Can Afghanistan be Saved?

Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think tank comprised of top European public officials, corporate leaders and others, issued a policy brief Friday saying that despite deep pessimism over the future of Afghanistan, the country can be saved from the Taliban.

That pretty much flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, which expects that the day NATO forces pull out, the fundamentalist Islamic insurgents will sweep into the capital of Kabul and pandemonium will result, if the country’s powerful warlords and opium traders don’t get there first. And, given the magnitude of the job of building the country even without the threat of an invading army of fundamentalist religious zealots, it almost beggars the imagination why anybody would wish to try, except that not doing so in particular dooms the country’s women and girls to disaster.

Certainly, the think tank doesn’t paint a particularly rosy picture. There is no magic recipe for rebuilding Afghanistan, the policy brief notes. “ Growth and development in the country will require people-focused domestic policies and sustained and smart engagement by the international community.”

The Asian Development Bank seems to agree, having announced on July 8 that it would fund a US$1.2 billion assistance program through 2016 and that the bank is "firmly committed to staying engaged in Afghanistan's development efforts." Since 2002, the ADB has approved more than US$2.8 billion in grnts, loans equity investments and other funds to the stricken country.

However, the problem is that there are almost no existing institutions to even rebuild, as even the think tank appears to agree. Its policy brief points out that the country is the source of 93 percent of the world’s opium production, the study notes, with the area under cultivation more than doubling after NATO got there. It is plagued by “poor infrastructure, low literacy rates, high corruption levels, weak legal institutions and little economic integration with the rest of the region and the world.”

Stability after the NATO drawdown “demands urgent action on an array of fronts. With security in the country still precarious and volatile, the international focus on building Afghanistan’s security forces is important,” the policy brief notes. “However, a strong army and police force cannot of themselves ensure growth and development. The emphasis on security needs to be accompanied by an equally strong focus on establishing credible civilian institutions, improving Afghanistan’s domestic governance structures and efforts to shore up the rule of law as well as stepped-up measures to fight corruption.”

But, the think tank argues, as NATO forces get ready to pull out, the drawdown “must not mean an end to international support for Afghanistan. As aid budgets are cut, the international community will come under pressure to reduce its contributions to the country. Massive cutbacks in assistance would be counterproductive, however. Instead, the focus should be on weaning Afghanistan off its excessive aid dependency.”

Investing in the country’s future will require a long-term comprehensive strategy that “combines domestic and international concerns, fosters human and economic development and strengthens civil society. This means an emphasis on combating poverty, upgrading educational facilities, establishing a better health network, modernizing agriculture and creating an enabling environment for domestic and foreign investments.”

The think-tank’s prescription includes, in addition to striking the right balance between support for civilian and military institutions, a focus on sustainable growth and development in addition to security, reduction of dependence on foreign aid, attracting job-creating investments, combating corruption and empowering civil society. In two important areas – women’s rights and a growing attention to a free press, the government “must resist creeping erosion of achievements."

Women are particularly at risk. As Asia Sentinel has reported repeatedly, the country’s women emphatically do not want the Taliban back. Some 66 percent of them said they feel safer now than they did before the war and 72 percent said their lives are better. A full 90 percent are worried about the return of a Taliban-style government that would reverse the rights they have won slowly since the Islamic radicals were driven out by NATO forces.

“The international community should not forget its commitment to Afghan women and girls beyond 2014," the brief continues. “As Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, underlines, ‘Afghan women are seeing that the pace of change as regards women’s issues has not only slowed down but in some ways has gone into reverse.’”

The Taliban were infamous for strict laws marginalizing women, depriving them of the right to work, study or move freely. But while Afghanistan's constitution now stipulates that men and women have equal rights, many independent agencies say the culture of the country means that they aren’t much better off with the government. Women are still subject to widespread discrimination and oppression.

Reform in Afghanistan and the wherewithal to keep the Taliban at bay “depends on the commitment, strength and vitality of its people, including the ability of its reformers, business leaders, civil society groups, women and media to operate without restrictions,” the policy brief notes.

Ominously, however, “At the moment, most ordinary Afghans see themselves as little more than bystanders in the peace and reconciliation process. Many feel disconnected and profoundly alienated from the national government and its inability to deliver basic public goods and services.”

Building a sustainable economy is a daunting task that the aid agencies operating in the country so far have had little success in dong. In the near-absence of any realistically functioning government, foreign donors have borne the brunt of funding essential services including education and health, infrastructure investments as well as government administration. These inflows have, however, also led to waste and corruption while the country’s limited absorptive capacity has impeded aid delivery and the building of a more effective Afghan state. It is one of the world’s most aid-dependent countries, with an astonishing 97 percent of gross domestic product linked to international assistance.

The study does note that despite the odds, American, European, Indian and Chinese companies are investing in Afghanistan and could be expected to do so if security improves. More than 700 foreign companies from 25 countries invested US$1.66 billion US dollars in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2009, in addition to US$3.2 billion formally registered in domestic investment from Afghans.

“The key challenge is to enable the creation of businesses with the potential to become large-scale enterprises owned and operated by Afghans or joint ventures that can attract Afghan as well as foreign direct investment.” Sectors with potential for income generation include construction and infrastructure, including renewable energy, mining, textiles and urban services. As cities grow, demand is burgeoning for goods and services including waste and sanitation, electricity, household goods, telecommunications and information technology, construction and consulting, and logistics.

Mineral resources and the development of the extractive industries have been identified as key drivers of sustainable growth. A recent US Geological Survey in Afghanistan demonstrated that the country has significant mineral resources including copper, iron ore, marble, lapis lazuli, emeralds, rubies, oil, natural gas and a number of rare earth minerals although the sector’s contribution to GDP is marginal for the moment, at less than 0.3 percent.

China appears to be leading the way, The state-owned Metallurgical Corporation of China, in conjunction with Jiangxi Copper Co, plans to spend US$4.39 billion to tap one of the biggest copper mines in Afghanistan through a joint venture, MCC-JCL Aynak Minerals. It is the largest pledge of foreign direct investment in Afghanistan.

Maybe it will work. But the odds are against a viable, western oriented Afghanistan. It appears much more likely, given the drawbacks delineated in the policy brief, that in the end the Taliban will rule the roost and the women – those few that have discarded them – will be back in the burqas, out of the schools and out of luck.