A New Narrative for Afghanistan
June 8, 2016
Following national elections in 2014 and the formation of the National Unity Government, Afghanistan has entered a new era of reform in what some call a ”transformation decade.” Last week, The Asia Foundation and World Affairs Council hosted a discussion with Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, Hamdullah Mohib, and Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and trustee of the Foundation, on the state of Afghanistan’s security, politics, the reform agenda, and future challenges to peace and development.
Ambassador Eikenberry started the discussion looking back at 2014, which he described as a milestone year for Afghanistan. The country pulled off a difficult election – the first time in history a democratic transition of power had taken place. U.S. and international troops ended combat forces, and with it, came a drop in development assistance and funding. So, here we are in the summer of 2016.
”We passed the toughest test of our time in 2014. Looking back, we’re in a much better place today than we were 18 months ago,” said Ambassador Mohib, in an optimistic but cautious assessment of his country’s progress. ”There continues to be more challenges as we go, but the government is able to deal with them more effectively. Despite all the negativity, this proves that Afghanistan has come a long way, and that the work of those who invested in building Afghanistan’s institutions is paying off,” he said.
”Today we have over 135 universities, over 8 million children go to school, 40 percent of them are girls. We have hospitals that perform heart surgeries where even a few years ago, people had to go overseas to just treat something like malaria,” he continued. ”To us, progress is relative. It’s not where we would want it, or where our international partners would want it, but we’re on the right path.”
The Ambassador also spoke about Afghanistan’s role in the region. From the beginning, he said, President Ghani has reached out to Pakistan to move toward what he called more ”normalized relations” with its neighbor. He also spoke on China’s increasing role in Afghanistan’s development: ”With all of our neighbors, especially China being such an important economic actor in the region, we’re trying to build a consensus that peace in Afghanistan is not only important for Afghanistan – instability in Afghanistan could destabilize the region.” Those efforts have been successful to a large degree, he said, as countries in the region increasingly seem to agree that investing in Afghanistan is in their own strategic interests.
On reconciliation and peace, Ambassador Mohib added, ”It’s not just about reconciliation. To bring peace to a country, there have to be different elements which include economic development – 75 percent of Afghans are under 35, and they need jobs, and [they] need a government that is able to deliver services to its people. That’s where the government gets its legitimacy from.”
He echoed comments made earlier that day at Stanford University addressing the diverse and powerful Afghan diaspora spread across the globe and how Afghanistan needs to shape a new identify after decades of conflict. Since the 1970s, people have left the country at different times and have different memories of what the country looked like when they departed. After the U.S. invasion in 2001, he explained, the people who returned all had different visions for how they saw the future.
”When people talk about Afghanistan, they talk about the divisions that existed at some point. But things have changed. So what is that new change? That’s not deeply understood. In one family you might have three different cultures: one person might have stayed in Afghanistan and went through difficulties of their own, while another left as a refugee to a neighboring country, and another may have left for the West. We all work together to form the new future. This shows the Afghan resilience and our level of tolerance for different views. At the same time, it presents a challenge of having a better understanding of the situation and our problems so we can formulate better solutions for our lasting future.”
On what Afghan-Americans can contribute to the country’s development, he said: ”Afghan Americans believe they must return to Afghanistan to start businesses and build jobs. But if you can’t do that, what you can do from here is interact with other Americans. Sadly, the majority of Americans only receive negative news of Afghanistan, so they have an abstract opinion of [the country]. But talking to you, it becomes real to them. While I may be the official ambassador, you’re all ambassadors of your country. Be involved because your voices here can help your country back home. This is a democratic country, and your representatives have to listen to you. We all can play a role in making sure our gains are sustained.”
Watch the full discussion below.
Alma Freeman is The Asia Foundation’s global communications manager and editor of this blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funder.
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