Afghanistan: A Decade of Progress and Hope?
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I met Taymor  Kamrany in 2003, just over a year after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan had ousted the Taliban. We were both in Kabul, working on a USAID program to improve the environment for business and help government institutions rebuild their capacity to support a market economy. It was not an easy task. I was working with the management and staff of the Export Department of the Ministry of Commerce. Apart from the Head, a man in his fifties who had worked in the ministry throughout all the upheavals of the previous 30 years, no one in the Department could speak any foreign language. Though Afghanistan had once a thriving export economy – until the civil war of the 1990s, it was the world’s largest exporter of raisins, which were the most delicious I have ever eaten – its productive capacity was largely destroyed, its fields strewn with landmines, its best and brightest long ago departed. I was there for just a month, but in spite of these daunting challenges facing the country,  I sensed a lot of optimism among both Afghans and foreigners.

Taymor, an Afghan-American, born in Afghanistan and relocated with his family to the U.S. when he was a small child, was bright, ambitious, idealistic, and very American in demeanor and outlook. Apart from speaking Dari, the main language of Kabul and the northern part of the country, and having some relatives he visited from time to time, he seemed to be little more at home there than I did. After we had each left Afghanistan, I learned that he had entered an MBA program at the University of Southern California, and still later that he was working for one of the Big 4 consulting firms. Then we more or less lost touch. But most people never prune their e-mail address books, so a while ago I received  a broadcast e-mail from Taymor, linking to an article he wrote, which is published on the web site of the Middle East Institute, entitled Afghanistan 2002-2012: A Decade of Progress and Hope. No question mark.

Taymor points to several indicators that “Afghanistan is making a comeback.”  They include an increase in school enrollment from 800,000 to 8.2 million, 40% of them girls; the transformation of the Afghan Army and National Police from a ragtag group of “several thousand disenfranchised individuals in 2001 to well over 300,000 professional soldiers and police today;” GDP growth, according to World Bank estimates, from $2.5 billion in 2001 to $11 billion in 2011; and transformation of Afghan telecommunications and media, all but extinguished under the Taliban, to include “six mobile phone carriers, 75 television channels, over 175 radio stations, and hundreds of print publications;”  the return of skilled, educated, and wealthy Afghans outside the country who returned to invest in productive enterprises; and the commencement of  mining activities with “multi-billion dollar contracts in copper, iron, and natural gas with more to come in the near future.”

He concludes that “These economic developments allow for higher levels of commerce, trade and overall increased tax base for the Central Government. Over time, the increased tax base will, in turn, enable further government spending on infrastructure and higher levels of benefits for the general public, such as health care and pensions for the elderly.”

No doubt  these developments are real, and under normal circumstances they would produce the results Taymor predicts. But circumstances in Afghanistan are anything but normal.

I returned to Kabul in 2008, and it was very different from the place I had visited just five years earlier. This time, I was working on a contract for the British Government, and instead of a comfortable villa in the posh Wazir Akhbar Khan neighborhood where I had previously stayed, I was given a room in a fairly decrepit house in the British Embassy compound. Instead of having meals prepared by a talented Hazara cook, it was English boarding school fare served cafeteria style by Filipino subcontractors. The security situation was markedly worse; in 2003 we were free to move about town on our own, visiting bars, shops, and restaurants, and private parties as wild as anything I had experienced in college. This time my colleagues and I were not allowed out for any of these frivolous purposes, and were encouraged to schedule as many meetings as possible in the embassy compound. When we did travel out it was only to essential meetings and with close protection from former British Army soldiers now working for a private security firm. I did once get invited to dinner and a poker game at the house of some U.S. Government contractors, but I had to give the guards 24 hours’ notice so they could scout out the location in advance, and the next day when I did go, the driver and guard remained in the car inside the gate for the three or four hours I was there. The U.S. contractors, there to provide technical assistance to the Ministry of Finance, were under almost complete lockdown on orders from the U.S. Embassy, unable to go to the Ministry for several weeks.

They, and most members of other Western technical advisory teams, looked and sounded fatigued and unenthusiastic, going through the motions, beaten down by the restrictions on their movement but even more so by a sense of futility, inspired in large part by the all-pervasive corruption. Whatever enthusiasm I had detected in 2003 was long gone. Things may have changed since then, but from my conversations with people who have been there recently, it doesn’t appear so.

More important than the harsh and frustrating conditions experienced by well-paid foreign consultants is the dispiriting news that trickles out of Afghanistan every day. The senior Army and Marines officers who, in a moment of unguarded candor, admit to skepticism about the readiness of the Afghan Army and National Police to defend the country once NATO forces leave.  The more than 130 NATO troops killed in attacks by Afghan soldiers and policemen (NATO’s claim that most of these killings are motivated by personal grievances seems highly improbable). The American dead passing the 2,000 mark, with more coalition troops killed in 2009 alone than in all the years from 2001 through 2007 combined. The sense, to anyone old enough to remember, that our involvement Afghanistan exhibits every sign of ending the same way as our involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia, though with Afghanistan it is hard to look 30 or 40 years ahead and see the kind of relatively happy outcome that those two countries have finally experienced after so much suffering.

Even assuming that the social, economic, and security improvements are real, it is hard to believe they will continue much beyond the departure of the last Marine battalion. According to the World Bank, as reported in The New York Times, 97 % of Afghanistan’s GNP comes from “international military and development aid and spending in the country by foreign troops.” The U.S. and other donors last year pledged $16 billion in development aid through 2015. But with the budgetary constraints facing most of the major donor countries, it would be unsurprising if actual disbursements were far less. The United States will undoubtedly continue to spend money to shore up Afghanistan’s security forces, but how many development contractors and NGOs will stay once their survival depends entirely on the Afghan Army and Police?

I wish Taymor and his family and his country well. It would be heartbreaking to see those parts of Afghanistan that have achieved some genuine progress being yanked back into the 14th century. I would like to see Afghanistan achieve some degree of stability and prosperity, even if it continues to be, apart from a few isolated urban outposts, a far more repressive country than I would want to live in. But I am not optimistic. When the U.S. starts to leave in earnest next year, we should get all the way out, as completely and as quickly as possible. As John Kerry said to a Congressional hearing so many years ago, not long after he returned from fighting in another ill-conceived military adventure, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Posted 05-28-2013 9:23 PM by Charles Krakoff