The News You’ve Been Hearing About Afghanistan Isn’t the Whole Story

February 20, 2014 By Zach Silberman

The news on Afghanistan continues to be dominated by waste and corruption, and speculation around what will happen if the United States withdraws all its troops without a status-of-forces agreement. Last week, USAID pushed back and highlighted progress that’s been made to improve economic growth and civil society.

Important gains in economic growth, education, and women’s equality, among other areas and development and diplomacy have been critical in sustaining progress and preventing future conflict in Afghanistan. Afghans have seen a dramatic increase in their life expectancy from 42 years in 2002 to over 62 now, and maternal mortality rates have declined by 80 percent. While helping to train more than 22,000 health workers, the United States has helped transformed the number of Afghans with access basic health services within an hour of home, from 9 percent in 2001 to over 60 percent today.

And one does not have to look far to see greater freedom and equality for Afghan women and girls. A decade ago, no Afghan girls were afforded educational opportunities, but today nearly 20 percent of Afghans enrolled in higher education are women and there are 3,000 women-owned businesses and associations in Afghanistan. Yet voices on both sides of the aisle like former First Ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton have warned about the risks of losing these gains if the United States withdraws.

In addition to highlighting these gains, USAID announced a $300 million five-year commitment to Afghanistan in workforce training, trade promotion, and increased agricultural production that aim to lay the groundwork for economic growth. USAID’s new initiatives include partnerships with American universities to help Afghan workforce development and a program to improve agricultural production in order to increase food and economic security for Afghan families. These initiatives offer the potential for future private sector investment which will be key to Afghanistan’s development.

Announcing these new initiatives, USAID’s assistant to the administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs Larry Sampler said, “Afghanistan today is important to US interests for the same reasons that it was important to us on the eve of that horrible September 11th in 2001. We know the dangers of turning our back on this part of the world.” He acknowledged the media stories, saying that USAID’s “track record has not been perfect,” but stressed USAID’s commitment to its core values of transparency and accountability, “If we can’t monitor, we won’t do it.”

While the U.S. presence post-2014 is yet to be determined, military and civilian leaders have warned against the consequences of withdrawal. U.S. Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos recently observed, “We can ill afford to simply pull out and go home.” Secretary John Kerry has stressed that “the United States is committed to an enduring partnership with the Afghan people as they seek a secure and democratic nation.” As USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah has argued, the key to Afghanistan will be to “continue to invest in the nation’s long-term development, ensuring the gains we’ve made over the last decade are lasting and meaningful.”

As the U.S. determines its future engagement with Afghanistan, it will be important to find the balance between security and development objectives. Development is especially challenging in post-conflict situations and weak and fragile states, and there should be no illusions about the difficult task ahead. The goal may be long term, but it can be a lasting story.