By 1LT Grant S. Bramlett
As 2011 chugs away into the spring time and closer to the halfway point of the year, it has left many wondering in the U.S. how exactly our military strategy in Afghanistan is playing out, and what the eventual outcome will be. The steady payment of blood by U.S. Soldiers and its ISAF partners, along with lack of measured sustainability has caused a growing number of Americans to call for a hasty withdrawal, mission complete or no. Seeking respite and exhausted from a war that has cost taxpayers billions, dragging on for over a decade, many of these Americans are almost willing to face whatever aftermath a withdrawal would bring. How can an American populace support a war when even its own Soldiers on the ground cannot provide a clearly defined strategy or measured progress? Further proof of waning support is made evident by the lack of mention in President Obama’s recent State of the Union. What the U.S. needs right now is a clearly defined strategy, exit or not, that allows for a measure of gain, and one of lasting effect. But what the American populace AND many of its military personnel have failed to realize is that there HAS been progress and gain in Afghanistan; they’ve just been unintended and thus not yet measured. And it’s a gain that with an added effort could be the game-changer for all the participants.

The measure of progress I speak of, that the Soldier and civilian leadership on the ground has failed to fully comprehend, is that of the vast transportation network that has grown within Afghanistan in just a few years time. With highways and electric power lines being added by the mile each day, Afghanistan is quickly regaining its status as the hub of commerce for Eurasia, as it once was just a few hundred years ago. GDP in the country has grown at a yearly substantial rate of double digits since the fall of the Taliban, with growth rates last year at an unprecedented 22%! And this is from a country that lacks in providing basic services for the majority of its population. China can’t even compete with a number like that and Afghanistan revenue rates have shown no signs of stopping!
It’s hard to even imagine an Afghanistan of great wealth and power viewing it as it is now: a hotbed of regional and tribal hostility. But due to its geographical location, it was once considered not a thousand years ago, one of the wealthiest and greatest locales in the world. Tales of Afghanistan’s wondrous cities like Herat, Kabul, and Mazar-Sharif, can be found in the tomes and writings of Marco Polo and great Kings. The Great Silk Road passed right through the country and with it, a steady stream of power, wealth, and knowledge. It was only until recent that Afghanistan began a steady slide backwards in time as its neighbors and the West surged forward. And since this loss of preeminence allowed for increased power for those other countries, they were all more than happy to allow it to happen. It was only with the Taliban’s rise to power from the masses of disheartened male youths, with no foreseeable future, and the subsequent rise of terrorist organizations using the lawless land as bases of attack, did concern by the West and regional power players, that something had to be done.
It seems those regional countries have caught on a lot faster than the U.S. who alone, is the most heavily invested player in this game. China, just in the last year, has managed to muscle its way into $3.4 billion deal to access Afghanistan’s vast copper resources and other its mineable resources. Already, a heavy flow of investment capital has begun flowing out of China and into Afghanistan’s transport infrastructure. Look no further than the current building of highways connecting the two countries through both their mountainous region, in order to profit as quickly as possible. Tajikistan is now providing for Afghanistan’s main city, Kabul. And Pakistan has invested heavily in its commercial seaports, predicting increased wealth from its ever-growing trade deals with its western neighbor. Cross border trading between the two nations has ballooned to over $5 billion alone, in 2010.
Railroad construction is another area of increased growth and profitability in the past year, completely unplanned and with resounding economical and stabilizing effects within Afghanistan. These are the type effects Americans want to see, all allowing for an eventual exit for the U.S.! A century ago, Afghan sultanates saw the spread of railroad systems through Iran, India, and Turkey as a threat to their ruler-ships, and quickly cut construction of them off. This of course, played a major factor in the eventual decline of Afghanistan greatness, its neighbors growing vast profits from faster trade and commerce. All of those countries are now in the process of connecting those railroads, with Afghanistan the hub of a huge center of possible economic commerce. Can you imagine an Afghanistan acting as the Grand Central Station of trade between Europe and Asia? It’s almost impossible to imagine!
Since 2007, the U.S. has approached its operational strategy in Afghanistan as a combined effort for both civilians and military. Unfortunately, this combined effort has led to stabilization projects being prioritized based the military’s ability to provide protection. This projection of effort has only slowed already needed gains, limiting areas of work and increasing timelines. It has also caused civilian leadership to waste money by attempting accomplishing projects of no sustainable value (i.e. low hanging fruit) in order to show any kind of measurement of progress. If this is not viewed by the U.S. population as grasping for straws, it’s only a matter of time. What SHOULD occur is a reprioritizing of effort based on known, sustainable projects, such as a focus on transportation infrastructures within Afghanistan. Too much time has been wasted now on pipedreams such as increased agricultural methodology in order to counter poppy cultivation. To who and how will these farmers transport their goods once we have convinced them (or overpaid) to grow crops? The momentum we’ve looked for is already occurring, just not in the areas we were focused on. A concerted effort on this realigned momentum would give meaning to U.S. personnel remaining in Afghanistan to complete a mission (both military AND civilian), AND justify the huge expenditures already going into it.
Viewing U.S. and allied progress via transportation infrastructure gives light to the fact that gains HAVE been made in Afghanistan and that there IS hope for its people and future. But the momentum must not be broken; the U.S. and its partners need to be prepared to change course and provide focus on the areas of improvement we may have initially ignored. We’ve already seen what failed policy and lax implementation can do with Paul Bremer in Iraq. Nor can we rely on any attempt to blanket problem public administration areas with layers of money in hopes that they’ll fix themselves. PLUS, rapidly developed and self-evolved commerce will not only stabilize Afghanistan but the surrounding region, which itself, has become a hotspot for animosity in the world’s current affairs. Construction of road, railroad, and electricity has already created an unlikely partnership of the U.S., Iran, and China, though at a safe distance. Turkmenistan has begun construction on a gas pipeline that will travel through Afghanistan, to Pakistan and India, binding them closer together, and decreasing tension. It’s these unplanned combined efforts, as disjointed and non-cohesive as they are, that are the true gains in Afghanistan’s rise in stability. But it’s going take a bigger realization of this by U.S. personnel, along with use of this standpoint at the micro and Battalion level, as a combined strategic effort, in order to extricate ourselves from the quagmire the rest of the world believes we’re in.