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Sharif Azami Headshot

Afghanistan Can Use a Strong Dose of Morale Optimism

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The threat for Afghanistan these days is that America will withdraw all assistance and promised aid if the Afghan government does not sign the Bilateral Security Agreement "in weeks, not months." In practical terms, no financial aid and military support means the collapse of the Afghan State and return of the Taliban.

The question that comes to my mind when I see this kind of "we don't care" attitude is that why did America intervene in Afghanistan in the first place if they were to hand it over to its enemies at the end? Why lose so much blood and treasure over a lost cause? These questions particularly disturb me when I interact with Americans who have lost loved ones in hopes to liberate Afghanistan. Among them, one works in my office, and I get to interact with him on daily basis. His son was killed in my hometown Kandahar.

Afghanistan is not a lost cause and America does have substantial interests in the country; otherwise, it would have not intervened there in the first place. It was an intervention of necessity not only because Afghanistan was serving as a global hub for terrorism, but also because America wanted to bring liberty and freedom to a war-torn nation. If there is one war in American history where America could have a positive legacy, it would be the war in Afghanistan. Therefore, America should not put the future of a whole nation at stake for the sake of one agreement.

The world needs to recall the Taliban era of 1994 to 2001 to truly appreciate what Afghans have achieved since 2001. The Taliban era was a medieval-style barbaric government where one man could make laws and serve the so called "justice" instantly without due process. There was no administrative system in place. The whole cabinet of Mullah Omar was limited to his guest house. For ordinary people, this meant living in a giant prison with no rights. You could spend months in a prison for having long hair or daring to shorten your beard. Having access to TV or music was out of question, and if the Taliban wanted to make a point, torture in public was their sole solution to all problems.

When the new era started in late 2001, Afghanistan was a divided nation full of grievances and anger. The atrocities of the Taliban era had especially divided the Pashtun and non-Pashtun ethnic groups. In addition, three decades of war had eliminated Afghanistan's human capital. Almost everyone was illiterate. Those still alive from the king era in the 1970s were among the only educated workforce left, but almost all of them were struggling from mental illnesses due to what they had endured over three decades of war.

In other words, the Afghans started a new government with deep divisions, zero workforce, no institutions, no infrastructure, and a deep-seated insurgency. In addition, Afghanistan had to deal with dozens of NATO-led countries that wanted Afghanistan to be governed based on their terms. The Afghans had no (and could not) influence over foreign assistance or armed forces. This was an excellent opportunity for the war profiteers to rip the benefit of absence of checks and balances in Afghanistan and sell services to the allied forces ten to twenty times higher than what it should have actually cost.

Despite all these challenges in just a little over a decade, Afghanistan is now again a promising home to all Afghans. The Afghan economy was one of the fastest growing economies over the last decade. The country has adopted a new constitution and has active executive, judicial and administrative branches. The security forces have shown good progress. Women enjoy more rights and freedom. Afghanistan has also held two successful presidential, parliamentary and provincial elections. The country once again has diplomatic presence all over the world. According to the Ministry of Education, over seven million Afghans are enrolled in schools today, the country has functioning private and public universities, and thousands of young Afghans are enrolled in universities worldwide. As per the government, over 85 percent of the population has access to communication services, and the banking sector is slowly emerging. Moreover, social media is as active as anywhere else and is playing a key role in mobilizing and informing Afghans about the upcoming presidential and provincial council elections. Importantly enough, the Afghan soccer team won the South Asian Football Federation Championship last year and its cricket team has qualified for the World Cup in 2015.

All of these achievements might sound very basic, but for a country that started well below zero, this is a substantial progress. If one was to compare the pictures of pre-2001 Afghanistan to today, chances are he/she would not identify it as the same country. We need to recognize that Afghanistan is still building the very basic infrastructure to run a state and the country is slowly acquiring skilled workforce direly needed to run a state. It can't be done overnight, and one decade is not close to sufficient. It will be a long journey for Afghanistan to be financially independent. Afghanistan's challenges in terms of instability, week governance and lack of capacity, and corruption will also not disappear overnight. Therefore, the right strategy for Afghanistan would be to appreciate the progress made, stay committed to the work ahead, and remain greatly optimistic.

Instead of further demoralizing Afghans by releasing extremely pessimistic predictions from sixteen U.S. agencies about the country, the United States should offer a bold firm commitment of partnership to Afghanistan in order to demoralize the insurgents, not vice versa. This pessimism hurts progress in Afghanistan more than any other challenges and has had a direct impact on the economy and growth of the insurgents.

If America wants a strong Afghanistan, the priorities for stable Afghanistan are straight forward and cost effective. Among them are 1) first and foremost helping Afghans conduct legitimate elections this year with integrity without tempering with the results; 2) providing state of the art training and equipment to the Afghan armed forces; 3) based on the commitments of the Tokyo and Chicago summits, providing adequate long-term and predicable financial and military support to the Afghan government; and 4) finally helping facilitate a peace deal with the Taliban.