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Lessons from Afghanistan – How Not To Win Friends And Influence People


Andrew Wilder, currently Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan programs, Centre for Conflict Management, United States Institute of Peace, has poignantly chronicled the failure of the American administration to understand and answer the simple question that another celebrated American, Dale Carnegie, had asked a few decades ago: “How to win friends and influence people?” Sixty-six years have elapsed since the publication of Carnegie’s book, yet the world seems to have learnt nothing since then. Wilder’s findings should have been one more eye-opener for the American administration to look afresh at Afghanistan and look for a sustainable solution to its myriad problems that appear to be intractable given the current mind-set in Washington and its European satellites. The experience in Korea and Vietnam in the last century, and Iraq in the current one, should have demonstrated, without any doubt, that hard, military solutions and the expenditure of astronomical sums of money can neither bring lasting peace, nor social and economic development in the areas of conflict.


A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land after a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan

As an American Development worker, Andrew Wilder made a foray with a team of researchers in several provinces of Afghanistan in 2008-09; inspecting development projects; having one-on-one dialogues with tribal leaders; analyzing data from military and civilian officials on the ground. He came to the conclusion that most of the work carried out by USAID, involving billions of dollars, had yielded practically no visible advancement in the battle for the “minds and hearts” of ordinary Afghans. On the contrary, a massive infrastructure had been erected that would be impossible for the locals to fund and manage. Wilder wrote that “rather than generating good will and positive perceptions”, the development projects “were consistently described negatively by Afghans”. The problem with big development projects is that they attract mostly predatory elements that see them as an opportunity to make vast sums of money that the taxpayers usually have no control over. Halliburton in Iraq is a case in point. Afghanistan has seen hundreds of billions of American taxpayer dollars going down the drain while making a few individuals abominably rich.

Joshua Hersh, who covers U.S. Foreign Policy and the World for Huffington Post, travelled to Afghanistan in May 2012, to see for himself how these development projects had gone awry. His report, “Afghanistan: The Long and Winding Roads” documents the complete disconnect between Aid workers and the local people – the common perception being that money could solve any problem – the bigger the problem the bigger the amount that would be required. “A tsunami of money” was scattered in Afghanistan without any thought to feasibility. Jeremy Pam, a former State and Treasury Department official who has spent many years working on development issues in the area says that there was this belief within the administration that “the war was under-resourced; therefore, if we provide proper resources, the sky’s the limit. There was no reality constraint. One rarely heard somebody say, ‘Is that feasible? Is that overambitious? Should we aim for something more moderate’?”

This “big-brother-knows-all” mentality seems to infect all global and regional hegemonic powers and aspirants. It is the same mentality that saw India land into a quagmire in Kashmir. First, you interfere in the election process, and then send in military boots to quell the insurrection there, knowing full well that a hostile neighbour has been waiting for years for such an opportunity to lend armed support to an indigenous rebellion. The battle for the “minds and hearts” of ordinary Kashmiris was lost when the first innocent bystander got caught in the crossfire. The billions of rupees that India has spent in Kashmir has bought an uneasy peace at the most, but the young generation that is now in its twenties has seen nothing but armed conflict, cordon-search-seizure operations, and indefinite curfews. These young men have not seen the inside of a school and all the education they received was from frenzied clerics poisoning their minds with religious zeal and jihadist fanaticism. It, of course, suits the political classes in Kashmir and India to keep the fires burning as the conflict continues to generate huge amounts of money in the name of development that disappear in the mazes built by entrenched bureaucracies and end up in wholly undeserving pockets.

It is the same mentality that made India to agree to send a Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka during 1987-89, ostensibly to end the civil war between the militant Lankan Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan army. The morons who agreed to send this contingent did not even think once about the absurdity of juxtaposing Peace and Force in the same phrase while giving the contingent a name. The consequence of the misadventure was the brutal assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the Tamils even after he had demitted office following the defeat of his Congress party in the general elections.

The response of the Indian government continues to follow the same pattern whenever conflict situations occur anywhere in the country. The presence of the armed forces in the North-East with special draconian powers has built a constituency of resentment over decades of neglect, while all development funds sent by the Central government are pocketed by local politicians (mostly from the Congress) who manage to win elections with the twin weapons of bribery and intimidation.

Contained within the euphoric story of the recent economic growth of India is the narrative of acute deprivation and abject poverty that just merits a few lines in some obscure pages of a newspaper when a farmer commits suicide, or when children are sold in slavery because the parents are unable to feed them. The marginalization of tribal populations across the length and breadth of India, whose ancestral lands and livelihoods are being ravaged for their mineral and other natural wealth, has led to the creation of a militant guerrilla movement that has spread to almost one-third of the country. But is there any attempt at winning the hearts and minds of these disenfranchised citizens? Instead, the mighty arm of the state is arming itself with attack helicopters to counter these poor and hapless countrymen.

While Afghanistan needs schools, hospitals and roads, and the freedom to pursue happiness in its own way, it also needs an understanding of what Plato called thymos, the human desire for “recognition” that is an important constituent of human psyche. What a war-ravaged country needs for its redevelopment cannot be decided and settled by a few bureaucrats and politicians in Washington or New Delhi. Development has to be a sustainable model that the local people can manage and continue to benefit from after the “stabilizing” forces have left. The schools and hospitals can function only if a large pool of trained teachers, doctors and health-care givers has been created over the years. Similarly, business enterprises for export-oriented products should have been set up, using local skills and materials. The Afghans are traditionally very good at weaving woollen carpets. This skill could have been channelized and co-operative centres could have been opened across Afghanistan providing training to young weavers and ensuring that their products received preferential treatment in markets in the West and elsewhere. The orchards of Chaman were once famous for their grapes, pomegranates, melons, pine nuts and other such delicate produce. Babur, the first Mogul Emperor, always pined for the melons of Kabul, and if he had a kingdom back in Fergana or Kabul, he would never have settled in India. Indian history would have had an entirely different trajectory if the Mogul had even a small city-state like Samarkand to rule. He hated the heat of Hindustan and found its fruit inferior to anything found in his beloved Kabul. Babur disliked India so much that he preferred to be buried in Kabul than anywhere else.

Development funds could be deployed more fruitfully (pun intended) in boosting investment in horticultural produce for which preferential tariffs could be introduced by the consumer nations. A large population of local Afghans could be rehabilitated on these farms that would provide them with a self-sustainable future. A community engaged in farming and working the land is less prone to become rebellious and take to the gun. Conversely, they will fight all those who will try to take them away from their lands. Jihad would find it difficult to get more recruits.

The traditional picture of the Afghan is so endearingly captured by Tagore in his short story ‘Kabuliwalla’ that was made into a film in 1961 by Hemen Gupta, with Balraj Sahni playing one of his most memorable characters. This is the tale of an itinerant Afghan travelling through India, charming one and all with his stories of home while selling the dry fruits of Kabul. His friendship with a little girl of Kolkatta makes the narrative part of the story, while establishing in the minds of the readers the image of an extremely compassionate human being totally untouched by any kind of religious fanaticism. The Kabuliwalla is a diametric opposite of today’s Taliban. The Great Game that began between Britain and Russia entered its final phase with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the arming of the Mujahedeen by the Western powers. The denouement is now visible for all. A gentle, humane people have been reduced to stone-age conditions of survival; their lands carpet-bombed and littered with millions of mines, while the media continues to portray them as barbarians. No wonder the fundamentalist Salafis have found a treasure chest of converts to their form of faith! The Kalashnikov toting Afghan today bears no resemblance to the itinerant Kabuliwalla with his sling bag of goodies from the gardens of Chaman.

Now that drawdown time is almost upon us, the Americans are looking left and right for an honourable escape. The abysmally weak government of Manmohan Singh is down on its knees and running in circles like a headless chicken. Inevitably, the US will leave Afghanistan more or less in the hands of the Taliban and their compadres, the ISI and the Pakistan Army, while India will be left to fend for itself. The prospect of a nuclear-weapon armed jihadist loose cannon in the West and a belligerent China on the North and East would daunt even the most fearless leader, but for the UPA these are not primary concerns. The immediate preoccupation of the government is to contain the Modi phenomenon, no matter what that costs. All the energies of the state are devoted to this lone, single cause. The Ishrat trial and the attempt by the Congress to somehow link all communal strife with either the Godhra killings or the Babri Masjid are examples of how the UPA thinks nothing of demoralizing the security establishments of the country while appeasing those very elements that are at the core of secessionist movements aimed at breaking India into a thousand pieces.

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