Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Afghanistan: No Easy Solution

How to change a nation, bring about peace instead of war, transform hatred and greed to compassion and unselfishness? Whether Afghanistan or Iraq, Somalia or the collapsed Soviet Union, on-lookers shake their heads in baffled frustration. Despite trillions of dollars in aid and military expenditure, too much shed blood, and the best of intentions, how is it that introducing principles of democracy and freedom around the globe has produced so little lasting peace or prosperity?

A better question: can outsiders ever truly purchase freedom for another culture or people?

I wrote a blog column leading up to Afghanistan's August elections, questioning 'Do They Matter?' After all, regardless of who squeezed out the most votes, Afghanistan would remain a fundamentalist sharia regime with minimal freedom of worship, speech, or media, under the thumb of a warlord-infested government ranked among the planet's most corrupt. And with incumbent candidate Hamid Karzai dominating media access, writing his own election code, and personally appointing each member of the so-called 'Independent Election Commission', not even Karzai's increasingly reluctant Western allies had delusions any of 40+ opposition candidates had a chance. Spending over 200 million dollars of American taxpayer money to mount this election seemed more an exercise in futility than any faith in democracy.

Still, even my pessimism was taken aback at the blatant dishonesty and violence that ended up marking the elections. As much as one-third of all votes cast turned out to be ballot-stuffing by Karzai underlings, including election officials. Less than 10% of voters turned out in some regions, while in others ballots added up to ten times all registered voters. Meanwhile Karzai screamed Western plot at any suggestion of irregularities in the voting process. More than one American diplomat has resigned in protest. Violence has surged against a government increasingly seen as illegitimate, both by the Afghanis and foreign nations currently paying the bills.

All of which has been rather awkward for Karzai's chief ally, the United States government, which was counting on a reasonably clean stab at democracy to justify a continued outpouring of funds and troops into Afghanistan. Under extreme pressure Karzai has now agreed to a November 7 run-off, less than three weeks after the final vote tally. The short time frame hardly permits any serious campaign to be mounted or issues of fraud and security to be addressed. Nor does even run-off opponent Abdullah Abdullah expect any other outcome than a handy Karzai win. Which makes this second round little more than a face-saver for Karzai and his Western allies--along with another sizeable expenditure of funds by American taxpayers.

So where does that leave the future? An election run-off may rehabilitate Karzai's public image enough to justify continued Western support of his regime. But it doesn't address the issue of rank corruption, the wealthy growing wealthier off foreign aid contracts while widows and children continue to starve in Kabul streets, a growing insurgency fueled by the frustration of ordinary Afghanis, who have given up hope of promised freedoms and a better life and who see NATO and American forces as complicit with an illegitimate and dishonest regime.

A top-ranking American general in the zone has suggested a simple solution. Forget nation building. Forget any serious attempts at democracy or rule of law. The West needs to recognize Afghanistan is at least twenty years behind Pakistan. If the American people and military will just commit to the long-run, another twenty years or so involvement should bring Afghanistan up to where Pakistan is today.

And exactly where is that?

Currently Pakistan is a fundamentalist Islamic dictatorship that routinely uses sharia-based blasphemy and apostasy laws to imprison and execute Christians for their faith. It is also a terror-sponsoring state, whose ISI (military intelligence) worked with the U.S. to develop and arm the Taliban against the Soviets back in the 80s, while siphoning off billions in American military aid to finance their own operations, including Muslim extremist terror networks working to overthrow neighboring 'infidel' India.

Worse, they are a nuclear power, their weapons developed in defiance of the same international proliferation laws being raised against Iran; in fact, Pakistani nuclear scientists have been heavily involved in Iran's developing nuclear industry. Beyond all this, like Afghanistan, Pakistan is ranked as one of the planet's most corrupt governments.

So let's see if we have it straight. If we commit ourselves to the long run in Afghanistan, continue to pour out American taxpayer dollars and the blood of our sons and daughters, in twenty years or so we just might get--another Pakistan? Not even considered is where any accountability for human rights or religious and personal freedoms fit into this equation.

Left unaddressed is the underlying assumption that it is up to America or NATO to win in Afghanistan. That if the right decisions are made, enough troops and money poured in, a strong enough commitment is made, then peace and stability must inevitably follow like a correct answer popping up on a calculator screen.

Unfortunately, winning this war isn't up to America or NATO, but the Afghan people. Unless the Afghanis themselves are willing to make a stand, not just against the Taliban, but against the corruption, unjust law, Islamic extremist thinking, oppression and violence that permeates every level of Afghan society, no amount of good will, aid, or military intervention can produce a long-term peace and stability.

Afghanistan's current leadership has proved more than happy to leave security issues to foreign troops while they count looted aid dollars behind well-guarded walls of their ornate Kabuli mansions. The Afghan National Police, many of them rehabilitated warlord militias and currently rated the most corrupt institution in Afghanistan, are too busy squeezing largesse out of their countrymen to secure their streets. The new Afghan army is rated slightly less corrupt than the police, mainly because they have less day-to-day contact with the locals, but shows little willingness to risk their own necks and a tendency to go AWOL any time the fighting gets serious.

Meanwhile, redefined American military strategy in Afghanistan includes falling back to concentrate on providing security for 'major population centers'. Sounds good. Except America doesn't have enough manpower to patrol our own inner-city streets against gangs and criminal activity. Nor was our military ever designed to provide ground security for an unwilling foreign population. The very fact that eight years down the road from liberation it is somehow now assumed to be American responsibility to secure Afghan population centers shows how far askew the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has drifted.

And if by some miracle and enough military presence, it proves possible to reduce somewhat the daily murder and mayhem currently reigning in Afghanistan, what global difference will it make? Islamic extremist groups shift easily across the entire Muslim world. Al Qaida is only one of countless factions with similar ideology and goals. Do we invade Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, even Mindanao in the Philippines?

Because in the long run, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not just about extremists opposing the West. It is part of a much larger and long-term civil war within the Muslim world itself between fundamentalist Islam and the corrupt, extravagant aristocracies who have funneled oil revenue and other resources into their own pockets. Surely Cold War history should have taught us the futility of stepping in to prop up one corrupt regime out of fear the alternative might be worse (Iran, Iraq, Chile, Paraguay, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, are a few places we've done so and are still paying the price). America has neither enough money, troops nor will to step in and compel the entire planet or even entire Islamic world 'be good' and 'play nice' with the other.

So what is the answer?

Nothing simple. Certainly nothing that can be accomplished by a few thousand more troops and trillions more dollars in aid, much though I wish it were otherwise. I wish that following the latest strategy suggestions, propping up Pakistan one more time, sticking it out with corrupt local allies offered a long-term hope of success.

Above all, because a lot of genuinely good intentions have been invested in Afghanistan. American and NATO troops have fought courageously and well. Plenty of individual Afghanis have worked hard to make a difference in their country. I have not met a single long-term humanitarian worker nor many Afghanis who want American and NATO forces to abandon Afghanistan. But nor have I met any who believes that the current course--especially in collaboration with present Afghan leadership--will bring about long-term success.

There is an answer. It is not easy nor quick, but it is simple. It is, in fact, the theme I address in my most recent Tyndale House Publishers release Veiled Freedom, set in Afghanistan. With the best of intentions, one cannot impose freedom from without. It must be the choice of a people.

You see, change that truly transforms society comes through changed hearts, not circumstances. And hearts change only when they are restored to personal relationship with their Creator and heavenly Father through the love of Jesus Christ and transforming power of the Holy Spirit. When God promised restoration to an idolatrous, wicked Israel, He described it this way: "I will give you a new heart . . . I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26).

And therein lies hope for Afghanistan.

Because despite all the dismal headlines, hearts are being changed across Afghanistan, quietly, daily, under the radar and despite lack of freedom and oppression, through individuals coming face to face with the love of Isa Masih, Jesus Christ as lived out by Isa-followers willing to risk their own lives to share that love. And when enough individual hearts change from hate to love, cruelty to kindness, greed to selflessness, their society will never be the same.

Change a heart, change a nation.

And that includes Afghanistan.