Diplomatic Pouch / March 5, 2012
By Larry Luxner
On Feb. 15, as news bulletins reported another car-bombing in Kandahar and NATO-led night raids against suspected Taliban strongholds continued to enrage the Karzai government, nearly 100 people gathered in Washington to focus on the positive.
“Afghanistan: Moving Forward” was the title of the event, which was hosted by the Embassy of Slovenia and Virginia-based International Relief & Development. Hanging on the walls of the conference room were dramatic images shot by 31-year-old Slovenian photographer Manca Juvan, author of the award-winning photo book “Afghanistan: Unordinary Lives.”
Moderator Wendy Chamberlin, president of the Middle East Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, said serious issues will be raised as American troops prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014 and the country gears up for elections.
“Will a security vaccum be created by the withdrawal of NATO and international troops?” she asked. “Can the Afghan government sustain the social, economic and political progress that’s been financed largely by international organizations? Will the great progress that’s been made by Afghan women and children be reversed in the future? I don’t think anybody has the answers to these questions.”
But that didn’t stop participants from offering their opinions.
Dr. Arthur B. Keys, IRD’s chief executive officer, said that “in the midst of terrible losses, real gains have been made in Afghanistan, and what’s truly extraordinary is that these gains have been made in the midst of conflict. The very thought of returning to past conditions in Afghanistan offends the imagination.”
Keys said IRD oversees $278 million worth of projects in roadbuilding, economic development, gender equity, agriculture and community stabilization in Afghanistan.
“In terms of per-capita spending, this is one of the largest reconstruction and development efforts ever undertaken. Hundreds of new miles of roads have been built between and within cities,” Keys said. “Communities now have greater access to health care and education. Farmers have better seeds, families have higher incomes, and many are spending their incomes on formal education for their children, including daughters. Girls are being taught how to read and write. IRD has been involved in many of these projects, working with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank, NGOs and, most importantly, our Afghan partners.”
While conceding that “not every program has achieved its objectives,” he said “many Afghans and their international partners have sacrificed to build a stable society.”
So far, he said, IRD has learned three lessons in Afghanistan, he said:
* Build on what already exists.
* Work with and through communities. Such projects only succeed if they engage with local power structures.
* Build up the capacity of local partners. As USAID puts it, development organizations must build in sustainability from the start.
Melanne Verveer, ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues at the State Department, said gender equality and women’s economic empowerment are “core pieces” of her agency’s development objective.
“I know the headlines often speak otherwise, and there is no doubt: we confront tremendous challenges in Afghanistan,” she said. “But there has been a lot of progress. Today women comprise 25 percent of parliament. A growing number of leaders of NGOs are women, and they’re a vibrant force in civil society. Just the other day, 200 women gathered in all corners of Paktia — one of the more precarious provinces — to express their support for a peace process and a greater role for women in society.”
Verveer said 40 percent of Afghan women in urban areas are now literate, and that four million girls are now in school.
“As we all know, girls were precluded from going to school during those dark years that still loom very large in our memories,” said Verveer. “Maternal mortality, second-worst in the world, is now dropping significantly because of the investments made in health. Afghanistan’s future prosperity and stability will have much to do with the degree women continue to make progress.”
She added: “I’ve spent a lot of time with women in Afghanistan, and what I hear from them over and over is that they want to see an end to the conflict. But they don’t want their progress to be shortchanged. They don’t want to go backwards. That means they have to be part of the process that is taking place on a political level, particularly as reconciliation and reintegration go forward. This will say a great deal about whether women will be marginalized and the potential for peace subverted.”
Donald L. Sampler Jr., principal deputy assistant administrator for USAID’s Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs, said that when he started working in Afghanistan in 2002, the country’s per-capita GDP was well under $200 a year, and fewer than 9 percent of Afghans had access to health care. Today, annual per-capita GDP exceeds $500, and more than 60 percent of Afghans have access to health care.
Likewise, the maternal mortality rate has dropped from 1,600 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2002 to less than 500 per 100,000, while female life expectancy over the last 10 years has climbed from 44 to 64. Over the next three years, Sampler said, USAID will be committing $60 million a year specifically for women’s projects, making sure the gains they’ve made won’t be subverted.
“This isn’t what we did for Afghans. This is what we helped Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public do for themselves,” said the USAID official. “It’s no longer the case that we’re waiting for Afghan capacity to grow. In some cases, it’s growing faster than we can keep up with.”
That’s also the case with private enterprise. Sampler said that Afghanistan’s chief electric utility has boosted revenues by more than 200 percent in the last years, despite seeing government subsidies drop from $150 million to under $40 million. At the same time, cellphone service now covers 85 percent of Afghanistan.
“That’s something that won’t go away,” he said. “Afghans have had their eyes opened to what the future can hold.”
Yet all this progress could fall apart if peace does not take hold throughout the region. On Feb. 20, Afghan President Hamid Karzai officially opened the door to direct negotiations with the Taliban, which last month opened its headquarters in Qatar. He also called on Pakistan to facilitate such peace talks and deliver Afghan Taliban leaders of the so-called Quetta Shura to the negotiating table — though it’s doubtful that Pakistan, which denies the existence of any such leadership council, will cooperate.
Eklil Ahmad Hakimi, Afghanistan’s envoy in Washington, conceded that peace talks with a group his government has battled for more than a decade won’t be easy.
“The Taliban we’re willing to negotiate with is not the Taliban of 10 years ago. We have made our position very clear. Within our constitution, there are provisions we are not going to compromise. Human rights, particularly women’s rights, are one red line we’re not going to cross.”
Regarding the withdrawal of NATO troops by the end of 2014, Hakimi told his audience: “This is a critical time in our country’s history. Afghanistan will face major financial challenges after 2014 because the country right now depends on international aid and foreign military spending. However, we believe this crisis can be averted if the international community helps us develop a sustainable Afghan economy. Without a viable economy, it’ll be more difficult to counter an insurgency.
“Furthermore, Afghanistan’s plans for economic development are based on mutually beneficial regional cooperation. Afghanistan has the potential to become a source of economic prosperity in south and central Asia. Like many countries, we have an abundant supply of untapped natural resources which we envision becoming the backbone of the economy — but we need to develop the infrastructure to support it.”