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The issue is not just security

As the US prepares to withdraw,Afghanistan must brace for many transitions

Written by Ajay Chhibber |
June 22, 2013 5:55:59 am

As the US prepares to withdraw,Afghanistan must brace for many transitions

The recently announced negotiations with the Taliban and President Hamid Karzai’s reaction once again puts the future of Afghanistan in the spotlight. There is intense interest in security,and talks about security. Equally important are issues of how to improve people’s livelihoods and basic services such as water,roads,electricity,justice and the rule of law. These issues will determine how the Afghan people react to the changing political and security landscape.

Despite the gloom and doom news from Afghanistan,there are many positives. Over two million children,including girls,regularly attend school. Connectivity has improved,with more than 14 million cellphone users. Budgetary systems are improving to ensure better accountability and delivery of public services. Yet huge challenges remain.

The effort to improve local government must be accelerated. In the decade between the two Bonn conferences,much was done to build national institutions in Kabul. When it came to building local government,however,donor impatience led to shortcuts. Each donor selected a province to set up its own provincial reconstruction team (PRT) and deliver assistance. The hard slog to build effective local government seemed time-consuming and difficult. Setting up a PRT with visible results was much easier. Now,as foreign troops withdraw,we’re dealing with the same issue — the rebuilding of local government infrastructure without which delivery of services isn’t possible.

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The likelihood of a sharp drop in aid post-2014 occupies attention. But even current levels of promised assistance are not flowing through. A mutual accountability pact made in Tokyo pledged around $4 billion per year in assistance to Afghanistan,but less than 50 per cent of that has been delivered.

Part of the problem is the lack of expertise at the local level to efficiently use assistance,which will require a build-up of local government. A related issue is that the excess of experienced personnel in key ministries and departments has created a parallel civil service. The challenge is to dismantle this parallel structure to create a sustainable Afghan-led civil service,while retaining talented people.

There is an important need to create employment for a young and rapidly growing population. A majority of Afghanistan’s population depends on agriculture,and revitalising agricultural growth remains the largest source of job-creation and improving livelihoods. In the past,significant emphasis was placed on inputs such as irrigation,fertiliser and seeds. Not enough focus has been given to understanding the supply chain,encouraging agro-processing,and finding markets for agricultural products. Much attention has turned to Afghanistan’s mining potential. Efforts to develop a mining law and an investment framework have been progressing,but developing mining takes time and huge investments will only happen once peace is established.


Afghanistan might also consider a cash-for-work scheme focused on road maintenance,reforestation,and basic urban and municipal infrastructure. Schemes for youth,focused on skills-training,sports and civic culture are also crucial.

Kabul is the fastest growing city in the world as refugees return from abroad,and people migrate from the countryside. Given the lack of well-established property rights and insufficient services,there remains a large,vulnerable population that shuffles around the city,creating a huge challenge for government and a sense of insecurity. Without jobs,no security is possible.

There has been a heavy emphasis on building and strengthening the Afghan security forces. But not enough focus on justice and the rule of law. This leaves a vacuum,especially in remote areas. The Taliban has gained acceptability in some parts of the country by providing a sort of rough and ready justice. If people are to reject the Taliban,they must experience an alternative that is credible,predictable and fair under the rule of law. The UNDP managed Law and Order Trust Fund must be used,not just for order,but also to build infrastructure for the provision of law.


A visible and vital symbol of a credible transition will be the conduct of the 2014 presidential elections,and subsequent parliamentary and local elections. People will want to see an electoral system that can deliver a reasonably clean election and withstand the tests it will face. Women’s ability to vote and play an equal part in politics will be carefully watched. The UN is working closely with the Independent Election Commission to develop such a system — but as political manoeuvrings intensify as elections get closer,a united international community must be prepared to provide financial assistance and ensure key players stay firm on their commitments for a free and fair election.

A landlocked country,Afghanistan has always prospered when it has been a bridge across regions — with China and Central Asia to the north and east,with India and Pakistan to the south,and with the Near East to its west. Therefore,regional cooperation must form a core of any strategy of economic development for Afghanistan.

With the prospects of improved India-Pakistan relations,any trade agreement between them would be a huge boon for Afghanistan as it would pave the way to the large and growing Indian market. It would also open the possibility of the much-discussed TAPI energy corridor. Likewise,entry into Central Asia and China,along the Silk Route,offers Afghanistan a huge trade potential.

If these challenges are overcome,we can see more progress on economic and social development,and a better framework for security too.

The writer is UN assistant secretary-general,UNDP assistant administrator,and director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific

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First published on: 22-06-2013 at 05:55:59 am
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