Afghanistan: at the crossroads once more

30 October 2012

by Jawed Nader

BAAG Director Jawed Nader says Afghans must work together to build a new future

When I returned to Afghanistan in 2002, it was a broken country. 

Homes and public buildings were devastated, battered by war.  Newly re-opened schools were short of teachers and books.  Patients were forced to go abroad for medical checkups.  Only a tiny number of people owned phones;  even fewer had electricity.  Women were virtually absent from public life.

But at that time, my ravaged homeland had one major thing going for it -  hope.

Unprecedented levels of international attention and an influx of aid led Afghans to believe that their country could be changed.  They hoped Afghanistan could finally be at peace, with a strong democratic government steering it towards a better future.

That hope was bolstered by the massive changes which followed.  Millions of refugees streamed home.  Many, like me, were returning from a decade or more in exile.  A huge construction boom followed, as they began to rebuild their homes.  Huge infrastructure projects started.  There seemed to be a job for everyone.

Millions of children returned to school.  Improvements to health care meant fewer mothers and babies died.  A broad based government was set up, helping Afghanistan to shake off the isolation of the Taliban years.

But ten years later, that sense of optimism has gone.  When I was in Afghanistan this summer, I sensed that most Afghans regard the past decade as a time of missed opportunities- and are fearful about the future.

Rising corruption and mismanagement have led to waste.  Young Afghans are once again fleeing the country - this time in search of jobs.  The democratic system itself is uncertain:  continuing insecurity and lack of adequate monitoring mechanisms put the viability of Presidential elections in 2014 into question.

Most Afghans equate the drawdown of international forces by 2014 with the drying up of international attention - and of foreign aid.  And many, particularly women, also fear losing hard-won freedoms if closed-door political negotiations lead to the return of the Taliban.  

Such fears reflect the formidable challenges facing Afghanistan as the political and economic realities of transition take hold.  But Afghans are resilient - they know how to survive during difficult times.

What's important now is for all Afghans, including the government, political parties and civil society, to work together to overcome the challenges facing the country.  And the international community must continue to support them.

Civil society, in particular, could play a unique role in helping to maintain new freedoms won over the past decade.  Ten years ago, some Afghans regarded the idea of “civil society” with some suspicion, fearing it was a Western concept which they would be expected to adopt blindly and unquestioningly.  But then they realised that  many of the roots of civil society- concepts of volunteerism, self help, consultation and  organisation - all existed, in one form or another, in Afghanistan.

Since then, they have broken new ground, becoming more confident and more ambitious.  A decade ago, it would have seemed impossible for an Afghan woman to set up and run a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts - and open her own restaurant to keep it going.  Today, it seems unsurprising.

But to truly blossom, civil society groups need continued support, both from inside Afghanistan and from the international allies who helped establish them in the first place.

As BAAG’s new Director, I will continue to support these groups as they strive for a just and peaceful Afghanistan.  I intend to do my very best to ensure that their voices continue to be heard, both at a national and an international level.