Column: A Marshall Plan for Afghanistan

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

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    American ambassador to France, Jefferson Caffery, speaks during a ceremony at the harbor of Bordeaux, France, on May 10, 1948. The celebration is marking the arrival of the "John H. Quick," carrying 8,800 tons of wheat as the first ship bringing aid to France under the Marshall Plan. (AP Photo/Louis Heckly) ap — Louis Heckly

For the Valley News
Published: 8/28/2021 10:00:20 PM
Modified: 8/28/2021 10:00:20 PM

In retrospect, the US decision to invade Afghanistan was ill-fated from the outset. For centuries, Afghanistan has fended off invaders. In ancient times Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan failed to conquer all of what is modern day Afghanistan and in the past century the British and the Russians retreated after making a succession of efforts to bring the nation under their influence.

The United States’ goal of “nation building,” of installing a functioning democracy in Afghanistan, was even less likely to succeed. Democracy requires unity, and the tribal culture and religious zealotry that are part of Afghanistan’s DNA make it difficult to promote the ideals of liberty, equality and justice that are prerequisites for the rule of law. Those ideals are even more difficult to promote in a nation where most citizens lack food, clothing and shelter.

So what could the United States have done in September 2001 after learning that the Afghan government harbored Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the bombing of the Twin Towers? In late September 2001, before the advent of Twitter, Facebook and other social media, I received an email forwarded from a friend with an answer in the subject heading: “Bomb Them With Butter.” The email described an alternative to military intervention offered by Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, of Temple Beth Zion, in Brookline, Mass.: “A military response, particularly an attack on Afghanistan, is exactly what the terrorists want. It will strengthen and swell their small but fanatical ranks.

“Instead, bomb Afghanistan with butter, with rice, bread, clothing and medicine. It will cost less than conventional arms, poses no threat of U.S. casualties and just might get the populace thinking that maybe the Taliban don’t have the answers. After three years of drought and with starvation looming, let’s offer the Afghani people the vision of a new future. One that includes full stomachs.

“Bomb them with information. Video players and cassettes of world leaders, particularly Islamic leaders, condemning terrorism. Carpet the country with magazines and newspapers showing the horror of terrorism committed by their ‘guest.’ Blitz them with laptop computers and DVD players filled with a perspective that is denied them by their government. Saturation bombing with hope will mean that some of it gets through. Send so much that the Taliban can’t collect and hide it all. The Taliban are telling their people to prepare for jihad. Instead, let’s give the Afghan people their first good meal in years. Seeing your family fully fed and the prospect of stability in terms of food and a future is a powerful deterrent to martyrdom. All we ask in return is that they, as a people, agree to enter the civilized world. That includes handing over terrorists in their midst.

“In responding to terrorism we need to do something different. Something unexpected. Something that addresses the root of the problem. We need to take away the well of despair, ignorance and brutality from which the Osama bin Laden’s of the world water their gardens of terror.”

I expect that many readers will dismiss Rabbi Waldoks’ approach as unrealistic and fanciful. But offering this level of humanitarian aid is neither unprecedented nor impractical and doing so might set our foreign policy on a different course.

Our nation has acted in this fashion before. As Willem Lange’s column reminded readers (“Time for a bit of humility on our part,” Aug. 25), at the conclusion of World War II, we enacted the Marshall Plan, which provided the equivalent of more than $130 billion dollars in economic aid to our allies in Western Europe. Our nation’s largesse secured our standing among the recipients of our aid which was, notably, offered to the Soviet Union, which rejected it and blocked it from reaching other nations under its influence.

The pragmatic rationale for offering an analogous Afghan Marshall Plan is clear: We need to restore our trustworthiness so that we can maintain good relationships with our allies in Asia, relationships our current economic competitor, China, hopes to undercut. A recent Brookings report suggests that China will use our abandonment of Afghanistan as evidence of our nation’s “unreliability and incompetence” and to reinforce its narrative that America is in decline. The report suggests “the most potent action the United States could take to undercut Beijing’s narrative will not be to complain about them, but rather to work to restore confidence in the competence of the United States to do big things well.” A well-executed, multi-billion-dollar aid package — an Afghan Marshall Plan — would do that far more effectively than redeploying our military.

As we (hopefully) withdraw from our longstanding international role of policing and nation-building, we might learn from the approach being taken by the Chinese. Their “Belt-and-Road” initiative is not yielding any immediate returns on investment and neither are the “soft” donations they are currently making to help the citizens of Afghanistan.

According to the China experts quoted in the Brookings report, China is playing a long game. Over time, China hopes to benefit from Afghanistan’s rich mineral deposits and incorporate Afghanistan into its global infrastructure development strategy. But China has learned from America’s experience and tempered its expectations accordingly. Beijing’s primary focus at the outset will be on its defensive security requirements. Once those are in place, an economic relationship might be forged.

China has learned from our experience and the experience of Britain and Russia whose earlier failures in Afghanistan were similar to ours. As the Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawal and 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approach, I wonder what might have happened had we taken the action Rabbi Waldoks recommended.

Had we bombed Afghanistan with butter would we still be entangled in nation-building and the politics of the Middle East? Would we have “surplus military equipment” that ultimately found its way into 400 local police forces to be used to protect us from terrorists?

Had we spent all of the money we’ve poured into war machinery on butter would the nations of the world view us differently? Would we view ourselves differently? As we withdraw from Afghanistan and mark the anniversary of 9/11 we have a chance to change direction. Let’s seize that opportunity.

Wayne Gersen, of Etna, is the former superintendent of the Dresden School District.

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