Ten years ago, Afghanistan was a pariah state that stood out on the regional map as a labyrinth of tyranny, terrorism, and isolationism. Today, Afghanistan is a center of international cooperation and mutual endeavor, holding the promise of becoming an oasis of peace that will serve as a land-bridge and a superhighway of prosperity, between Central Asia, South Asia, Middle East, and the Far East.
Afghanistan’s economy, today, is eleven times larger than what it was during the last year of the Taliban rule. During the last decade, Afghanistan has built over 18,000 kilometers of paved roads, thanks to international assistance. And the country will soon embark on building a national railway system, connecting Afghanistan to major ports and markets of the greater Asia. The country is also making progress in attracting foreign investment to develop its mineral resources, worth at least one trillion dollars. In a year, the TAPI Project (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline) will go into construction phase. CASA-1000 (Central Asia-South Asia Power Transmission Line), crossing Afghanistan, will soon be providing power to homes and factories in neighboring Pakistan.
In the realm of politics, Afghanistan has adopted the most liberal constitution in the region and conducted two presidential and parliamentary elections, against all odds. With the gradual institutionalization of democracy, the rights of women and girls have expanded dramatically. And Afghanistan enjoys the region’s freest media, manifest in the mushrooming of private television channels and newspapers that express the different views of people and a growing vibrant civil society.
These achievements notwithstanding, Afghanistan is not out of the woods yet. The country faces a multitude of challenges and threats that, if not attended to, can easily take Afghans back to where they started ten years ago. Security remains tenuous and is constantly threatened by the Taliban with operational sanctuaries in the neighborhood. Even though the Afghan economy has grown, it heavily depends on consumption, lacking the productive base and capacity to make Afghanistan self-reliant, in terms of tax revenues and food security. And drug production further weakens the institutions of governance and rule of law, which direly need human and material resources in order to deliver basic services to the Afghan people.
These significant challenges must be addressed, before the international community can honorably exit Afghanistan. The United States and NATO must not repeat the mistake of leaving the country to its own destiny, as they did after the collapse of the Soviet-backed regime in the 1990s. Afghanistan and its nation-partners must continue to focus their concerted, collective efforts towards consolidating what they have achieved so far. They must take the following steps in order to ensure a smooth and sustainable transition to the Afghan responsibility by the end of 2014.
First, the United States and NATO must continue to increase, train, and equip the Afghan national security forces to the point where they can assume the full responsibility of providing security for Afghan citizens. The Taliban, who indiscriminately kill innocent Afghans and destroy their property, are protected, trained, and equipped outside Afghanistan. Their terrorist safe-havens must be destroyed; or international agreements and arrangements must be secured to effectively enforce inviolability of Afghanistan’s borders.
Second, the Afghan economy faces serious long-term, structural problems. This is reflected in the current high rate of chronic unemployment among the youth, which, according to some estimates, hovers around 38 percent. To avoid an economic crisis in 2014 and following the exit of most of international forces from Afghanistan, a detailed economic action plan must be adopted. The plan must focus on Afghanistan’s seven development priorities: expanding productive capacity, revitalizing the agriculture sector, developing mineral resources, restoring rural livelihoods, enhancing food security, advancing human and social indicators, and expanding trade and investment. The upcoming Bonn Conference will focus on the economic aspects of the transition process and draw a roadmap for dealing with the key economic challenges that could derail and jeopardize the success of this process.
Third, being a land-locked country, Afghanistan is heavily dependent on its neighbors for economic survival. Integration of the Afghan economy with regional economies will not only promote growth and stability in Afghanistan, it will also contribute to regional economic development. And for economic integration to happen, Afghanistan’s immediate and far neighbors must develop the confidence and political will to allow economic interests take precedence over the out-dated geo-strategic considerations that have hampered true regional integration to date.
Lastly, long-term partnerships, which the international community will be willing to develop and maintain with Afghanistan, are the key to ensuring Afghanistan’s secure future. Two reasons stand out in this regard: First, these long-term partnerships assure Afghans that they will not be abandoned after 2014, thus preserving and strengthening their will to stand their ground and continue the fight against the Taliban. Second, long-term partnership with the United States and other major world and regional powers convince Afghanistan’s enemies that their hope of winning in the country is groundless and impractical.
Shaida M. Abdali is the Deputy National Security Advisor of Afghanistan and Special Assistant to President Karzai.