Afghanistan’s Age of Transformation
The Afghanistan of today would surprise most outsiders, even those who closely follow developments in the country. We are often wrongly branded as a failing state with a struggling government whose young people are fleeing en masse for Europe and whose military has lost control of the security situation. While anecdotal evidence can always be found to lend isolated support to such claims, this sweeping characterization offers a distorted picture of reality.
Afghans have always valued and cherished their freedom and sovereignty, as evidenced by our years of fighting off foreign and domestic enemies who sought to take both. Now we are reaching for new goals: freedom from dependence on foreign aid, freedom from corruption, freedom from outdated thinking that justifies the oppression of half our population, and freedom from sclerotic bureaucracy that prevents everything from citizens’ access to justice to the smooth functioning of a free market. Afghans overwhelmingly want a modern, sustainable, and self-reliant country whose government serves and is accountable to its people.
Yes, the past 15 years have seen war, but they have also produced remarkable growth. Afghan society is thriving, which is a testament to the incredible resilience of the Afghan people. You might be familiar with the progress Afghanistan has made in the areas of education and on women’s rights, but there have also been advances in health, infrastructure, in media and telecommunication, and in sports and culture. 2001 to 2016 has been a time of hardship and sacrifice, but also one of innovation and hope.
Today, 25 percent of our cabinet ministers are women, and there are scores of female deputy ministers, ambassadors, district governors, members of parliament, and civil servants. Afghan telecommunication companies cover some 90 percent of the population, which has an estimated 20 million cell phone users. Our media sector is thriving and can rightly be called the freest in the region.
When President Ashraf Ghani—a former World Bank economist with an expertise in the causes of and solutions for fragile states—and CEO Abdullah Abdullah led the National Unity Government to power less than two years ago, their first priority was to diagnose the nature and size of the myriad problems facing the country. Then President Ghani designed a strategic roadmap of reforms to take Afghanistan forward. When that plan, “Realizing Self Reliance,” was presented in November 2014 to Afghanistan’s partners, funders, and allies, it was enthusiastically endorsed.
Today, Afghanistan is 18 months into an era of unprecedented, sweeping changes—an era President Ghani has named “the transformation decade.” The government is taking innovative approaches to solving Afghanistan’s unique problems, as seen in its national priority programs such as the Citizen’s Charter and the Economic Empowerment Plan for Rural Women. There are early, promising results everywhere you look.
Infrastructure projects for roads, rail, and electric and fiber optic connectivity are underway. Public finance has been improved through aggressive anti-corruption measures, with internal revenue increasing by a record breaking 22 percent in 2015. The customs and revenue departments, where corrupt practices have traditionally thrived, have undergone sweeping changes that have sent revenues to historic highs. Our new Procurement Commission reviews all contracts and has saved hundreds of millions of dollars for the government. We are rediscovering and reinvesting in the revival of our ancient past with the launch of the new cultural heritage trust fund this year.
Last November, Afghanistan was accepted as a member of the World Trade Organization and is now taking strong steps to improve its ranking in the World Bank’s Doing Business Indicators, such as a new office in the Ministry of Commerce and Industries to monitor how reforms to reduce obstacles for business are being implemented on the ground, and streamline licensing procedures.
The “Jobs for Peace” program that took effect late last year in 12 provinces is already providing food security for nearly 100,000 families by creating 5.5 million labor days. Eventually, it will cover all 34 provinces of Afghanistan, and is already performing above expectations.
Highlights of major regional economic development deals that have been closed in the last 18 months include the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which will bring Afghanistan thousands of jobs and $400 million annually, and the four-nation Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA 1000).
This progress is all the more remarkable when you consider that in the short span of just one year—between the end of 2013 and the end of 2014—Afghanistan underwent cataclysmic changes. Following our first peaceful democratic transition of power in history, we installed an untested new form of government led by former rivals who agreed to come together for the benefit of the country, and our brave national security forces assumed full responsibility for national security despite lacking close air support, available medevac, and other essential capabilities.
We also managed to make these gains against some steep odds that continue to work against us. Afghanistan’s economy has yet to recover from the crisis caused by the departure of more than 600,000 foreign military personnel and contractors, which sent revenue plunging and unemployment soaring to 40 percent. We have struggled to implement sweeping governance reforms and address urgent citizen needs while being constrained by budget austerity measures. And we continue to fight a war against two enemies simultaneously, the Taliban and Daesh.
But despite the grim headlines that emphasize enemy attacks, our security forces have exceeded expectations, risking and losing their lives in a fight we did not ask for against invading militant groups who threaten not just Afghanistan, but the region and rest of the world.
Throughout our journey toward self-reliance, a key element of our continued success will be the strength and endurance of key partnerships, particularly with the United States. Our international partners, including the United States and NATO, have pledged to maintain a significant troop level to train, assist, and advise our security forces at least through 2017. This is invaluable support because it gives the government the breathing room it needs to solve urgent problems that, when remedied, will mean a more stable country. The Afghan people and government are grateful for the continued friendship of the United States and for the fact that both our nations realize that we are united against a shared threat. We honor everyone who has made the ultimate sacrifice in this fight.
A captain in the United States Navy who served with the British Royal Marines in Afghanistan once told me that the greatest show of appreciation we can make for that sacrifice is to protect and build on the progress and freedoms for which so many troops fought, died, and were wounded. And so we are.
Fiscal independence is a top priority. We need to create more employment opportunities for Afghans so they can be prosperous inside the country, instead of risking their lives trying to find better lives that are not likely to materialize in Europe. Despite gains in women’s participation in all facets of society, it is completely unacceptable that many women still face the threat of violence and are discriminated against with impunity. More girls need to be in school, laying the foundation to pursue their dreams later in life. Peace is urgently needed, but we acknowledge that the process of achieving sustainable security is long, complex, and requires much more than just reconciliation with insurgent groups. Our government institutions need much more reform so that they are efficient, effective, and transparently in service to the Afghan people.
Fortunately, we have a formidable engine for our momentum: Afghanistan’s massive, energetic youth population. Three-quarters of Afghans are under the age of 35, and although this generation has known only war and violence their whole lives, they are not cynical and pessimistic. Rather, they are determined to break with the past and change Afghanistan’s story. They are educated, ambitious, and they want peace and prosperity for themselves and their families. In business, education, government, civil society, and culture, they are pushing boundaries of “what is” and leading us forward to “what can be.”
Afghanistan has only just started its transformation. The world should not doubt that we are determined to finish it.
Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the United States