Getting Ahead

02.11.14

To See the Progress in Afghanistan, Stop Viewing the Country Through a Western Lens

In Afghanistan, real progress has been made but it’s lost in the news about corruption and the Taliban. To build on the progress, the West needs more realistic goals for the country.

The White House has proposed a new 5-year, $300 million economic aid package for Afghanistan, despite the immense uncertainty surrounding the country as it heads into a Presidential election and the withdrawal of NATO troops this year. The new aid money is only a small fraction of what has already been spent but it’s a potent reminder that the United States’ investment in Afghanistan is far from over, even though the war is winding down. Having invested and continuing to invest so much in Afghanistan, it is important to take fair stock of what has been accomplished, and set the right expectations moving forward.

Economic progress in Afghanistan is an understated success story, too often overshadowed by the intransigence of the Taliban. According to World Bank estimates, from 2003 through 2012, Afghanistan sustained a real GDP growth average of 9.2 percent, climbing to 11.8 percent in 2013. Since 2002, the number of children enrolled in school has gone from 1 million to 7.8 million, with the number of girls jumping from 191,000 to more than 2.8 million. Perhaps some of the most pronounced advances over the years have been in information and communications technology and the media industry.

Afghanistan, much like its neighbor Pakistan, has narrowed the digital divide with the West over the past decade by riding the global wave of cheaper mobile phone technology. The United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) has said two-thirds of the Afghan population—20 million out of 30—is now using cell phones, and the Afghan government estimates 60 percent of all Internet users have access to hand held devices. Yet there is something unique about this kind of development that skips traditional stepping stone technologies.

When the time came for rebuilding after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, cellular towers were more cost-effective than landline infrastructure. In many parts of Afghanistan today, as in much of the developing world, you are more likely to see a shepherd herding his sheep with a knock-off iPhone in-hand than you are a telephone line hanging overhead.

Information and communications technologies in Afghanistan, and around the developing world, have frequently skipped intermediate stages of infrastructure modernization that characterized the rise of most industrialized nations. Rather than mimicking the gradual path of progress that led to the initial mobile phone boom in the West, developing nations like Afghanistan have been able to jump right into the present and adopt new systems without bothering with legacy technologies.

Unlike technology, there is no leapfrog development in politics. When it comes to democracy and rule of law, progress requires incremental growth. Yet, in the West many expect Afghanistan, along with Arab Spring countries, to leap forward politically, skip the intermediary stages Western societies went through, and get right to the smooth and stable style of self-rule known in our countries today. These unreasonably high expectations set emerging democracies up for failure, and they lie at the heart of the defeatist attitude permeating the discourse around this year’s Afghan Presidential elections.

Political systems and cultures do not evolve with the same nimble pace as free market economies, let alone in a country with the history and current security reality of Afghanistan.

The most recent Pew poll shows 52 percent of Americans think the U.S. has “mostly failed” in Afghanistan. And there is a palpable sense of disappointment, of resignation consuming the discourse around what NATO will leave behind in December. Commentators often look to corruption, insider attacks and electoral fraud as testaments to a grim outlook. There have been some levelheaded takes on the challenges facing the upcoming elections, but most have just issued foreboding forecasts for what could be Afghanistan’s first democratic transition of Presidential power in history when two-term President Hamid Karzai steps down.

Setting the right expectations for Afghanistan comes down to having a balanced understanding of what is happening there. The talking heads have pointed to the illegitimacies of past Afghan elections and the blemished human rights records of certain candidates in the lead up to the April vote. But little mention has been made of the initiative Afghan civil society groups have taken to build voter awareness and monitor the polling process, the over three million new voters registered by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) this year or the simple fact that the elections are being organized without foreign oversight for the very first time.

Have we forgotten that only 13 years ago Afghanistan faced one of the most repressive totalitarian regimes in modern times, and only five years before that a full scale civil war?

As Fareed Zakaria once argued in regard to Egypt, democracy takes time. And an overly pessimistic approach to the Afghan political future betrays nothing more than misguided, or rather misplaced, expectations. Political systems and cultures do not evolve with the same nimble pace as free market economies, let alone in a country with the history and current security reality of Afghanistan.

As coalition troops prepare to pull out in December and the security deal that would prolong military cooperation between Kabul and Washington remains in limbo, Afghanistan’s future is nearly as mysterious to Afghans as it is to onlookers in the West. Recent reports of Karzai conducting secret talks with Taliban leaders just as he has pushed the U.S. away suggest Kabul’s strategy maybe shifting toward a reconciliation deal with the insurgents that does not include Washington. If the Taliban is to be re-incorporated into the Afghan political scene anytime soon, indeed, democracy in Afghanistan probably has a rocky road ahead. But what cannot be denied is that the majority of Afghans want democracy (PDF), and to continue the march of progress that began 13 years ago.

As the elections grow near, then, let’s encourage a more realistic perspective and set of expectations. Afghanistan has stumbled, not leapt, forward since 2001, but progress is often accompanied by setbacks. There surely will be further trip-ups ahead, but we in the West should afford greater optimism, or at the very least, more patience for the long path of progress in Afghanistan.