As NATO's role in Afghanistan was debated in Bucharest recently, the bad headlines continued rolling in: a resurgent Taliban, rising attacks on civilians, rampant government corruption, record opium production. And yet, on the ground, there is equally compelling evidence that the efforts of the international community are making a difference and conditions are improving.
A few weeks ago in Kabul we observed innumerable signs of progress. Construction is booming in the cities. New major roads have been built. Markets are full of goods, with small and large shops sprouting up everywhere. Four telecom companies and four commercial airlines are operating and competing for business.
Yet progress in Afghanistan is a study in contrasts. Progress is substantial in the north, limited in the south. The north shows that positive results may be obtained, but extending them will not happen without sustained effort on the part of the international community.
One bright spot is Istalif, a mountain village famous for its pottery. Russian bombing severely damaged the town in the 1980s. The Taliban destroyed what remained, emptying it of residents. On our way in, we saw new gas stations, shops that sold locally produced goods, ads for cellphone service and, most important, new power lines that will soon import electricity from neighboring Uzbekistan to help light up Kabul.
Istalif has been at peace for the past five years, and most villagers have returned. The mountain road is open, most homes have been rebuilt, the potters are back in business, and new schools are operating. Some girls are attending the local high school — rare in an Afghan village. Irrigation systems paid for by a foreign donor reroute the desperately needed water to orchards and vineyards, and a small hydroelectric power plant has been built. This is an example of what peace and development aid can bring to this poor nation.
The news from the south is more sobering. The bloodiest year for the coalition was 2007, and Afghan security forces, with losses of 232 coalition soldiers — half of them American, half from other NATO nations. The pace of development and construction has been slow or non-existent. Afghanistan produces 93 percent of world's opium. In Helman province, poppy is virtually the only crop grown. A recent U.N. report highlights Taliban taxation of the poppy as one of the key factors that fuels the insurgency.
The government is not present in three of Helmand's provincial districts and has only limited presence in the remaining 10. What is present is corrupt and ineffective. The Taliban have taken advantage to set up quasi-government structures and a court system to enforce their version of the Sharia law, including beheadings and amputations. In response, the coalition forces and Afghan Army are more forcefully fighting the insurgents.
The success of Istalif can be duplicated. Insurgents should be engaged through joint operations with the Afghan National Army, securing the local population, and infusing the local economy with sustainable development by creating jobs and infrastructure.
Sustained efforts are also required by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and NATO — in a united front with the Afghan government — to develop a multiyear, well-resourced political, military and economic roadmap.
The first destination on that map might well be the government institutions of Afghanistan. They need to become trusted agents of the Afghan people. This includes reforming the police corps and judicial system — efforts that could draw from the increasingly more capable Afghan National Army. Diplomacy with Pakistan needs to accelerate to find ways to deny insurgents a safe haven. And the poppy problem needn't be intractable; start by purging the plant's profiteers from positions of power.
Many lessons have been learned over six years, since the initial international engagement. A more comprehensive approach is now clearly required. As one Afghan security guard observed to us, “If the richest and most powerful countries in the world can't help this poor nation, God help us all!”
Obaid Younossi, who grew up in Afghanistan, is a senior researcher at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization. Peter Dahl Thruelsen is a fellow with the Royal Danish Defence College.
This commentary originally appeared in Providence Journal on April 29, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.