What is difficult to determine is how welcome foreigners, and particularly foreign military forces, are in Afghanistan. Among its urban political and business elite, the widespread hope is for foreign troops to remain in the country for as long as necessary to secure the peace. There appears even to be support for the US to build a base on Afghan territory.
Despite security threats from different sources, government has to extend economic development and prosperity to all parts of the country.
It is a long-term project but one that the country is better geared to achieve now. “Afghanistan is shifting from a post 9-11 crisis mindset to a more developmental footing. This entails a more strategic, long-term approach to ensuring stability, and it is the only approach that is sustainable,” says Geoff Paton, second secretary political at the British Embassy in Kabul.
Against the odds, the country has fashioned a functioning, effective political system, a process that has included two Loya Jirga (a “grand council” traditionally convened by Afghan leaders to decide important political matters); a new constitution; and a generally successful presidential election. Parliamentary elections are slated for September.
President Hamid Karzai has shrewdly brought warlords and tribal leaders into government, removing them from their powerbases but not alienating them from the political system. His ministers have adopted sensible, development-friendly policies, and the national treasury adheres to strict fiscal constraints. Inflation and the exchange rate are by and large stable.
The progress has not gone unnoticed and has attracted trailblazing investors, with further deals worth $1bn – or just less than 20% of GDP – in the pipeline. “Of this, perhaps only 40%-50% might materialise, but it is indicative of the interest that is out there,” says Samuel Maimbo of the World Bank’s finance and private sector development team in Afghanistan.
The country is also responding in other areas. Civil society is growing in strength and voice and private media is growing. Tolo TV, which is pushing the boundaries of cultural sensitivity by broadcasting such items as pop videos, is hugely popular and subversive in a positive way. Kabul, in particular, has adjusted easily and quickly to internationalisation. More and more women are appearing outdoors without being concealed by a burqa.
Indeed, many Afghans are quick to point out that back in the 1960s, Afghanistan was a centre of liberal-mindedness. These Afghans see no conflict between Islam and democracy.
However, Afghanistan’s window of opportunity – foreign aid, international support and the people’s patience at home – will not last forever. Some in the aid community believe the government’s capacity problems are critical. At the World Bank, for instance, there is obvious frustration. “We have helped with drafting of laws but there is a bottleneck at the ministry of justice, where there is an absolute lack of capacity to vet new laws,” says Nancy Zhao, operations adviser at the World Bank’s mission in Afghanistan.
“Is there frustration at the slow pace of delivery? Is there assistance fatigue? Perhaps. But we need to keep in mind that an enormous amount has been achieved, particularly when considering where this country has come from,” says Allan Kelly, senior project implementation specialist at the Asian Development Bank in Afghanistan. “There is political stability and the country is fiscally responsible and has achieved monetary stability. A lot of projects have long lead times but are now under way, in sectors like health and education.”
Mr Kelly gives short shrift to the idea that aid agencies might turn tail before the job is done. “A lot of aid partners have made multi-year commitments. [The ADB] committed to four years and we see ourselves here beyond that,” he insists.
Aid workers’ opinions differ on how effectively foreign assistance is being utilised. Mechanisms are in place to ensure co-ordination but many feel the system could work better. In the short term, the balance still needs to be struck between ministerial capacity building and delivery, as the former can delay the latter. “We need to get things done so that Afghans beyond the main cities see progress. If we succeed, people will have hope,” says Mr Kelly.
The Afghan government is pushing for a greater proportion of donor aid to be passed through the national budget, arguing that this would ensure better co-ordination, plus build capacity. Donors, however, fear the government’s lack of capacity would impede efficient and transparent use of the funds.
As helpful and essential as aid has been, it has also had negative consequences, driving up average working salaries, for instance. Afghanistan’s civil service, in dire need of skills and capacity, pays an average monthly salary of $40-$50; working for an aid agency, a skilled Afghan can earn much more. Also, sceptics observe that Afghanistan’s impressive economic strides are false, reflecting artificial consumption and very little sustainable economic development that would survive the withdrawal of donor flows.
The government acknowledges the importance of aid and insists the investment in infrastructure and skills is what will secure the country’s future. Mr Ahady says: “I sincerely hope the international community does not leave here too soon. If that happens before we have built the necessary institutional capacity and rehabilitated our infrastructure, we might not make it. It will take at least five to six years for us to fund the recurrent budget; hopefully by then we will have rebuilt infrastructure.”
The government finds itself with a delicate balancing act on its hands: to raise revenues but not strangle the private sector. Not surprisingly, there are many voices quietly lamenting the rise in tax rates.
“The government realises the urgency of raising taxes but it is leaving a long lag between collecting taxes and delivering public services. It has got to move quicker on scrapping nuisance tax, curbing corruption and delivering services,” says James Blewitt, a former UN Development Programme worker.
Yet, for the moment at least, government benefits from the patience of the people and private sector businesses. “People have big expectations, which are natural considering where Afghanistan has come from. But although the process of reconstruction and economic development has been slow, the general thinking is still that things will get better,” says Najib Murshed, the Afghan commercial officer at the British Embassy in Kabul.
Parliamentary elections in September are the next step in political normalisation but also auger even slower progress. Policy co-ordination and effective implementation is at risk of falling victim to political machinations.
With the government’s ‘to do’ list already long, it is not welcome news to hear that corruption is spreading or that counter-narcotics measures are having limited impact on the poppy growing industry. Ultimately, however, such concerns, albeit legitimate and serious, are trivial compared with how far Afghanistan has come.
“You see signs of change everywhere. Children are laughing and playing on the streets; men are playing sports. None of this was allowed under the Taliban,” says Suleman Fatimie, vice-president of the Afghan Investment Support Agency. “The fact that we have this working, functioning office; the fact that we’re talking about economic development rather than war – that is enormous progress.”
He cites the case of Afghans returning to the country. “These are Afghans who have endured close to 25 years of war. They have every reason to give up on this place but they are coming back. Why take the chance if you did not believe in the future?” he asks.
Are Afghans being naively optimistic? “Afghans have to be optimistic. They have suffered a lot but they are optimistic because a new opportunity has been given to them that they know they must take advantage of it,” says commerce minister Hedayat Amin-Arsala.
“You have to look at where the country is today compared to three and a half years ago. People who come here on short stays see a snapshot of what the country is now and not what it was. Without knowing what Afghanistan has come through, it is difficult to see the potential for the future. Afghans have a better perspective on how far the country has come,” he says.