Thursday, May 21, 2009

How to truly fight al-Qaeda

In his latest commentary, Jeffrey Sachs explains how a peaceful foreign policy is preferable to a violent one. Especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where development could do a lot more to defeat al-Qaeda than doubling military force.

We found the commentary in Today's Zaman from Turkey. Although it's not included in our snippet, Sachs also has stats on military spending compared to other areas of spending in the U.S. budget.

American foreign policy has failed in recent years mainly because the United States relied on military force to address problems that demand development assistance and diplomacy.

Young men become fighters in places like Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan because they lack gainful employment. Extreme ideologies influence people when they can't feed their families and when lack of access to family planning leads to an unwanted population explosion. US President Barack Obama has raised hopes for a new strategy, but so far the forces of continuity in US policy are dominating the forces of change.

Both Afghanistan and the neighboring provinces of Pakistan are impoverished regions, with vast unemployment, bulging youth populations, prolonged droughts, widespread hunger and pervasive economic deprivation. It is easy for the Taliban and al-Qaeda to mobilize fighters under such conditions.

The problem is that a US military response is essentially useless under these conditions and can easily inflame the situation rather than resolve it. Among other problems, the US relies heavily on drones and bombers, leading to a high civilian death toll, which is inflaming public attitudes against the US. After one recent disaster, in which more than 100 civilians died, the Pentagon immediately insisted that such bombing operations would continue. A recent survey showed overwhelming Pakistani opposition to US military incursions into their country.

Obama is doubling down in Afghanistan, by raising the number of US troops from 38,000 to 68,000 and perhaps more later. There are also risks that the US will get involved much more heavily in the fighting in Pakistan. The new US commanding general in Afghanistan is reportedly a specialist in “counter-insurgency,” which could well involve surreptitious engagement by US operatives in Pakistan. If so, the results could prove catastrophic, leading to a spreading war in an unstable country of 180 million people.

What is disconcerting, however, is not only the relentless financing and spread of war, but also the lack of an alternative US strategy. Obama and his top advisers have spoken regularly about the need to address the underlying sources of conflict, including poverty and unemployment. A few billion dollars has been recommended to fund economic aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But this remains a small amount compared to military outlays, and an overarching framework to support economic development is missing.

Before investing hundreds of billions of dollars more in failing military operations, the Obama administration should rethink its policy and lay out a viable strategy to US citizens and the world. It's high time for a strategy of peace through sustainable development -- including investments in health, education, livelihoods, water and sanitation and irrigation -- in today's hotspots, starting with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Such a strategy cannot simply emerge as a byproduct of US military campaigns. Rather, it will have to be developed proactively, with a sense of urgency and in close partnership with the affected countries and the communities within them. A shift in focus to economic development will save a vast number of lives and convert the unthinkably large economic costs of war into economic benefits through development. Obama must act before today's crisis explodes into an even larger disaster.

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