Afghanistan: Goals or bullets?

Gaze into the murky crystal ball at Afghanistan's future after the withdrawal of American combat troops: The country is fragmented; intense rivalries pitting regions against each other. Kabul remains the center, prized by all, and rivals come there to battle for national dominance.

This isn't a military assessment, actually, but a business plan formulated by my favorite Kabul tycoon, Saad Mohseni, the head of a media company called Moby Group. He's launching a new Afghan Premier League in soccer that will be sponsored by Roshan Telecom Development Co., a leading Afghan communications company, and whose games will be broadcast by Mohseni's network of television and radio stations.

This plan for Afghanistan's first professional soccer league illustrates how the country has changed over the past decade, no matter what judgment you make about the U.S.-led counterinsurgency effort. Afghanistan is now connected by cellphones and television: 60 percent of the population watches TV regularly, and there are 17 million mobile phones, compared to zero in both categories in 2001.

The biggest force for change in today's Afghanistan may be urbanization, not politics. In the past several decades of war, Kabul has become a city of more than 5 million; Herat, Kandahar, and Jalalabad have all tripled in size.

Afghanistan won't resemble Switzerland anytime soon, but it's not the same primitive, rural battleground as when the Taliban ruled. According to U.S. polling, the No. 1 issue today is the high cost of weddings.

The soccer league is an attempt to "(cut) across all ages, socio-economic groups, regions and tribes," a pitch letter says. The league will have eight teams, representing the regions that have often been at war. Some teams are named after local birds of prey - the "Eagles of the Hindu Kush" will represent central Afghanistan, the "Ghoshawks," the rugged southeast, the "Falcons," the Kabul area.

Player selection began last month - and is being broadcast in a reality-TV competition called "Green Field." Next comes a round-robin tournament in Kabul in September and October. And then, if it works, they'll do it again in 2013 (when U.S. troops will be handing over the lead combat role); and again in 2014 (when most U.S. troops are supposed to depart).

Administration officials hope the Afghan National Army will be strong enough by 2014 to hold Kabul and the ring road that connects the country's major cities. Local power brokers (aka warlords) may hold sway in some regions, but administration officials doubt the Taliban will be able to control major urban centers. Afghanistan won't be peaceful or secure like a developed country but it won't fall apart, either, in this guardedly hopeful view.

A bleaker prognosis was offered by Dexter Filkins in a widely discussed New Yorker article last month titled "After America: Will civil war hit Afghanistan when the U.S. leaves?" While respectful of what the U.S. military has accomplished, Filkins was skeptical that it can endure. He quoted Afghans and Americans warning that, in Filkins' words, "under the stress of battle - and without a substantial presence of American combat troops after 2014 - the Afghan army could once again fracture along ethnic lines."

So which will it be - televised soccer rivalry or armed civil war? Obviously there's no way to predict, but two factors would reduce the likelihood of civil war. One is a commitment for a stay-behind force of, say, 15,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops to prevent a return by al-Qaida and continue training the Afghan army and police. Second is a political strategy that moves toward national reconciliation and supports elections in 2014 for a new political leadership to replace the corrupt President Hamid Karzai.

Afghanistan is viewed as a lost cause by most Americans, I suspect. The country may indeed be heading toward the worst-case scenario described by Filkins' excellent reporting. But there are some relatively low-cost ways to reduce the risk of an Afghan explosion - and keep the country stable enough that media entrepreneurs can make a buck from the nation's favorite sport - which isn't war, but soccer.


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