How to keep Afghanistan on the right track
Perhaps not since the fall of the Taliban has Afghanistan faced such a significant moment in its history.
The Afghan people recently voted in record numbers in a historic election, the Afghan military leads security operations throughout the country and Afghanistan has made more strides than any other country in the past decade in measures of health, education and economic growth.
Working together, Afghans and Americans have built a foundation that will enable Afghanistan to seize a brighter future and work to fight the forces of terror and extremism. Americans should be proud of the role we have played in supporting this transformation, which will enter a new phase when the U.S. combat mission concludes in December and we draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, by the end of 2016.
Yet our partnership will not end there. As Afghanistan moves forward, so, too, must our commitment to development — one rooted in shared interests and mutual accountability.
Such progress in Afghanistan was unimaginable just over a decade ago. In coordination with the U.S. military, U.S. development investments have helped transform the fabric of life in Afghanistan, from significantly expanding education to quadrupling per capita GDP, all for less than 3 percent of total U.S. government expenditures. These results are supported by a new generation of champions, such as Nasrin Oryakhil, who have the courage and vision to change their nation's future.
The director of the Malalai Maternity Hospital in Kabul, Dr. Oryakhil has helped rebuild her country's health system from scratch. Under the Taliban's rule, more mothers and children under the age of 5 died in Afghanistan, proportionally, than almost anywhere else in the world. Today, child mortality has been cut by more than half; maternal mortality has declined by 80 percent; and access to health services has been expanded by nearly 60 percent. As a result, Afghanistan has experienced the largest increase in life expectancy and the largest decreases in maternal and child deaths of any country in the world.
Education is another bright spot. Three million girls and 5 million boys are enrolled in school — compared with just 900,000 combined when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan by terror. And 77,000 Afghan university students — a nine-fold increase from 2001 — lead a new generation of global thinkers.
According to a recent poll, more than 70 percent of Afghans feel more economically secure than they did five years ago, and a majority believes that Afghanistan is headed in the right direction. The economy is, indeed, performing well after important structural reforms strengthened the country's institutions, contributing to low inflation and debt, as well as a balanced budget. But going forward, what will be the impact of donor fatigue, troop withdrawals and limited government revenues on the nation's stability?
The vibrant and open campaign among candidates in the April presidential elections showed promise. Played out in Afghanistan's remarkably free media, the elections illustrated citizens' commitment to democratic governance and continued reform.
But the government of Afghanistan must honor not only its people's hope but also the investments of the global community.
Like any responsible investor, the United States demands accountability from Afghanistan for its investment. The agency that I oversee, the U.S. Agency for International Development, has created an incentive fund meant to hold the Afghan government accountable for meeting certain standards, such as advancing support for women and girls, fighting corruption and holding free and fair elections. While half of the targets were met in the first year, we have withheld at least $30 million in development assistance as a result of unmet commitments in governance and women's rights.
We have also reformed our own practices to ensure U.S. taxpayer dollars are used effectively and for their intended purpose. For instance, four years ago we established a team to ensure contractor compliance. Since then we have disciplined contractors by suspending or cutting off funding at a rate 25 times what it was before, saving millions.
We are not blind to the challenges that face Afghans in the years ahead. For all the progress, the development achievements of the past decade can be reversed if we do not remain a vigilant partner to Afghanistan. Already, Afghan government revenues are starting to slow, signaling basic gains in infrastructure, education and business are at risk.
We have pledged to request from Congress that assistance to Afghanistan be kept at or near the levels of the past decade, through 2017. We strongly believe that assistance to Afghanistan must decrease to more sustainable levels but maintain a rate that allows Afghans to preserve the gains achieved and encourages international partners to meet their obligations.
Our goal should be to keep our partnership with Afghanistan on track, help to ensure a credible political transition, dampen the economic shock of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, and promote stability. This is a common-sense strategy, and one that's in the best interest of America's security.
The writer is the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).