A decade has passed since the tragedy of Sept. 11, when the United States was attacked. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden masterminded the terrorist attack in Afghanistan during a period when the country was completely stateless and ruled mostly by the Taliban’s extremist movement. Afghans who could afford to escape daily violence and threats to their lives did so and took refuge abroad. But the vast majority of the Afghan people were too poor to leave the country, where they silently suffered from unspeakable atrocities caused by internecine conflicts.
Even though al Qaeda backed the Taliban in such brazen violation of Afghans’ basic human rights and systematic destruction of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage – having dynamited into pieces the greatest statutes of Buddha in March 2001 – the international community only watched and took no action against this network of extremists and terrorists that had taken Afghanistan hostage for too long. But their costly inaction finally ended on Sept. 11, 2001, when the same terrorists and extremists who had been victimizing Afghans attacked and ruthlessly killed more than 3,000 Americans, including Muslims.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 tragedy, the international community rallied in solidarity with the United States in self-defense against al Qaeda to end the suffering of the Afghan people under the tyranny of the Taliban. Ten years since the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan has been transformed from a stateless and devastated country into one where the Afghan people have experienced improvement in every aspect of their lives. Unfortunately, however, the stories of ongoing progress in economic improvement and increased access to education, health care, electricity, drinking water and better roads across Afghanistan are seldom captured and reported by the press.
This is not to say that Afghanistan is not confronting a number of serious challenges, which are being addressed by the Afghan government in partnership with the United States and its other allies. Foremost, security remains fragile in the south and east of Afghanistan, where Afghan and NATO forces continue to carry out successful operations against the insurgency. While capitalizing on their tactical achievements, we must simultaneously address the strategic factors that drive the insurgency. Many of the recent suicide terrorist attacks and assassinations of prominent Afghans have been plotted beyond our borders where the Taliban are sheltered and from where they stage spectacular terrorist attacks on mostly soft targets in Afghanistan.
Weak governance remains another major problem in Afghanistan. This is because of a lack of investment in institutions that would empower the Afghan government, not foreign parallel structures, to provide basic services to people. This problem is further compounded by Afghanistan’s fledgling economy and failure to provide an increasing number of jobs, which the country’s expanding population demands. More than 60 percent of Afghans are below the age of 25. If not provided with job opportunities, they could be lured into criminal or even terrorist activities for a daily wage to support their families. This is evident from the rank and file of the Taliban fighters, the majority of whom are non-ideological but fight to earn a living for their families.
However, these key, intertwined challenges of insecurity, weak governance and widespread unemployment – which can be exploited by Afghanistan’s adversaries to destabilize the country – should be overcome. In each of these critical areas, Afghanistan and the international community have numerous opportunities for further success, which must be seized fully. Foremost among them, Afghanistan must be assisted to consolidate the progress it has made so far in improving security. Success in this critical area depends on sincere regional cooperation to refrain from interference in Afghan affairs and support for the insurgency. But it also depends in the long run on helping Afghanistan defend itself against foreign aggression. This requires that the Afghan army and police be properly trained and equipped in sufficient numbers to be able to fight and defeat conventional and unconventional adversaries.
At the same time, security must be bolstered by expanding the effective presence of the government across Afghanistan to deliver basic services to people and helping the country with job creation based on a productive economy. Afghanistan’s skilled labor must not be employed by foreign parallel structures if the nation is to build institutional capacity to run its operations. At the same time, the country’s abundant unskilled labor must be harnessed to revitalize the agricultural sector and exploit Afghanistan’s rich natural resources for export to regional and international markets. These two critical sectors for mass job creation have received scant attention and investment so far from the international community over the past decade. But they remain the key to a successful transition to Afghan responsibility, which is under way.
For these major steps to be taken, Afghanistan and the United States must sign a binding strategic-partnership agreement in order to consolidate and sustain their 10-year gains, which have cost thousands of Afghan and American lives. Had the United States committed to Afghanistan’s long-term reconstruction after the two countries defeated the former Soviet Union in late 1980s, al Qaeda and the Taliban never would have used Afghanistan to attack the United States on Sept. 11, and Afghanistan would have been America’s most reliable strategic partner in Southwest and Central Asia. The United States should not make the same strategic mistake twice. Failure to enter into a strategic partnership with Afghanistan will permanently damage America’s credibility as a global power that stands for peace, justice and democracy. And Afghanistan surely will return to its pre-Sept. 11 days as a no-man’s land of regional rivalry and transnational terrorist activity against not only the United States but also the rest of the world.
By Shaida M. Abdali, deputy national security adviser of Afghanistan and special assistant to President Hamid Karzai.