Take advice from locals instead of trying to impose your own ideas on a tribal society. Invite the Taliban to the negotiating table. Use traditional governing structures rather than reinventing the wheel. And spend a lot more money on plowshares than on swords.
Afghan shopkeepers, women wearing head scarves, day laborers, analysts and former mujahedin fighters are exhausted by three decades of war. Now they worry that conditions are deteriorating again. Violence has increased and fraud allegations shadow the August presidential election. Huge sums of foreign money are being spent with few tangible results.
Meanwhile, Americans are increasingly frustrated after eight years of military involvement. President Obama has launched a reassessment of the war effort, and he met with top national security officials Wednesday.
Afghans interviewed in their shops and on the streets have plenty of advice for the U.S. president and his allies: Don’t necessarily leave, but for your sake and for ours, you’d better get a lot smarter about what you do here.
Several said they welcomed the presence of U.S. and NATO troops, whom they view as far more benign than the Soviets who occupied the country in the 1980s. They fear that a rapid withdrawal of foreign forces could throw the country into another civil war.
But they don’t necessarily think a foreign military buildup is the answer.
“I’m afraid the Taliban will only get stronger,” said Obiadullah Zahir, 30, a dress merchant, standing beside a row of attired mannequins with broken noses and missing arms. “I’m afraid America will leave and war return.”
A better approach, said Mohammad Usman Nawabi, 53, a policeman, is to boost training and equipment for the Afghan army and police. Additional manpower and training for Afghan forces are key elements of the plan recently sent to Obama by the U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
“If armed insurgents are in control of villages, the whole U.S. Army can’t keep the peace,” Nawabi said. “Foreign powers must work more closely with Afghans.”
Some said the country needs as much investment in economic and social development as is spent on the military. It is getting a small fraction of that amount, 10% or less, according to estimates. Only when such a shift occurs, they said, can real democracy begin to take root.
Though foreigners could do a lot of things better, many Afghans heaped blame on their own officials, who they say think of themselves before the nation.
The Aug. 20 election is a case in point. Preliminary results give incumbent President Hamid Karzai 54.6% of the vote, and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah 27.8%. But allegations of fraud are rampant. By some estimates, 20% of the 5.5 million votes cast may be suspect.
“Our system is miserable,” said Nawabi. “If we don’t have the will to solve this ourselves, we’re lost.”
Violence has increased along with the political uncertainty. As suicide bombings become a near-daily event, the draconian Taliban years are looking better, particularly to poor people who weren’t the primary target of the extremists.
“It’s not just me saying this,” said Gul Mohammad, 60, a shopkeeper reclining contentedly beside his bicycle in Kabul’s Shar-e-Now park. “Whoever can bring security to Afghanistan will make a lot of people happy.”
In a land of centuries-old tribal suspicions, where today’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally, some see the West’s black-and-white approach as naive.
In particular, they cite its preference for dealing with what they consider the country’s weakest players -- the likes of Karzai and Abdullah, who don’t control much beyond Kabul.
Either you try to get the Taliban to buy in, said Amin Khatir, 24, a student in the capital, or you face an enemy that is increasingly entrenched, organized and more broadly distributed. That’s a big problem, no matter how many pieces of fancy equipment foreign armies may wield.
“The Americans only want to deal with those they meet with, who speak English, not the ones farther away,” Khatir said. “An election can’t solve more than 1% of our problems. We must find a new way, and the main issue is security.”
Kabul University professor Wader Safi is a great believer in the rule of law, and he spends a lot of time training Afghan judges and Justice Ministry officials. But many Afghan officials just tell foreigners what they want to hear, he said.
Rule of law imposed on a shaky, traditional structure topped off by a dubious election is hardly a recipe for social stability, he said. Too many Afghan ministers have links to drug dealers or warlords and pass laws granting themselves amnesty, he said.
“They realize, if you make ill-gotten gains, what’s the best way to hold on to it?” Safi said. “Go into politics.”
Rather than sanction some minimally acceptable election, he said, Afghanistan should convene a traditional loya jirga, or meeting of power brokers from around the country, as it did after the Taliban was ousted.
“If you pile more bricks onto an unstable house, the whole thing will collapse,” he said.
Some Afghans say the country also badly needs a census. The last substantive head count was in 1979. Without accurate information, Afghanistan’s ethnic groups all argue that they’re entitled to greater representation in parliament, further destabilizing the political structure.
For others, the worries are much closer to home.
Ahmed Fawad, 50, a construction engineer, credited Karzai with building schools and roads. There is more food in the shops than there was seven years ago when Karzai came to power, Fawad said.
“Life is getting better,” he said.
Peddler Abdul Shokhor is less sure about that. People used to come in droves to buy his plastic flowers, he said. With rent and food costs rising, there are fewer takers for the $2 fluorescent orange, green and pink arrangements.
The country needs industry and people need jobs, he said.
“They all come from China,” he said, pointing to his array in front of the Microcryan Market. “Better we make things here and help the economy.”
A woman shopping with her four children said the violence in the countryside has discouraged her family from leaving the relative security of Kabul. “All we can hope is that things get better,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.
Habib Khan, 39, who breaks rocks for use in construction projects, worries about having to take up weapons again.
He shows bullet scars in his arms, thigh and head -- the cost of fighting the Taliban for years as part of the Northern Alliance.
The life of a fighter isn’t easy, he said. You earn almost nothing, you face death or imprisonment at any moment and have no family life. It was a great relief to put down his gun, get married and settle down. But now he’s worried that he might have to fight again if foreign troops leave and the Taliban returns to power.
“As much as I don’t want to, I’d have to pick up a gun again,” Khan said. “I’d be a wanted man if they returned.”
Former mujahedin commander Ustaz Abdul Hakim, who fought the Soviets, now watches the Americans.
The NATO and U.S. forces are running scared, he said, because they don’t understand many of Afghanistan’s rules. Outsiders need local allies to interpret complex, rapidly shifting tribal politics, he said.
In the 1980s, Americans provided funding while the mujahedin directed much of the struggle. Nowadays, foreigners don’t listen to the locals much when battling the Taliban, he said, and that will be their downfall.
“The Americans are spending so much money, and all they get back is body bags,” he said.
“Slowly, surely, the patience of Americans is getting squandered. The danger is that it will end for the Americans the way it did for the Russians.”
Special correspondent M. Karim Faiez contributed to this report.