Best Defense

Why I remain more optimistic about Afghanistan’s future than about Iraq’s

I still remain more optimistic about the future of Afghanistan than I do about Iraq.


I still remain more optimistic about the future of Afghanistan than I do about Iraq. I think Iraq is in for years more of war. In addition its fighting will continue to spill over into Syria and other neighboring countries. It may well split up, but not after a lot more bloodshed. Iraq’s major export right now is bad vibes.

By contrast, I can see a way forward for Afghanistan. The Kabul government needs only to ensure the security of Kabul. Beyond that, it needs to find ways of living with regional overlords. This has always been, more or less, the nature of the place. If the government can maintain that system and in cooperation with local interests keep the ring road more or less safe, that’s a great performance. It may well mean “revenue sharing” on road revenue. That’s not a terrible price to pay.

What, you say, of the Taliban? First, I think they can be kept out of Kabul. Second, let ‘em have Oruzgan, the Arkansas of Afghanistan (and that is saying a lot).

Under this approach, I think Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad probably would thrive. Among the cities, that leaves only Kandahar as a worry. The situation there could be tough, and the city may well be held by the Taliban. But again, I think the approach there should be to keep the city as safe as possible, and not worry about the hinterland.

One possibility down the line: Encourage the Iranians to extend their rail system to Herat, and then perhaps northeast to Mazar and southeast to Kandahar. From there, finally, link up to Pakistan and get a long spur up to Kabul. This would enable Afghan cotton and fruits to get to markets, and also help restore the country to its traditional role as transit route for cheap goods from the subcontinent to Central Asia. Afghans could find work building and maintaining the railroads, and even more in running the train station caravanserais.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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