Afghanistan is a country at the heart of Asia. With a past that spans over 5000 years and the cradle of civilization dominated by thought and ideas of intellectual scholars like Rumi and Avicenna, it has constantly been a hotspot for geopolitical dominance by neighbouring powers. The Greeks, Arabs, Mongols and the imperial powers of the last two centuries have always drawn particular emphasis or attention towards Afghanistan. However, the past 14 years of involvement by the international community not only marks a pivotal moment for the history of Afghanistan but has impacted the country’s citizens more significantly than ever before.
NATO’s military involvement along with humanitarian assistance by the international community has entailed a great deal of opportunities, challenges and achievements. In order to fully evaluate the impact of the presence of the international community, many societal aspects must be taken into consideration that culminates to the idea of state re-building. This rather complicated notion has been a tricky process with many factors hindering progress and sustainable economic and political development, especially in such a heterogeneous country like Afghanistan with its broad combination of ethnicities. Ethnic connections, nepotism, corruption and the absence of a meritocratic system are just a few examples to recall. Despite this, enormous achievements have been reached in many areas making it impossible to compare the position of Afghanistan today with that of 2001.
State Rebuilding is generally a gradual process which can take lengthy periods of time to fully take hold, especially in failed states such as Afghanistan that have experienced decades of conflict and civil wars. The occurrence of the brain drain in the early 1980’s following the Soviet Invasion and a lack of expertise inside Afghanistan afterwards have all influenced the rate of development. Perhaps, one way to diminish corruption would be to have the active involvement of members of the Afghan diaspora who have been involved with civil society and have enshrined values of transparency and meritocracy to effectively lead departments and ministries inside Afghanistan in collaboration with their host countries.
Prior to reviewing the changes and developments made by Western nations to existing aspects of Afghan society, it would be imperative to mention the overriding factor which has actually provided the foundation for social reforms and initiatives to take place. The establishment of the civil society as a third sector has been integral in assisting the most vulnerable in society and essentially fulfilling crucial government policies through the implementation of projects across the country reaching isolated and marginalized communities. After all, it is the civil society consisting of NGO’s and charity organisations that reduce the strain off the government and prioritise the needs of the least advantaged members of society by using a bottom-up approach. Large international donors such as the Department for International Development (DFID) which is part of the British government and USAID have played a fundamental role in this. For instance, DFID recently awarded a three year grant to the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), a UK registered charity to open up two Citizens Advice Centres in Kabul and the northern city of Pul-i-Khumri similar to the Citizens Advice Bureaus in the UK. The centres provide free, impartial and confidential legal advice to people living in vulnerable communities. This example demonstrates the usefulness of the civil society in raising people’s awareness of their legal entitlements outside of more traditional tribal jurisprudence like “Pashtunwali” and consequently empowering them to become more active citizens of Afghanistan. Furthermore, hundreds of hospitals, schools and universities have also been built, showing the diversity of the work NGO’s are capable of doing. Therefore, it seems justifiable to conclude by saying that the civil society has a long-lasting impact on society by attempting to replicate the social services available to people in developed countries like the UK and helping to breed successful future generations.
Furthermore, substantial development and progress has also been achieved with regards to the living standard of people. Take life expectancy as an example as it is a very useful overall measure of a country’s living standards. In less than 15 years, the average life expectancy has increased by 20 years from 44 to about 64. This is a massive leap forward in terms of social progress in such a small period of time. Back in 2002, there were only 900,000 children attending schools, virtually all were boys. But now there are 8 million children in schools, a third of whom are female. This increase in educational participation, especially by girls, indicates the diminishing social stigma attached to female presence in schools, and is a major achievement, as it is ultimately through education that a society in essence can grow further and stand on its own feet. Additionally, without the empowerment of women who form the cornerstone of all societies by being the main agency of primary socialisation particularly in such a traditionalist society like Afghanistan, progress would be impossible.
Many achievements have been made during the past 14 years by international reconstruction agencies and donors such as DFID and USAID:
- Expanded access to education – produced over 300 million new textbooks, trained 152,000 teachers, built and refurbished more than 3000 schools and increased the number of community-based education classes eliminating the need to travel long distances.
- Built a National Healthcare System – Improved life expectancy of Afghans from 42 years to 64 years. About 67 per cent have access to a health facility less than one hour away from their home. More than 2000 health facilities built, serving two million people per month.
- Improvements in Health of Women and Children – Training of over 24,000 community health workers and 4000 midwives. A 54 per cent increase in the number of babies delivered by skilled birth attendants. The under-five mortality rate has decreased by 62 per cent.
- Strengthened Female Political participation – In the 2014 elections, females represented more than 35 per cent of voters. Women now represent 11 per cent of sitting judges and 20 per cent of female judges are now in training.
- Created Jobs and supported Economic growth – Afghanistan’s GDP has grown from $4 billion in 2002 to more than $20 billion in 2013. Increased access to credit and increased market access. More than 100,000 jobs created by USAID loans alone. The annual national income has increased from $210 (£134) per capita in 2004 to $700 (£447) in 2013. The development of the ICT sector – a $1.81 billion per year industry employing more than 135,000 people.
- Access to Electricity, Markets and to each other – 41 per cent of people are connected to electricity grids, including 2 million in Kabul. More than 3500 km of roads built in Afghanistan, including the Ring Road, connecting Afghanistan’s urban centres.
- Supported Agri-business, farmers and their families – More than $93 million in loans provided to more than 48,000 farmers, facilitated over $500 million in direct sales of agricultural products, created more than 422,000 agricultural jobs and increased water availability to more than 100,000 hectares of land.
- Strengthened Regional connections – Facilitated the export of goods worth $60 million including Cashmere, fruit and saffron to neighbouring countries and UAE, UK and Netherlands. Sales has created 8000 full-time jobs and benefited over a million families.
- Expanded Independent Media – More than 13,000 media professionals have been trained, including 5,000 women. Many vocational institutes established for journalists and more than 75 private television stations and 200 private radio stations have been funded, e.g. USAID providing $2 million to MOBY Group.
- Enhanced Afghan government capacity and revenue generation – More than 26,000 civil servants (26 per cent women), increased domestic revenue from $6.7 million in 2008 to $1.9 billion in 2013.
Not surprisingly, challenges still exist. Lack of predictable and continuous security on the one hand and a trend towards a lack of sufficient employment opportunities on the other hand are two of the biggest challenges that still prevail. With security challenges now shifting hugely from the South to the North of the country manifested by the recent battles between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban in the northern province of Kunduz, concerns are beginning to grow. The recent Taliban attack on the Afghan parliament also eliminates some hope for reconciliation attempts with the Taliban and an end to security issues. All this has demoralized Afghan citizens into believing that persistent fighting and security issues are not going to end. Furthermore, many Afghans are also complaining about a decline in employment opportunities for the general public, again diminishing glimmers of hope to those who have a very positive outlook on the future.
Nevertheless, considering the changes and developments that have occurred in numerous sectors of society, it would be appropriate to thank the international community for their past and ongoing efforts in creating a democratic and economically stable Afghanistan. The past 14 years has witnessed substantially positive achievements in many areas. The first ever democratic transition of power in 2014 from Karzai to Ashraf Ghani is a remarkable success for Afghanistan’s history and this is all due to the assistance of the international community who ensured transparency was prioritised. But, in light of the recent escalating security issues and a slight decline in economic growth, I believe it would be justified and reasonable to have continued political and financial assistance from the International community in order to further develop Afghanistan’s growing economy and help reduce security issues.
DFID.GOV. Afghanistan Development Tracker. Available: http://devtracker.dfid.gov.uk/countries/AF/.
Tony Blair’s interview. (March 2015). UK’s Afghanistan war effort honoured in service. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-31866944.
The Independent. What has the war in Afghanistan really achieved? Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/what-has-the-war-in-afghanistan-really-achieved-2302852.html
The Guardian. Kabul, Afghanistan – fifth fastest growing city in the world. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/dec/11/kabul-afghanistan-fifth-fastest-growing-city-world-rapid-urbanisation