As my entry into the civilian world becomes easier, I am often asked this question: “What lessons did you learn in Afghanistan that can help us understand our way of life here in America?” Let me provide two answers to this question in this month’s column. At the top of the list are opportunities. In much of the developing world, and especially in Afghanistan, residents are old soldiers, illiterate adults or children, who if fortunate are attending a school. Or written this way, nearly everyone has few opportunities at joining the global economy and improving their way of life. The Taliban’s overarching objective was (and is today) obstructing learning, thus through ignorance avoiding the public free-thought process that might challenge them, revolt and demand change. They are today targeting schools and bringing harm to teachers.
Our reconstruction efforts are tactical; that is why we build schools. The objective is education and training for boys and girls, albeit we have a long ways to go. Yet what is missing is the long-term strategy that will place enough economic development in Afghanistan so that once these students graduate they have a job and a career, and some safety and stability. Education is wonderful, but what fulfils the model is a need for the skills these young people learned in school. Every university student in our country is attending school with the ultimate objective of obtaining a job in a career that rewards him or her for the years spent being trained. Universities would go out of business quickly if few jobs and careers existed for their graduates.
Thus, if I could model our strategy there, the solution would look this way: Every year select 500 Afghan youngsters with nominal English skills (they do exist), send them to North America or Europe for a four-year college degree and pay for the stipend. Then, concurrently work with the Afghani government in Kabul to develop a four- to five-year strategic plan that puts in place the jobs and careers for these 500 youngsters that return each year. Which means the security issue is under control and that foreign investment is developing industries that need local skills. The cost is a pittance when compared to the military budget being spent now. And, of course, the longer term objective is developing the university system in Afghanistan so that young adults are trained in country.
The graduates would return and know they have a place to work that is safe and rewarding. This is not some idealistic model because it is done in many other countries. China and Korea have been sending their brightest students to the U.S. for decades, and look what they have done.
The second lesson is that we ought not to ever take for granted the lifestyle we have here in the United States. Nearly everyone traveling to and returning from a developing country is overwhelmed with the number of opportunities we have in this country. Of course, we have problems, but our federal, state and local governments are based upon a representative form of democracy that acknowledges every one regardless of race, religion or economic status. And our government system has checks and balances that help keep one branch from being too obtrusive. We have a free press that reports the good, bad and the ugly and ferrets out those who do not properly exercise the responsibility of ethics and due process.
These are fundamentally absent in much of the developing world. Our effort in Afghanistan is driven by moving the civil society towards checks and balances, a free press and the elimination of graft and corruption at all levels of both the private and public sectors. These movements require time, money and the will of largely young people who want something better than a continuation of three decades of war and destruction.
Thus, revolutions are made. Often they begin with young college students who have had a taste of a better model born out of the West. In fact, these revolutions can produce new opportunities and the understanding that these opportunities can be lost unless participants in the process are constantly working to foster new ones. The U.S. democratic model is still a work in progress. But it is still the envy of nearly every other country in the world.
Therefore, we have innumerable opportunities in this country and a rich, productive lifestyle. We never, never should ever take these for granted. PD