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Road to recovery in Afghanistan goes through the countryside

As NATO troops prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014, donor countries must rethink their aid to that war-torn country. Edward Girardet, who has reported on Afghanistan for more than 30 years, writes that they must focus on rural areas, where most Afghans live.

By Edward Girardet / November 29, 2011


When the West first intervened in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, experienced aid coordinators, journalists, and diplomats had some simple advice:

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Don’t get carried away with wasteful military campaigns or a Sisyphean anti-narcotics drive. They contribute little to long-term peace. To help Afghanistan, focus instead on modest but doable development initiatives in the countryside, where nearly 80 percent of Afghans live.

This largely ignored advice still holds, as high-level delegations gather in Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 5 to consider the way forward in Afghanistan, which has suffered from more than three decades of war. It’s a critical time as NATO-led security forces seek to transition toward 2014, when most troops are expected to leave.

Western and Afghan leaders first met in this German town a decade ago to kick-start a proposed “Marshall Plan” for the reconstruction of this largely impoverished mountainous and desert country.

And yet, at their peril, many nations involved in the “Bonn process” often sought to impose their own agendas – through arrogance or a poor understanding of the situation on the ground. These agendas largely failed to take into account the interests of Afghans.

They have led not only to a disastrous war but also a recovery effort with only limited impact. Afghanistan has reached “a permanent condition of rottenness,” says Anders Fange, the respected former head of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan.

The question now is whether the international community will have the imagination – and commitment – to remedy the situation. As it stands, the coalition death toll – more than 2,800 – is fast approaching the number of people who perished in 9/11, while insurgents are operating in areas where they never did before.

True, the donors have helped bring about improvements, such as schooling for 7 million children, one third of them girls. Another 7 million, however, have yet to benefit from education. In many areas, health care is far better than 10 years ago, but many Afghans still don’t have even basic health services.

Various initiatives, such as paved roads and 24-hour electricity, have enhanced life in Kabul and other cities, and urban women can study at university or work outside the home. More than a quarter of the country’s parliament now consists of women, one of the highest ratios in the world.

However, for the majority of Afghans, especially in rural areas where many suffer from malnutrition and hunger, there is enormous frustration, even anger. Many wonder where the billions of dollars of aid money have gone. In certain parts, change has been brought about by cross-border trade and private investment, not development support.

Washington has yet to recognize that by allowing US military interests to dictate policy for the past decade, it has heavily undermined the recovery process. Numerous Afghans regard NATO forces as the “new occupation.” But they also fear the insurgents, who have infiltrated government ministries, including the army and police. Civilian casualties, the majority of them rebel-inflicted, are up compared to last year.


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