Fifteen years ago, the tragedy of September 11, 2001 directly resulted from complete state failure in Afghanistan. This followed the international community’s negligence toward Afghanistan’s post-Cold War stabilization and reconstruction after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from the country in 1989. For a decade (1979-1989), in order to defeat communism, the United States and its allies effectively capitalized on Afghans’ firm determination to free their country from the occupation of the former Soviet Union. When this strategic goal was achieved, Afghanistan was pushed back into America’s foreign policy blind spot.
In the following decade from early 1991 to 2001, several of Afghanistan’s neighbors, which lacked a shared vision for a secure future together, filled the vacuum left by the West. Pakistan led the fragmentation of former Afghan resistance fighters, whom Islamabad exploited to dismantle Afghanistan’s strong army, air force, civilian institutions, and key economic infrastructure. In an effort to end Afghans’ hope of rebuilding their country, Pakistan created and launched the so-called Taliban movement. This mercenary force oppressed Afghans, particularly women and girls, while gradually isolating Afghanistan from the rest of the international community.
The Taliban also harbored al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama Bin Laden, who masterminded in Afghanistan the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Immediately following this tragedy, which killed more than 3,000 Americans—including many Muslims—the international community, led by the United States, reengaged in Afghanistan. This brought an end to the tyranny of the Taliban, and ushered in the slow but ongoing transformation of Afghanistan.
The National Unity Government (NUG) of Afghanistan, which was formed in September 2014, has continued to build on Afghans’ numerous hard-earned gains since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Even as they have grappled with the many challenges they inherited due to a destabilizing military transition process that ended in 2014, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have worked hard to implement a comprehensive reforms agenda, which aims at achieving self-reliance. In doing so, their shared vision is to “build a productive and broad-based economy that creates jobs; put an end to corruption, criminality and violence; and establish the rule of law.”
In each of these key areas, the Afghan government has made notable progress. Infrastructure development through regional cooperation stands out, as Afghanistan is collaborating with every one of its immediate and near neighbors to expedite the integration of the region’s converging economies through increased commerce, transit trade, and investment. In this regard, the implementation of major regional projects—including that Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Natural Gas Pipeline (TAPI); Chabahar Port; Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-500 (TAP500); Central Asia-South Asia-1000 (CASA-1000); and a number of multi-national railways—is currently underway.
The full realization of these projects will not only build confidence among Afghan neighbors and earn them unprecedented economic growth but also restore Afghanistan as the main gateway to the modern Silk Roads, including China’s “One Belt, One Road.” And the revenues to be generated from these projects should help Afghanistan move away from its rentier economy toward one that should create sustainable jobs for its growing population, some 60 percent of which are under the age of 25.
In line with these initiatives, President Ghani has prioritized private sector development in order to facilitate domestic and foreign investment in Afghanistan’s “virgin markets.” Since the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2015, Afghan exports have increased to $570 million, up by $150 million since 2013. To further boost export of agribusiness products, President Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated this past June the Salma Dam, which generates 42 megawatts of electricity for 40,000 farming families in western Afghanistan. Additional efforts in the agriculture sector have enabled Afghan businesses to access regional and international markets, generating over $79.5 million in exports of fruit, nuts, and cashmere.
Moreover, since good governance is the key to stabilization of Afghanistan, while ensuring an enabling environment for economic growth, the Afghan government has prioritized systemic elimination of corruption. So far, a number of results-oriented anti-corruption mechanisms have been established. These include the anti-corruption justice center; the national procurement committee; the high council on governance, rule of law and anti-corruption; and a one-stop-shop for issuing construction permits. These notable initiatives have already delivered tangible outcomes.
For instance, the national procurement committee, co-chaired by President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, has approved 1250 contracts, valued at $2.3 billion. This process has saved Afghanistan some $220 million, while blacklisting 71 companies, of which 70 have been introduced to the Attorney General Office for breaking the law.
In tandem with these top-down anti-corruption measures, the Afghan judicial sector is being revamped. More than 600 judges have been replaced, including judges in every one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. At the same time, some 20 percent of provincial prosecutors have been fired, as well as 25 percent of customs officials. The replacement of these corrupt officials with properly vetted professionals, possessing appropriate qualifications, has begun restoring public confidence in the government.
In the meantime, the Afghan government has taken effective steps to ensure fiscal sustainability and integrity of public finance and commercial banking. This has resulted in an unprecedented revenue collection of $1.2 billion by the Ministry of Finance in the first quarter of the current fiscal year (2016-17). It reflects a 48 percent increase compared to the same quarter in the last fiscal year, exceeding the IMF target by 7 percent or $79 million.
In the area of social development, Afghanistan has continued to make strides under the NUG leadership. While Afghan parliament convenes with a higher number of female legislators than the legislative bodies of some of the most established democracies, including the United States and the United Kingdom, the number of Afghan women in senior policy positions has also increased. This is unprecedented in Afghan history, and a transformative shift from the era of the Taliban, who had been suppressing more than half of the Afghan population, denying women and girls their most basic human rights: access to education and employment.
Today, the NUG cabinet consists of three female ministers, nine female deputy ministers, one female governor, and one female deputy attorney general. And to ensure an inclusive peace process, Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (HPC) consists of a female deputy and two female members. Meanwhile, the number of Afghan female diplomats has continued to rise, with three female ambassadors representing the country in Indonesia, Norway, and Switzerland.
In the areas of education and healthcare, too, Afghanistan has continuously improved its former dismal socioeconomic indicators. In 2015, close to a million new students enrolled in schools across Afghanistan. The total enrollment for grades 1-14 has now reached 9.4 million, 39.3 percent of whom are female. At the same time, more and more Afghans at the city, district, and village levels have accessed healthcare, with 58 million visitors having been provided with health services in 2015. This shows an increase of 3 million compared to the previous year.
Challenges: External Aggression by Proxy
Indeed, the above achievements are only the tip of the iceberg that constitutes Afghanistan’s 15-year achievements in every sector. However, these same gains remain under the relentless terrorist attacks of the same militants and their state sponsor that together ripped apart Afghanistan and undermined international peace and security throughout the 1990s until 9/11. A quick visit to the website of the United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMA) shows the page punctuated by the strong condemnation of almost weekly terrorist attacks by the Taliban on civilian targets.
UNAMA recently reported that since it began counting civilian casualties in 2009, the first six months of 2016 saw the highest casualty figure: 5,166 civilians killed or maimed by terrorist attacks across Afghanistan. Between January 2009 and June 2016, UNAMA recorded 63,934 civilian casualties, including 22,941 deaths and 40,993 injured. Women and children continue to bear a large share of these brutal terrorist acts, with 507 women and 1,509 children killed and wounded so far this year.
Following the end of the transition process in 2014, when most of international forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the Afghan government expected a spike in exported and imposed violence from outside. Intelligence and military elements in Pakistan had calculated that by escalating violence across Afghanistan, the newly established NUG would dramatically weaken and most likely collapse, in the face of an economic depression, a die-hard enemy, and an under-resourced army. Indeed, these strategic weaknesses were caused by the abrupt withdrawal of foreign forces and the breakdown of a rentier economy, which they had fostered in Afghanistan since 2009.
However, Pakistan’s calculations failed to materialize, thanks to the warrior spirit and high morale of the Afghan forces, who have consistently and increasingly achieved operational upper-hand in the fight against the exported terrorist groups. Last winter, for example, Afghan forces were able to deliver a major blow to Islamic State fighters in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. And through better operational planning and preparatory efforts—based on the lessons learned last year—Afghan forces effectively disrupted a major offensive by the Taliban to seize the capital of Kunduz in the north earlier this year. At the same time, Afghan forces have been able to counter and frustrate ongoing efforts by the Taliban to capture certain districts in the southern provinces of Helmand, Uruzgan, and Kandahar.
Indeed, these achievements have resulted from a number of key measures taken by the Afghan government. The main thrust of the NUG defense reforms focuses on strengthening the leadership ranks of the Afghan army and police forces. Moreover, the provision by NATO, the United States, and other allies of Afghanistan of critical military enablers—which Afghanistan previously lacked—has had a direct impact on the performance of Afghan forces in the fight against regional terrorist groups and their affiliated global networks.
In spite of systemic weaknesses and slow provision or unavailability of military enablers, Afghan forces have done the lion’s share of fighting the global war on terrorism. Unfortunately, however, this isn’t recognized adequately. Afghanistan’s partners should take note of the fact that once regional terrorists and their transnational affiliates have regained a firm foothold in Afghanistan, they would immediately turn their attention elsewhere. This is exactly what they had been doing in the second half of the 1990s when Afghanistan was completely neglected by the international community. Of course, it was the tragedy of 9/11 that effectively ended international negligence of Afghanistan’s continued need to stabilize and develop on a sustainable basis.
The Road Ahead: Securing the Future of Afghanistan
This past July at the Warsaw Summit, Afghanistan discussed its security and military needs for the next four years. The NUG leadership, which participated in the Summit, gratefully welcomed the commitment by the NATO alliance to continue supporting the financial sustainment of the Afghan national defense and security forces (ANDSF) up to 2020. To complement this, the Afghan government is now preparing for the international Brussels conference on Afghanistan in October.
In this major development aid conference, the Afghan government will present the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework (ANPDF), which is a five-year strategic plan for achieving self-reliance. Indeed, the Brussels conference would be a significant opportunity for Afghanistan’s allies, friends, and bilateral partners around the world to reaffirm their commitment to securing the country’s future against the persistent terrorist threats that destabilize Afghanistan, while undermining regional stability and global peace.
In the final analysis, winning or losing in Afghanistan squarely depends on whether the country’s allies and friends would actually deliver on the commitments they have repeatedly made to institutionalize peace and democracy in the country. If they do so, Afghanistan would steadily grow as a sovereign, democratic country at peace internally and at peace with its neighbors. The Afghan government would continue to focus on win-win objectives towards a region where every nation needs to be secure and prosper, through regional economic cooperation. This is the world in which we live today, a world which is increasingly interdependent and where zero-sum designs have proven a failure and a disaster. Sincere, results-oriented cooperation is the call of every nation in the region and beyond. And Afghanistan stands ready to do its part for the good of all.
But shortchanging the process of democratic state-building in Afghanistan in favor of any short-cuts to peace will eventually ensure international failure, effectively undoing everything the Afghan people have achieved so far. Half-measure peace initiatives were tried to engage the Taliban in the 1990s with disastrous consequences. Let’s remember that the Taliban of today are the same dark forces that brutally terrorized the Afghan people, systematically destroyed their cultural heritage sites, enforced a gender-apartheid of unspeakable cruelty, and sheltered and aided al-Qaeda to plot and execute from the Afghan soil the tragedy of 9/11. That is why Afghans hope that their historic turnouts in each election since 9/11 have convinced the international community to stay the course, thereby helping them firmly stand on their own.
Ashraf Haidari is the Director-General of Policy & Strategy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, and formerly served as the country’s Deputy Chief of Mission to India. Prior to this, he was Afghanistan’s Deputy Assistant National Security Advisor, as well as Afghan Chargé d’Affaires to the United States. He tweets @MAshrafHaidari.