How to support the U.S. in rebuilding Afghanistan?
Lee faces the task of persuading people to look beyond nationalism and play global roles
Professor Hong Kyu-dok
Afghanistan is somewhere the South Korean government can prove its genuine will and capacity to be a constructive and meaningful ally. President Lee Myung-bak and his supporters strongly believe that South Korea’s unique experiences in civil military operations in various other places, including Iraq, can certainly contribute to rebuilding Afghanistan and securing regional order. But those who have reservations regarding Seoul’s increasing regional role argue that Afghanistan is quite different from northern Iraq, given its ethnic and religious divisions and lack of administrative structure.
They argue that there is no blue print, magic formula nor mechanically transferable model for enhancing the governing and administrative capacities of the Karzai government in Afghanistan, even if a new administration comes in after the August election. In the same vein, critics maintain that South Korea’s contribution would not prove to be significant in the area, and neither would the United States’, despite Washington’s calls for more support from the international society.
Currently, the Lee government has views to increase the size of its Provisional Reconstruction Team dispatched to Afghanistan from the current staff of 24 personnel to 90. The government also would expand its overseas development aid in a significant manner. Although he has not yet made a final decision on whether to dispatch military units, the debate is still ongoing within policy circles as to whether it is a viable option and how much will be enough if South Korea does decide to send ground forces to Afghanistan.
But due to the sensitivities involving the dispatch issue, it would be very difficult for President Lee to dispatch combat forces to Afghanistan since it will definitely ignite serious domestic opposition against his government. President Lee must make it very clear that South Korea is not going to join the combat activities and explain how the Obama’s war efforts are different from Bush’s war in Iraq.
The South Korean government can and should consider the option of sending back the engineering and medical unit of the Korean military along with a Korean PRT that can be replaced for the American supporting forces to help ease their burden. Previously, about 2,000 South Korean non-combat forces were stationed in Afghanistan as part of multinational forces to assist the U.S. efforts to stabilize the regional crisis until the end of 2007. However, the Roh government inadvertently decided to withdraw them after the unfortunate kidnapping and murdering of Korean volunteers by Taliban forces in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2007.
What South Korea wants to do in Afghanistan now is to respond efficiently to humanitarian crises. As we observed in the earthquake-ridden site of Sichuan province in China in 2008, the Korean Air Force, who contributed to disaster relief by dispatching three C-130s cargo planes full of emergency items, were mostly welcomed by the local Chinese and government. It was the first time that Korean military cargo planes were allowed to land on Chinese soil since the cease-fire of the Korean War in 1953 and this positive response would certainly help build confidence between the two states. As mentioned above, Korean non-combat forces successfully delivered the Korean people’s gesture of goodwill during the past years and certainly attracted a wide range of support from the people in Afghanistan.
It is important to note that South Korean soldiers were mainly involved in overseas civil and military peacekeeping operations, and that they made excellent contributions. According to former commanders of the South Korean forces stationed in Afghanistan, they trained their soldiers to respect elders and even teach appropriate eye contact skills to better interact with the locals. In order not to give an impression of an occupying force, the soldiers are taught to be culturally sensitive and are trained with various outreach programs. South Korean peacekeepers were good at providing necessary services to local people by building schools, children’s parks and whatever locals wanted in their communities.
Based on South Korea’s own experiences of running its “New Township Movement” in the 1970s to modernize the rural area, they understand better what the local people need most and how to help them. The South Korean peacekeepers try to support local villages to increase earnings by exploring their potential assets. The Korean forces even trained locals on bee-keeping, clothes tailoring, and gardening.
Medical support also is a critical part of humanitarian assistance. Korean medical units not only treated local patients but also trained the local doctors and nurses and it attracted local supports and opened their minds to seek cooperation with peacekeepers.
Despite such experience, there would be much to be gained by way of acquiring more expertise from being dispatched to Afghanistan even without the forces being for combat purposes.
For instance, the experience would be significant for the South Korean military as it prepares for future contingencies. As observed in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is more to attaining peace than winning on the battlefields. There is a myriad of demands that arise in the wake of conflict that are likely to involve military units as well as civilians.
Currently, South Korea is not fully ready yet to handle post-conflict activities including the transition to civil authorities, support of truce negotiations, civil affairs support to reestablish a civil government, psychological operations to foster continued peaceful relations, continuing logical support from engineering and transport units. It is a huge opportunity for the South Korean Army to upgrade its peacekeeping and peace building capabilities and it should not be missed.
Noting such opportunities and the call for help in Afghanistan, President Lee made it clear that the government will increase its contributions to developing countries and seek a greater role in international peacekeeping and environmental protection efforts during his meeting with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on July 4, 2008. And I am sure that his commitment of “Global Korea” in which Korea can interact dynamically with global partners to make a safer world would be reconfirmed during his meeting with President Obama in Washington, D.C. on June 16, 2009.
However, the appeal for global Korea has not always been welcomed by the people. There are those who criticize the government efforts to assist people in these remote and seemingly irrelevant areas when at the same time, the government is reducing aid to North Korea. This criticism, however, is based largely on the notion that national unification must be obtained at any cost.
Their belief is that increasing overseas development aid for the underprivileged in the developing world should be criticized, as they interpret such aid and assistance to reflect indifference to the hardship and suffering of the North Korean “brothers and sisters” living under the harsh rule of the Kim Jong-il regime. That is why the North Korean factor has always been a major road block for Seoul’s plans to increasing funds for international charity.
It is not always easy for people to forget their pasts, not to mention that the image of South Korea as “weak, helpless and suffering” has proven to die hard, especially among the nationalists. At times, the sentiment takes on a life of its own and becomes a nationwide movement.
But the government must also remember that it must take heed that such scenarios are possible and campaign so as not to incur a furious public backlash. Take, for example, the anti-U.S. beef protest that swept the nation a year ago. President Lee has taken a cautious approach in the process of alliance consolidation with the United States because he vividly remembers how his globalization campaign was frustrated by the left-leaning progressives of society who were largely dissatisfied with his decision to lift ban on U.S. beef imports. Starting on May 1, 2008, it took three and a half months for him to fully recover from the so-called anti-government beef protests and candlelight vigils.
The protests provided the momentum for those left-wing extremists, labor unions, and former Uri Party members to unite together to stage a mass protest against the government. The anti-government forces attacked President Lee’s decision to lift the ban on imported U.S. beef, by describing him as a defender of U.S. interests. President Lee’s gesture of goodwill at the Camp David meeting with the then U.S. President George W. Bush was seen as a cowardly salute to the world’s superpower.
Considering the political and administrative paralysis triggered by the beef protests, there is every reason that the Lee government does not want to repeat its own mistakes by giving an easy excuse for anti-government forces to mobilize opposition should it decide to assist the Obama administration in Afghanistan.
Transforming the mindset of antiglobal and nationalist forces at home requires keen leadership skills and sound strategy. It is high time to dispel the misperception that joining the Afghanistan operation would invite a potential attack from terrorist groups. Given that South Koreans have become a target for international terrorism, the government is fully aware that it needs to expand its global peacekeeping operations. South Korean efforts in Afghanistan also will help solidify the alliance with Washington. There exists a consensus shared by both Seoul and Washington that alliance relationship needs to be revitalized. President Lee wanted to upgrade bilateral relations with the United States by calling for a strategic alliance for the 21st century when he met with President Bush at Camp David on April 19, 2008. However, how to operationalize the strategic alliance for the future has not yet agreed upon.
The South Korean president’s policy initiative would not only strengthen the alliance relationship but also cultivate new security relationship with regional partners on enhancing the capacities to deal with human insecurities throughout the region.
From a broader view, South Korea must be ready to provide assistance during a global crisis based on the partnership with the regional and international community as a member of G20.
The question now is how the Lee government makes people understand that global partnership is still needed for dealing with a new kind of threat in Afghanistan and venturing for the future requires sacrifice and resources.
By working together and combining their strengths, South Korea and the United States perhaps together with other European partners, can provide renewed leadership to resolve a host of challenges ranging from the need to foster economic development of the poorest countries to enhancing peace and security in the region beyond East Asia. Key strategists of the Lee government expressed that participating in such activities would provide valuable lessons on how to cooperate with international society to connect the people in the poorly integrated regions to the core part of the world.
The positive sign is that there are many, particularly from the younger generation, who want to be involved in humanitarian operations abroad as volunteers. They want to dispel old images and look for a different role for the 21st century. It is the Korean government’s responsibility to offer a vision and guiding principle for action. The young generation needs to be organized and better educated for enhancing their efficiency. The Korean government also needs to protect those civilian forces by providing better guidance and to strengthen its regional networks. It is imperative for South Korea to prevent such unfortunate incidents of kidnapping and killing of Korean missionaries by the Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
The issue is that emerging and powerful NGOs in Korea have never fully exercised their capacity to coordinate to protect people’s rights comprehensively beyond the realm of national interest and patriotism. South Korea’s role of pride and influence in the world should only be guaranteed when Koreans are to play as global citizens. The question is how President Lee and his government can persuade people to look beyond such a narrow sense of nationalism and work closely with civilian groups to make a more effective instrument to assist people in Afghanistan.