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Sunday, May 5, 2013
Secretary of State John Kerry pitched a dollar-and-sense argument as to why Americans need to invest more, not less, in diplomacy when meeting Monday with members of the Association of Opinion Journalists.
“You cannot,” as Kerry emphasized, “protect America with SEAL teams and drones alone.” Diplomacy offers a less expensive and more peaceful alternative. “It’s much cheaper to invest in diplomats than in troops,” Kerry said.
A lucrative return from investing Americans’ tax dollars on foreign aid was the underlying message by Kerry and a lineup of senior State Department officials who briefed the editorial writers throughout the day.
Kerry views foreign policy as domestic policy carried into a global marketplace.
Particularly, he is embracing “economic diplomacy.” Whether setting up mobile banking systems in Afghanistan, enticing U.S. corporations to invest in Gaza or educating Latin Americans, jobs are as important in the least developed countries as they are at home.
The idea is not novel. I’ve been attending these annual State Department briefings since the days of Colin Powell, and I’m convinced two essential underpinnings form the foundation of peace in any country: A government that does not abuse its people, and jobs.
1. People who can peacefully seek redress from their government and who hold faith in a legitimate means of replacing their leaders do not wage violent rebellions.
2. People — especially young men — who have jobs are less vulnerable to extremist propaganda and do not easily fall prey to terrorist recruiters.
While there isn’t a corner of the world immune from America’s diplomatic influence, there is but one place — Afghanistan — that has become the testing ground of modern-day U.S. diplomacy in helping to form a stable, humane government and in building an economy out of nothing. Americans are nervous that come next year when the last of the troops leave, Afghanistan will be sucked back into the black hole of Taliban rule.
Won’t happen, said Alex Thier, who oversees development in Afghanistan for the U.S. Agency for International Development. “The vast majority of Afghans are invested in the status quo,” Thier said. “What the Taliban represents is backward.”
Thier, who has traveled there every three to six months since 2002, said the world has come charging into Afghanistan and the change is remarkable — and measurable. As long as the 2014 elections yield a leader who is viewed as legitimate and a peaceful transition occurs, there is cause to hope Afghanistan has a future unlike its past.
Consider the difference in a decade, all made possible by American tax dollars used to build infrastructure to support such basics as education, health care, electricity and roads:
Life expectancy has grown from age 45 to 60 or 65. Then, 900,000 boys attended school. Now, 8 million children do, a third of whom are girls. Some 200,000 students have attended university, up from hardly any, and about 20 percent are women. Women work in and hold office in government. The economy has grown 8 to 10 percent each of the last 10 years. Programs lure farmers away from poppy to wheat, alfalfa, pomegranates and other crops.
All of which, yes, could easily crumble without U.S. support; however, two modern-day inventions — electricity and phones — are game-changers.
According to USAID, only 6 percent of Afghans had reliable electricity in 2002. Today, 18 percent have 24-hour service, including 2 million people in Kabul, and the national power company is nearly self-sustaining.
And people can pay their electric bill through their phones, something Thier said even he can’t do at home. In 2002, fewer than 40,000 telephone lines existed in the country; a satellite phone was required to call out of country. Today, mobile phone networks cover 90 percent of the population, allowing for a mobile banking network, and 18 million cellphone accounts are in existence.
Thier acknowledges that pervasive corruption has siphoned off American aid but said that, too, is improving.
Thier worries that “not enough people understand our investment has actually made a difference,” and will seek to withdraw aid along with the troops. He suggests considering three questions: Is it worth the continued investment? Is it still critical, and if it is, can we succeed? Thier doesn’t doubt his answer.
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