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Taliban insurgents © Galuna.com News

Was it worth investing in Afghanistan?

Can we compare an Afghanistan of beheadings and torture to today’s? Mr. Shafiq Hamdam looks at the Afghanistan he has seen. He concedes it’s not yet perfect. But concludes that it’s come a long way.

I was born and raised during a critical period of Afghan history. I have witnessed many things throughout the last three decades in Afghanistan. I witnessed horrible bloodshed and genocide in the capital city Kabul. As a student, I witnessed the discrimination and torture of people in public and looked on hopelessly as people were beheaded.

The Taliban regime was the worst era of Afghan history. Millions of people were displaced or emigrated. Thousands of people were killed. And Afghans were losing hope.

Then 9/11 happened. The attacks were a tragedy for the United States and the West. But for Afghans, who suffered the most at the hands of the Taliban and al Qaida, it represented an unlikely opportunity.

In October 2001, when the US and its allies engaged in a military campaign in Afghanistan, the hopes of Afghans blossomed. I was living in Jalalabad, a city in eastern Afghanistan, a few miles away from the al Qaida stronghold of Tora Bora. I was one of the many young Afghans who supported the campaign.

The US-led and Afghan-backed mission succeeded in removing the Taliban, al Qaida and their foreign allies within six weeks.

After the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan started from scratch. After three decades of war, the infrastructure and government system had completely collapsed. This was not reconstruction, it was construction of everything from the foundations. In the last ten years, Afghanistan has grown to where it is today, a country with social, cultural, political, economic and security achievements.

Freedom on the march

During the Taliban regime, free media, freedom of speech and other communication tools were forbidden. As a student, I was interested in kids magazines and had to smuggle them in. But today we have thousands of print publications, over 75 active TV channels and more than 175 radio stations; an unbelievable achievement.

When the Taliban famously destroyed the 1700-year-old sandstone Buddhas of Bamiyan statues, I argued against it in an article. I was expelled from university and imprisoned. I was lucky to be released - largely because I didn’t admit to writing the critical article.

The Taliban regime was recognised by only three countries. Today most countries officially recognise Afghanistan. It has 56 diplomatic missions around the world and bilateral and strategic ties with several countries.

While there are complaints today about Afghan governance and democracy, we must remember that the Taliban established a dictatorial Emirate. Now, Afghanistan has a constitution, a democratically elected president and cabinet, an elected parliament and provincial councils, of which 25% are women.

A lot remains to be done to empower civil society. But let’s not forget that the Taliban era closed political parties, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and civil society organisations. Now, we have hundreds of them.

Building a new country

While we previously did not have standard roads and highways, today thousands of kilometres of roads and highways have been reconstructed and paved.

Thousands of schools - which were closed by the Taliban - have been reopened. Today, according to the Afghan Ministry of Education, over 8 million Afghan boys and girls go to school. Ten years ago, this number was roughly half a million – and almost exclusively boys. This means that more than a quarter of Afghans are receiving an education.

Afghan girls now have access to education. Prior to 2001, roughly half a million Afghans had access to education - almost exclusively boys. Today, almost 8.3 million Afghan boys and girls go to school. © Nomad Photos

Bridges and dams destroyed by the Taliban have been rebuilt. Hundreds of clinics and hospitals have been constructed.

Five major telecommunications companies have connected millions of Afghans with the rest of the world through mobile phones and the internet. We now have a functioning banking system and massive investment in the mining sector.

Millions of children across the country are getting vaccinated against epidemic diseases and some 80% of the population has access to basic health services.

The National Development Strategy finalised in 2008 has laid the foundation for the development of Afghanistan. In 2001, we had an income per capita of $150. Today that figure is $600. Our GDP has increased from $3 billion to $18 billion. Afghanistan has joined all regional economic forums. Trade between Afghanistan and neighbouring countries has increased to $2.5 billion per year.

Security, security, security

After the Taliban regime, mujihadeen militias were the biggest threat. But as part of the successful UN-led disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme, I have witnessed mujihadeen militias - and many Taliban - disarmed and reintegrated into the community.

Over the last ten years, I have witnessed impressive achievements in the security sector. The Taliban era ousted the military and police system and implemented a militia system. When the Northern Alliance came to Kabul, they did not have an organised army or police. So the Afghan government, with the support of NATO and the European Union, started from scratch. Today we have a 305,000-strong army and police force which represent all ethnicities and tribal groups of Afghanistan.

The Afghan National Security Forces are growing in numbers and improving in quality. Today roughly 305,000 Afghan personnel, representing all ethnicities and tribal groups, are filling the ranks of the army and police force. © NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are not as well equipped as Afghans would like. Nonetheless, they are growing not only in quantity, but also in quality. They have shown impressive achievements in fighting terrorists and protecting Afghan citizens.

But the insurgency has not been eliminated. Over the last ten years of war, thousands of innocent Afghans have been killed or wounded by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and suicide bombs. Thousands more have been displaced. But the number of international troops and Afghan National Security Forces has increased as Afghanistan moves to take control of security country-wide by 2014.

Transition is not just a process, it is about pride. It is about ownership, responsibility and authority. Every nation values ownership and sovereignty. Transition will bring that to Afghans, who have always rightfully dreamt of being the masters of their land.

A female member of the Afghan National Security Forces. © Nomad Photos

Transition is something that has taken away the false propaganda of insurgents, who called Afghanistan an occupied country. By announcing the transition process, the Afghan government has proven that Afghanistan is not an occupied country; it is a free and independent country, which can decide what is in its own interests.

Afghanistan has begun to re-emerge as a country for all Afghans. After more than three decades of conflict, they have started to believe in a better future.

I think we have adequate time for the completion of transition and I believe that by the end of it, we will have the necessary security forces to protect Afghanistan.

Transition is what Afghans have asked for; this is the process that the people need. We cannot depend on the international troops forever; like every other country we have to be self-sustaining and take responsibility as the owners of our future.

With reconciliation and reintegration, the pledges of alliance countries, the partnerships with NATO, the US and other regional countries, I believe that after 2014, we will have a safer and better Afghanistan.

To achieve a successful transition, the international community should also think of civil society and political parties. Because the needs of Afghans are not those of a militarised country - but of a democratic country with a strong civil society and broad political representation.

However, these gains are not guaranteed; the government is not strong enough yet. Weak governance, narcotics, unresolved issues with neighbouring countries, poverty and, above all, corruption will remain huge challenges. These are the issues that need to be addressed.

To achieve a successful transition, the international community should also think of civil society and political parties. Because the needs of Afghans are not those of a militarised country - but of a democratic country with a strong civil society and broad political representation.

So if the strategies and policies are carried out properly and are based on the needs of Afghans, coupled together with strong Afghan leadership, I am sure that a future Afghanistan will be able to repay the international community by contributing to international peace and security.

I would like to ask every reader some questions about the investments made in Afghanistan. Do you think there was a change in Afghanistan? Do you think there have been improvements in development, human rights, governance and democracy in Afghanistan? Overall, do you think you have a safer world compared to 2001?

Like me, I hope you will say “yes!” Today’s Afghanistan is not a threat to any country. It is way more developed than the Afghanistan of ten years ago.

Even with all these challenges and issues, the insecurity, poverty and other things which people complain about, I ask: can you even compare today’s Afghanistan with the Afghanistan of ten years ago? My answer, at least, is a resounding “no!”.

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the Author

Shafiq Hamdam, an Afghan citizen, is the Media and Country Advisor to the NATO Senior Civilian Representative's Office in Kabul.

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