What in the world is the world doing in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan may stand as ‘a graveyard of Empire’, but this should not stop us from viewing the good being done there, however many ‘ifs’ are required to keep the hope going.

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'More than just soldiering': ISAF forces build roads in Afghanistan.
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John Hemmings
On 19 October 2011 07:58

Flying over Afghanistan, one cannot help but be intimidated by the view from the air. Dry, brown, craggy mountains reach into the horizon with few signs of human habitation or life.

Below, small patches of greenery stubbornly cling to river basins, which meander through the bleak landscape.

It is altogether too easy a metaphor for the conflict in Afghanistan, now in its tenth year, to suggest that the efforts of ISAF, the US, and UK are swallowed by such a landscape.

But flying into Kabul presents one with another vision altogether, an ever-expanding cityscape, with new roads, newly-built apartment blocks, and office blocks next to traditional walled houses.

And littered throughout this landscape, are parks of cargo containers, in their hundreds of thousands.

Whole neighbourhoods seem to be built out of the heavy metal containers, and the sheer scale of their presence is a hint at the massive undertaking in supplying, feeding, clothing, and providing for the international effort that is Afghanistan.

Flying over the airport, one sees trucks bearing the cargo containers lining the highways, as traffic pushes as sluggishly as in any Western city.

The population of Kabul in 2001 was around 500,000 and it is now almost four million. This growth shows itself in the haphazard nature of development that seems to have mushroomed along the road from Kabul Airport, with apartment complexes, marriage centres and shopping centres hugging the congested highway.

While one is constantly aware of the security situation, one cannot help but be impressed by the hustle and bustle of the city. Certainly, the steely faces of Afghan National Police manning weapons at roundabouts and intersections reveal the underlying tension, but there are other narratives present in the architecture and atmosphere.

As night falls, the city glows with light, an improvement in power generation from only a few years ago. Furthermore, side streets reveal busy night markets, with men sitting in doorways, fanning flames at kebab stalls.

Yes, it is a city under siege, but it does not seem to be – odd as this may sound – a city at war.

Certainly, the hotels, the embassies, and the government ministries are heavily fortified, but the overall sensation is one of business, commercial success and vibrancy.

Notable on the sidewalks are crowds of male and female students dawdling on their way home. In 2001, fewer than one million children had access to some form of education. Now, according to the UK Department for International Development (DFID), more than five million attend school, with almost a third of them girls.

While Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, its economic growth – bolstered by international aid – is impressive, at 22.5 percent in 2009/10. Last year’s harvest also saw a growth in agriculture output of 36 percent.

In 2006, President Karzai established the Independent Board for the Development of Kabul New City, which brought together the private sector, urban specialists, and foreign donors like the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to carry out a massive redevelopment plan for the city.

The project, it is estimated, will eventually end up costing some US$35 billion dollars, and will provide employment relief for many of Afghanistan’s 35 percent unemployed as one of the largest development projects in Afghanistan’s history.

While all of this is good news, there are still a lot of ‘ifs’ involved before such projects bear fruit.

The main question is whether the current system is sustainable and this is what donors in Afghanistan should be focused on.

While agriculture has improved, Afghanistan’s arid landscape means that the sector is heavily dependent on rainfall and snowmelt, so while modern methods can continue to improve output, this will remain volatile.

This volatility is mirrored in the security situation and the commitment of international partners to the Karzai government.

Around 47 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP is dependent on international donors, which means that Kabul will have to negotiate a continuation of funding for some years to come from countries already beginning to feel the pinch at home.

One answer to this conundrum has been for Kabul to woo investment into its largely untapped mineral and mining sectors, aided by a 2006 government mining law and a 2010 US geological survey. According to the New York Times, the US-backed survey discovered nearly US$1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits – including lithium, copper, iron ore, and cobalt – enough to fundamentally reshape the Afghan economy and make the country a world supplier.

The Aynak Copper Mine in the mountainous region of Logar Pronvince is one indication of how things could go with a Chinese firm winning the bid by promising US$3 billion in direct investment and infrastructure projects.

What is clear is that the world is doing something in Afghanistan aside from soldiering.

It is building something, or trying to build something. The question is whether this will have a real effect, but certainly there are plenty of hopeful signs for those who would look for them.

Easy metaphors aside, Afghanistan may stand as ‘a graveyard of Empire’, but this should not stop us from viewing the good being done there, however many ‘ifs’ are required to keep the hope going.

John Hemmings is a Research Analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and an SPF Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Pacforum. He writes in a personal capacity.   

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