Throughout our history U.S. leaders have crafted foreign policy from a sequestered vantage point: Barring Mexico, trouble usually has been two oceans away with few threats coming from the Arctic by way of Canada. Step into the shoes of an Afghan leader, then, to consider his geography-a landlocked country with Iran to the left, Pakistan to the right, and three 'Stans to the north finding their legs after six decades under Soviet oppression. Never mind the problems within-this neighborhood is no picnic.
Recent problems within, by now well rehearsed, began just over 30 years ago with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then followed a decade of civil war where the strengthened mujahideen warlords fought each other, culminating in the street-side hanging of the notorious Soviet puppet president Mohammad Najibullah in 1995 and the Taliban takeover in 1996.
A few weeks ago a trustworthy driver named Zamir took me past the spot where Najibullah was hanged. It's now a tree-lined paved boulevard again, well inside the security zone surrounding the presidential palace, and up ahead workers in orange smocks swept the street with broad handmade brooms. Zamir remembers seeing Najibullah hanging there. His own father soon after was killed, likely by Taliban, and he himself brutally imprisoned. People like Zamir have never lived a day when their country has not been at war. They want peace, yes, but not at any price: No one I've met in Afghanistan wants to go back to the Taliban era when the men rose every morning to measure their beards by fists, and their mothers and sisters could rarely leave home.
Yet for Americans the stereotypes persist-of feudal Afghan society, insurgency beating inside every breast. "My friends think I wake up in a foxhole and scramble across a no-man's land to my tent every morning," said U.S. Air Force Col. Tim Kirk, who spoke to me at the Tora Bora Bar inside NATO's joint command headquarters in Kabul. Kirk is among a few U.S. military personnel who believe in the mission in Afghanistan-so much so that he's volunteered for his third year of deployment, leaving his family behind.
Kirk and members of his task force say the short deployments-six months to a year-for nearly all U.S. military personnel have hampered efforts to turn around what he calls "a generational problem needing a generational solution."
To be specific: corrupt officials, weak law enforcement, narcotics, criminal networks, and insurgency. Where to begin? With two presuppositions Kirk learned in America: All men are fundamentally corruptible, and integrity doesn't just "happen"; but also that man can govern himself. "I don't believe there is anything about any other culture or ethnic or regional group of people that makes this impossible."
Look at South Korea, also once called a feudal society. From its independence in the 1950s came six regime changes-four of them violent-and a slow post-war recovery that came with hefty U.S. intervention. South Korea held its first democratic elections in 1988, 40 years after the United States committed itself to what is now a key Asian ally and trade partner in what was once a no-picnic neighborhood.
Americans can likewise help a place like Afghanistan succeed where others failed. Historically Americans have excelled at a proper understanding of government, that it can create space for civil society to flourish by restraining evil and promoting good. Kirk calls this "replacing a cycle of impunity with a cycle of integrity." He spends a lot of time in Afghan cities and villages with local leaders talking (in the local language) about how their country, little by little, can be transformed.
But as the U.S. political system has grown increasingly dysfunctional, it's no surprise we've lost our way overseas. There are too few Col. Kirks. I tend to agree with the often controversial Francis Fukuyama, who argues that our country must regain its "domestic basis for American presence in the world" if it is to prevent its own decline. We don't have to spend $300 million a day in Afghanistan to help that country see its way to self-governance and a freer society. But we should have the backbone and clarity to see it through.