Progress in Afghanistan has been un­even but un­de­ni­able


The visit of Is­rael’s Prime Min­is­ter Benjamin Ne­tanyahu to Wash­ing­ton has dom­i­nated news head­lines and dis­cus­sion. Mean­while, the visit of an­other leader of an im­por­tant U.S. ally has re­ceived far less cov­er­age.

That is un­for­tu­nate, be­cause Afghanistan’s new Pres­i­dent Mo­ham­mad Ashraf Ghani plays piv­otal roles in re­gional and global terms. He re­ceived uni­formly pos­i­tive wel­comes from Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and both par­ties in Congress, where he de­liv­ered a mes­sage of hope and progress.

Last year Afghanistan car­ried out a peace­ful tran­si­tion in power. Ini­tial and runoff pres­i­den­tial elec­tions were held in April and June. Turnout was high, de­spite Tal­iban in­tim­i­da­tion and vi­o­lence.

World Bank vet­eran Ghani won among a to­tal field of eight can­di­dates. The na­tional elec­tion com­mis­sion tes­ti­fied that cor­rup­tion was much re­duced from the 2009 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, and the U.N. did a care­ful au­dit of votes cast.

In Septem­ber a new agree­ment was signed, to con­tinue the U.S. part­ner­ship be­yond 2014. A ma­jor Lon­don con­fer­ence Dec. 4-5 high­lighted the broad in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity aid­ing Afghanistan.

Pre­vi­ous Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai was a durable sur­vivor but had be­come in­creas­ingly er­ratic. Late in his ten­ure, he de­nounced the al­liance with the U.S. This oc­curred de­spite the fact that he was the re­cip­i­ent of siz­able regular cash pay­ments from the CIA.

Dur­ing the elec­tion, the Tal­iban mounted hun­dreds of at­tacks but no ma­jor gov­ern­ment in­stal­la­tions were struck. By con­trast, in June 2013 Afghanistan rebels det­o­nated a car bomb and bat­tled se­cu­rity forces in front of the pres­i­den­tial palace, the most heav­ily guarded in­stal­la­tion in the coun­try.

Long-term ties be­tween Afghanistan and the U.S. have deep­ened. In a July 2012 visit to Kabul, Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton an­nounced a for­mal al­liance be­tween Afghanistan and the U.S. This re­la­tion­ship goes be­yond the long-term but limited mul­ti­lat­eral ef­fort un­der United Na­tions and NATO author­ity.

As a re­sult, Afghanistan joined four­teen other na­tions in the dis­tinc­tive cat­e­gory of Strate­gic Part­ner of the U.S. Th­ese in­clude Ar­gentina, Australia, Is­rael and Ja­pan. Other part­ners are no­tably stronger eco­nom­i­cally, and more sta­ble po­lit­i­cally, than Afghanistan.

The bi­lat­eral part­ner­ship brings closer co­op­er­a­tion en­com­pass­ing regular de­liv­ery of mil­i­tary equip­ment, sup­plies and weapons. This in turn be­comes more im­por­tant as in­sur­gency per­sists.

Af­ter the an­nounce­ment, Sec­re­tary Clin­ton and Pres­i­dent Karzai at­tended a con­fer­ence in Tokyo, where donor na­tions pledged US$16 bil­lion in new devel­op­ment as­sis­tance. For­eign aid re­mains im­por­tant for po­lit­i­cal lever­age as well as eco­nomic devel­op­ment.

Progress in­cludes grow­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion of women. No­table pub­lic­ity has been gen­er­ated by As­cend, an in­ter­na­tional non­profit which en­gages young peo­ple in rig­or­ous ath­letic train­ing. The as­so­ci­a­tion’s pri­or­ity is train­ing a group of young Afghan women in chal­leng­ing moun­tain climb­ing.

Mod­ern tech­nol­ogy is spread­ing steadily. Cell­phones and the In­ter­net, as well as tra­di­tional tele­vi­sion, are now fea­tures of even iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties.

His­tor­i­cal con­text and ac­cu­rate analo­gies are in­struc­tive. In Viet­nam, in­sur­gents early con­trolled large ar­eas, and es­tab­lished a re­mark­able, sus­tained in­tel­li­gence and sab­o­tage net­work. The Tal­iban has not ap­proached this suc­cess — but could yet win.

Con­tin­ued U.S. en­gage­ment is cru­cial, and goes be­yond forces on the ground. The his­toric Afghanistan in­volve­ment of Bri­tain is in­struc­tive. Through the 19th cen­tury, Bri­tish mil­i­tary ex­pe­di­tions ex­pe­ri­enced frus­tra­tion. How­ever, Lon­don even­tu­ally was suc­cess­ful through fi­nan­cial aid, limited mil­i­tary lever­age, plus as­tute diplo­macy.

With U.S. and NATO draw­downs from Afghanistan, fo­cus shifts to eco­nomic and diplo­matic tools. What­ever the for­mal ties, both Amer­i­cans and Afghans should rec­og­nize the lat­ter ul­ti­mately will de­ter­mine — and face re­spon­si­bil­ity for — the course of their own coun­try. Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor at Carthage Col­lege and au­thor of “Af­ter the Cold War.” Con­tact him at

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