The Untold Story of Afghan Progress
By Saad Mohseni
The conventional wisdom about Afghanistan runs something like this: The country is a lost cause. Almost nothing has changed. The people remain backward and thankless, and there is little benefit for the international community to stay engaged in the country’s future.
This is far from the truth. Despite many years of conflict, Afghanistan has exhibited dramatic signs of economic, social and cultural revival. The country has undergone such extraordinary change since 9/11 that a return to the dark period of the Taliban is unfathomable.
One source of the misconception about my country is the Afghan government’s combative relationship with the international community. But the government doesn’t reflect the views of the public. Most people in Afghanistan remain strongly supportive of international engagement and widely approve of the presence of troops from other countries.
With a population of 35.3 million, according to the World Bank, Afghanistan is a young nation. The median age is 17, and 60% of the people are under age 20. This generation is like no other in the country’s history. Today, there are over eight million children enrolled in schools—and 2.6 million of those students are girls. In 2001, the nation’s classrooms seated only 900,000 boys and practically no girls. The literacy rate is currently 33% and is set to grow to 60% by 2025 and to 90% by 2040.
Afghans are living longer, too, and will be around to see their children join the global community and change their country. Life expectancy, stuck at 40-odd years for decades, has jumped beyond 60, thanks to Afghan and international efforts to improve access to health care. According to the Afghan Ministry of Health, in 2003 there were just 450 health facilities in Afghanistan, including hospitals. Now there are more than 1,800. The infant mortality rate has been cut in half and is now down to 97 deaths per 1,000 live births.
Equally remarkable is the urbanization of what had been a largely rural population. Kabul, the capital, ranks as the fifth-fastest-growing city in the world. In 1990 Kabul was home to 1.2 million people; by 2025 it is projected by the U.N. to reach seven million. The new urban-rural ratio, about 50-50, has contributed greatly to women’s participation in the workforce as well as to increasing number of girls receiving an education. City dwellers are letting go of tribal and sectarian links and embracing a more universal Afghan identity.
Afghans increasingly are on the grid, on the go, and connected. Access to regular electricity has nearly tripled to 18% over the past decade. In 2002, there were only about 32 miles of paved road in the entire country. Thanks to international donors, well over 7,450 miles now join our cities. New international airports in Kabul, Kandahar and Herat, and airlines such as Safi are taking our citizens across the world, with seven flights daily to Dubai alone.
People are also flying from Dubai to Afghanistan, which was named the third-ranking destination for travelers from the emirate, attracting almost 400,000 passengers a year, just behind Kuwait and Qatar.
Other unmistakable signs of modernization: The economy has grown to $20 billion today from $2 billion in 2001. Two-thirds of the population, about 20 million people, uses mobile phones; 60% regularly watch television; and 95% listen to the radio. This is all the more extraordinary given that Afghanistan in 2001 had only 10,000 fixed telephone lines and no other electronic media.
Media and telecommunications have done much to spur political and social change. News programming helps keep Afghan government institutions and politicians accountable to public opinion, while sitcoms, soap operas and other entertainment programming address traditional social taboos and provide an outlet for pent-up frustrations.
The country’s greatest achievement is its democratic process. Many forget that Afghanistan is preparing for its third complete cycle of presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2015—thanks in part to the continued engagement of the international community. The political process, flawed at times, is nevertheless allowing the country to develop as a modern nation.
Challenges remain. The corruption and ineptitude in many parts of the Afghan government, alongside the insurgency—which is widely known to be financed and orchestrated by meddling regional players—have both done much to contribute to a sense of doom and gloom, especially in the West. Ironically, the international community, by serving as the Afghan government’s funder, has also slipped into the role of its defender and apologist.
Yet Afghans have an opportunity to press the reset button in 2014. That reset is crucial, for Afghanistan’s future stability rests on a peaceful transition of power through credible presidential elections next year. Any underhandedness could trigger a series of events that would divide the nation.
As for talks with the Taliban, encouraged by some in the U.S. government, they have yet to deliver anything of substance. The insurgents themselves, despite the weakness of the Kabul government, remain very unpopular. Their approval rating, measured by the BBC and by other polls over the years, has consistently come in at under 10% nationally, with less than 30% even in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar.
The international community must not impose this failed and despised movement on the Afghan nation. Any peace deal with the insurgency needs to evolve organically, be led by Afghans and take into account the wishes of the majority of the people.
Today’s Afghanistan is a modernizing nation, connected by thousands of miles of roads, airwaves and the Internet. With all the improvements in education, health and living standards, the young men and women of my country regard the progress of the past decade as the foundation for an even brighter future.
And with the selection of a new government in 2014, the people just might stay on the path they chose in 2001. The world must not give up on Afghanistan now.
Mr. Mohseni is the chairman of MOBY Group, Afghanistan’s largest media group with additional holdings in the Middle East and South and Central Asia.