WASHINGTON--Eight years into the longest war in American history, we've learned what doesn't work in Afghanistan. What will? More troops won't help. Instead of troops, Afghanistan needs civil engineers. It's time to give Afghanistan what it needs most and what Afghans crave: the gift of infrastructure.
More than anything else, Afghans need paved roads. The second priority is electricity. Third is telephone service. An Afghanistan possessing these three building blocks of nationhood could modernize its own economy and political system at an astonishing speed.
According to the Pentagon, fewer than 15 percent of Afghanistan's roads are paved, but most of these are roads no American would deem passable. NGOs say fewer than 1 percent are in decent shape. Moving people or goods is a daunting prospect in Afghanistan.
Afghans have been pleading with the United States to stop bombing and start building for years. The United States makes promises, but the bulldozers never arrive. Americans blame corrupt Afghans. Afghans complain that the Taliban makes construction too dangerous. Billions of dollars have vanished; little has been accomplished.
Afghanistan's only hope for prosperity relies on trade. Pakistani truckers want to ply a new Silk Road by shipping cheap manufactured goods from India and China into Central Asia, the Caucasus, Russia and eastern Europe. The Afghans could collect tolls and customs duties on products passing through their territory. But this traffic will remain a mere trickle as long as the roads remain impassable and unsafe.
Electricity is another vital component of a modern state. Only 7 percent of Afghanistan has any electricity whatsoever. Even Kabul suffers daily blackouts. Were the Afghan electrical grid to become widespread and reliable, people wouldn't have to rush home before dusk to avoid gangs of roving rapists and murderers. It would be harder for Taliban forces to plant roadside bombs and ambush vehicles on brightly lit highways. Factories and offices could remain open, run computers, and operate after dark. Water pumps would become more efficient and ubiquitous.
A broad communications network is the third prerequisite. It's impossible to conduct business without the reliable exchange of information. But only 8 percent of Afghans have access to any form of telephone service, including public call booths. Without telephone service, it's impossible to know when a truckload of goods is due to arrive.
Investment in infrastructure would allow Afghans to stand on their own feet economically. Rural electrification and highway construction would bring outsiders to communities cut off by war and rugged terrain. Radios and televisions would introduce 21st century mores to 14th century cultures.
The United States should offer its expertise in building infrastructure with no strings attached, while renouncing all interest in Afghanistan's internal affairs. And it should be free. First rebuild Afghanistan. Then leave. After all, we broke it.
Ted Rall is author of the books To Afghanistan and Back and Silk Road to Ruin.