In 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall told a group of alumni assembled on Harvard Yard for commencement speeches about his plan for economic aid to Europe. “[T]he United States should . . . assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace,” Marshall soberly told his audience. “Our policy is not directed against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.”

Over the next four years, as part of what came to be called the Marshall Plan, the United States funneled $13.3 billion to Europe. Some of the money went to the Allies, but Germany was also a recipient, and its recovery was the most dramatic: Offering rehabilitation and reconstruction, the Plan elevated our former foe to a strategic partner through aid, alliance and an unflinching commitment of resources.

Today, the Marshall Plan would fall under the rubric of “nation-building,” a term of derision for many conservatives, including President Bush and most of his top advisors. For them, the Marshall Plan was a mysterious anomaly; today’s national interest does not necessarily require stability elsewhere. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell — the administration‘s voice of reason, by many accounts — specifically opposes open-ended missions such as nation-building or humanitarianism. Like Bush and company, Powell is not a fan of peacekeeping; if there’s no national interest at stake, we‘re not on board. This seems fair, at least as a cold calculation of self-interest, except that this view of the world assumes that vital interests and nation-building are diametric opposites, which they clearly aren’t. Al Qaeda, for example, flourished in Afghanistan because the country collapsed after two decades of proxy wars and internecine fighting. To root out al Qaeda means rebuilding the country — restoring political institutions, economic stability and traditional social structures. It means committing time and money to the Afghan people. For the Bush administration, it means understanding that nation-building is in the U.S. national interest. In short, it means that Afghanistan needs a Marshall Plan.

Tony Blair, in his speech before Parliament, was the first to connect Afghanistan‘s misfortunes to the current crisis. But the Bush administration, slower to catch on, has been sending mixed messages. As recently as September 25, Bush said he was not “into nation-building” in Afghanistan. Powell has mentioned reconstruction, while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently insisted the U.S. is only considering immediate humanitarian aid. Prompted, according to some reports, by Blair personally, Bush has started to accept the idea that it might be wise to offer to help the country he is now bombing. “I think we did learn a lesson from the previous engagement in the Afghan area,” Bush said in his prime-time news conference last Thursday, “that we should not just simply leave after a military objective has been achieved.” Bush even went against his party’s basic instincts and suggested that the United Nations could play a role in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Encouraging as this may be, Bush has offered no specifics. Outside the administration, however, recommendations abound. Shireen Mazari, Chairman of Islamabad‘s Institute of Strategic Studies, cut to the chase and called for “large amounts of international financial inputs.” Closer to home, Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, referred to a multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort.

Detailed proposals for an Afghan Marshall Plan have been around for some time. The U.N. and various think tanks have put out reports on the subject since 1994, all of which were largely ignored. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who has covered Afghanistan for more than two decades, has been making the reconstruction case for several years. “Afghanistan needs new infrastructure, from top to bottom,” he explained recently by telephone from Lahore. “It need roads, irrigation, agriculture. That’s where you have to start, actually. The only occupation now in Afghanistan is fighting. You have to get these soldiers disarmed and reconstitute village life. Then you can start working on the education, health and banking systems, none of which now exist.”

Rashid thinks the reconstruction funds could be administered by a development agency like the World Bank, but suggests that they be channeled through the neighboring states (so they‘d benefit up front and have some incentive to play along). And the money could be conditional, distributed only to stable governments that are broad-based, democratic and represent all ethnic groups within a country. Rashid also sees the need for an ongoing peacekeeping mission, organized by the U.N. and, preferably, garrisoned with soldiers from Muslim countries.

The Bush administration seems not to have thought this far ahead, which is a critical mistake. With bombing under way but no vision for a future Afghanistan, the cart is surely before the horse. The vague talk about a coalition involving the deposed king, the Northern Alliance and various other warlords is not enough by itself. Rashid emphasized this point: “You can’t have a political solution — God help us that there is one — without some kind of economic reconstruction plan in place. They must go hand in hand.”

The Marshall Plan idea has its detractors. Before Bush even started hinting at reconstruction, an editorial in USA Today declared that such a task is bound to fail, that we can‘t bring a society from the “Stone Age” to modernity with money and good intentions. To be sure, no one is suggesting that Herat will be like Mission Viejo or that Afghanistan will be joining NATO anytime soon, but a comprehensive plan certainly might help. The fact is, a hands-off approach will not create the stability that will prevent Afghanistan from again turning into a giant campus for al Qaeda — it will not, in Rumsfeld’s words, “drain the swamp.”

Bush‘s only material pledge so far, an increase in the humanitarian-aid budget to $320 million, is welcome, but it falls far short. It is not even enough to keep up with Afghanistan’s continuing refugee crisis. The work in Afghanistan will cost several billion — on top of basic humanitarian resources. If that seems like a lot of money, consider the costs already posted by our neglect of Afghanistan: $40 billion earmarked for domestic relief for the terrorist attacks, with $15 billion more probably on the way. Add to that the estimated $105 billion in economic losses in New York alone resulting from the destruction of the World Trade Center, and the potential cost of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan seems trivial. With these figures in mind, it makes sense to spare funds for a project that offers part of a long-term solution to terrorism while helping millions of people in the process. The power of the original Marshall Plan was its mutual benefit; Marshall recognized that it was not in our interest to let poverty, ignorance, hunger and corruption reign in Europe. Now it‘s time to extend that insight to Afghanistan and the rest of the world.

LA Weekly