The Afghanistan policy that President Donald Trump articulated was notable for what was left unsaid as much as for what was said. The president affirmed that our Afghanistan engagement will continue and this will give desperately needed hope to the Afghans. The United States and coalition countries have already made a formidable investment in blood, treasure and sweat responding to the 9/11 attacks on the American homeland. Full disclosure — I write from the perspective of working in Afghanistan beginning with the Soviet occupation in various roles from journalist, to human rights advocate, consultant and scholar. Many analysts, including this one, believe that if we hadn’t walked away when the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the attacks of 9/11 would not have happened.

The military means as articulated by President Trump is essential for waging counterinsurgency operations, eliminating or containing terrorist groups, securing the population and ultimately stabilizing the state. All of this must be done to avert another attack on the American homeland emanating from a failed state. But we must also continue to think and act beyond the bullets. We, with coalition partners and United Nations organizations, must help Afghans achieve a measure of poverty alleviation, job opportunities, a government that can deliver services. Clinics, schools and courthouses are good for the people and bad for the enemy. Is this nation-building? Call it what you like. In the words of Shakespeare — “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name…” Nation-building by any other name is about human dignity — helping to get a nation on its feet for the security of its people, the region and the world.

We must not try to replicate American democracy in a place where governance has been culturally determined for centuries. The writ of Afghanistan’s current government barely extends beyond Kabul and is still an experiment. It deserves our support but that must be conditioned on reducing corruption. The country is barely governed from the center, it remains a patchwork of nations (tribes) rather than a unitary state. This has always been so. And decades of war have reinforced local and traditional decision-making bodies and customary law. Afghans will continue their great governance experiment. But it will unfold at variable speeds calibrated as urban, village and rural. The Afghans will need government assistance but it is their experiment, not ours.

To achieve our objectives, we must employ all the tools in our arsenal. Our diplomatic resources must be deployed at multiple levels. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once had a plan to move large numbers of Foreign Service officers from Europe and Washington, D.C., to developing countries positioned outside embassies in regional and remote areas. The plan was reminiscent of Britain’s 19th Century Forward Policy, which had political agents traveling among tribes, building trust, collecting intelligence and advancing foreign policy objectives. Of course, at that time there were larger problems associated with empire and overreach. The point is that deep diplomatic-political engagement working parallel yet apart from the military would advance our greater aims.

Skilled American diplomacy could clarify the common interests of regional powers in preparation for an end game that could enable the guns to fall silent. Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India and China have divergent Afghan interests, demands and proxies. They have tense regional and geopolitical relationships, two are intense rivals and four are nuclear armed. However, very effective American diplomacy could bring these powers together as a Concert of Eurasia reminiscent of the mid-19th Century Concert of Europe. Such an effort might lead to a regional security organization, perhaps with a permanent international secretariat in Kabul.

Any prolonged political and security vacuum in the region is a continuing threat. Afghanistan must not again collapse. After the Soviet withdrawal left a power vacuum, a failed state, and the opening for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, I wrote an article entitled “Whose War is it Now?” (New York Times, 1994). It was our war then and it remains our war now. A key to our success is to remember what the Afghans want — personal security, human dignity and to pursue their lives beyond bullets. That includes beyond the bullets of Afghans, beyond the Kalashnikov culture rooted in the years of Soviet occupation and subsequently accelerated. The military instrument is an important strategic means, but our objective must be an Afghanistan beyond bullets.

Charles H. Norchi is a professor of law and director of graduate law programs at the University of Maine School of Law.

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