It is undeniable that, as Afghanistan prepares for elections on April 5 and the end of the international combat mission in December, the country faces enormous challenges. A successful election, an agreement signed for maintenance of a residual international force by a newly elected government, continued economic growth, and Afghan military and police forces properly supported in their fight against the Taliban may persuade the insurgents that perpetual war is not the answer. To form an accurate assessment it is essential to review certain, often ignored facts.
• Despite Taliban attacks on Afghan civilians, soldiers and police officers, the resilience shown by the Afghan National Security Forces, ANSF, in fighting the extremists has been impressive.
• Despite endemic poverty, Afghanistan reported greater improvement in human development between 2002 and 2012 than any other country in the world, as measured by the United Nations.
• President Hamid Karzai has expressed anger to the US government, but many Afghans recognize that their progress has been made possible not only by their own sacrifice but also by the terrible costs paid by Americans and allies.
Any judgment about the situation should start by recalling what's been achieved in Afghanistan.
In 2002, an estimated 900,000 boys were in school and virtually no girls. Today, 10.5 million Afghan students are enrolled in school, nearly 40 percent of them girls. The number of teachers has increased from 20,000 in 2002 to more than 175,000 today; 30 percent are women. Access to basic health services has risen from 9 percent in 2001 to more than 60 percent today. Life expectancy for Afghans has increased by more than 20 years since 2002, from about 42 years to over 62 years. Afghanistan's GDP has grown about 9 percent annually since 2002. In 2001, there was one mobile phone company with 21,000 subscribers. Today, four companies have more than 16 million subscribers. In 2002, the country had 50 kilometers of paved road; today there are nearly 2,500 kilometers of paved roads, giving 80 percent of the population greater access to markets, schools, clinics and government services.
Social indicators are impressive, too: Women-owned businesses and associations today number more than 3,000. There are three women out of 25 cabinet ministers, and 68 of the 249 seats in the National Assembly are held by women. Female voters account for nearly 35 percent of new voter registrations. Afghanistan has more than 50 television stations, 150 radio broadcasters and 1,000 newspapers; 472,000 Afghans are on Facebook, and 80 percent of women have access to a mobile phone.
Afghanistan, of course, still faces profound challenges including corruption, poverty, the need for stronger governance and security, and the many issues that stand in the way of real empowerment and protection of women and girls. But Afghanistan is not the same country it was in 2001, and Afghans seem ready to fight for what they have achieved at such great cost. For those sitting in Kabul, the question about the current situation would be: "Does the United States and the rest of the international community have the patience and the courage to support us in our fight?"
Here are five considerations regarding Afghanistan:
First, what will happen election day? Afghans and those who wish them well want an election outcome in which the majority of Afghans will consider their new leader legitimate. As the current US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador James Dobbins, told a Washington audience in February, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, or IEC, has shown growing capacity in preparing for the April 5 poll. Millions of new voters have been registered, largely without incident. The ANSF is working with the IEC to provide security for the thousands of polling places. Domestic and international election observers will monitor the voting.
If Afghans can produce the first peaceful and democratic transfer of presidential power in Afghan history, this will do much to solidify the gains made over the last 12 years and show all Afghans - and especially the Taliban spthat the rule of law matters.
Second, a US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement, or BSA, needs to be signed so that the United States, its allies, friends and partners can leave a robust force in Afghanistan after the end of the international combat mission in December to continue combating extremism and training the ANSF. It's also crucial that the United States and our international partners meet the financial commitments made at the NATO Summit in Chicago in May 2012 to support the ANSF. The BSA should have been signed months ago, but Karzai has refused. The US administration has made the sensible decision to wait until the new president is inaugurated; all presidential candidates have said they would sign the BSA if elected.
Third, the private sector continues to promote economic growth. More than 16,000 new businesses were registered between 2004 and 2011 in Afghanistan. While the international community pledged a long-term commitment to aiding Afghanistan at a conference in Tokyo in July 2012, international taxpayers cannot meet Afghanistan's needs forever. The US can keep the region focused on a "New Silk Road," private-sector focused, designed to connect Central Asian economies with South Asian economies with Afghanistan and Pakistan in the center, where all can benefit first from transit trade and foreign direct investment. Future international assistance programs should focus on support for Afghan entrepreneurs, especially women.
Fourth, creating an Afghan peace process may still be possible. Among the first jobs for a new Afghan president will be assessing the possibilities of pursuing a peace process with the Taliban. The Taliban, in turn, will make their own judgment. If they see a successful election, a signed BSA, a robust residual force, continued economic growth, an ANSF willing and able to fight, Mullah Omar and his followers may finally recognize that perpetual war is not the answer. The United States can continue to play the role promoting a peace process identified by Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, in her speech at the Asia Society in February 2011: to try opening the door for Afghans to talk to other Afghans about the future of Afghanistan.
Finally, a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan can only exist in a secure, stable and prosperous region. The regional effort to support Afghanistan, begun at a conference of Kabul's neighbors in Istanbul in 2011, has made progress, but continued energy and focus is needed. Pakistan also has a vital role to play in supporting an Afghan peace process, including by denying safe haven to the Afghan Taliban. Pakistanis increasingly recognize that the threat to them is from the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, and that is why they have taken recent military action against the group even as they explore peace talks. Peace, prosperity and stability in Afghanistan are to Pakistan's benefit; chaos benefits the TTP.
Americans and Europeans are tired of this conflict, but know that terrorists could once again make a lawless or forgotten Afghanistan a base from which to attack the United States or other countries. Afghans know they face enormous problems, but have made remarkable progress. What most honors the enormous sacrifices made since 2001 is for the world to show patience and courage and support Afghans in their fight to secure the future.