanistan was abandoned for Iraq, the cost of both success and failure has risen tremendously. Considerable time has been wasted and after eight years - enough time for TWO Marshall Plans - it is understandable that patience in the US and our allies has worn thin, but that is not the fault of this Administration, senior leadership at the Defense Department today, or even many in Congress. Failure in Afghanistan would be a propaganda coup for the enemy and embolden them, increasing the security risk to the region and the West, but we cannot succeed if Afghans do not take ownership of their future and reject the Taliban and Al Qaeda.