The current situation in Afghanistan is the subject of two opposing narratives: one is a success story about international support and involvement since 2001; the other is a story where much has gone wrong and everything can only get worse. Agreeing on a narrative that is closer to the truth is crucial when deciding what form Norwegian support and involvement should take in the future.

Afghanistan week

The lion’s share of international funding has so far been earmarked for security measures. Over time, the international forces have changed their focus from attacking Al-Qaeda and the Taliban to also rebuilding an Afghan army and police force. During 2014, responsibility for the military operations was gradually transferred to Afghan forces. Since the start of this transfer, there has been an increase in the number of Afghans killed, both among civilians and soldiers, and the number of desertions. The cost of running this army exceeds Afghanistan’s entire public revenues, making Afghanistan entirely dependent on international funding to maintain its army at current levels. Corruption is a huge problem, both in the army and the police, and numbers of soldiers and police officers are inflated, as are their food rations, in order to attract higher levels of funding. In addition, if actual soldiers and policemen become unemployed, they may represent a major security problem. Thus a limited international military presence, primarily in a mentoring role, may be important for national stability in Afghanistan – along with support for soldiers’ salaries.

It is too early to predict whether President Ghani will succeed in negotiating a peace settlement with the Taliban. There are encouraging signs of regional support for a peace process, but this may take time. And such a process will not resolve all problems and conflicts, either nationally or in relation to Afghanistan’s neighbours. Women are concerned that the rights they have achieved may be “negotiated away”. Norway is well positioned to secure Afghan women a voice both in negotiations and in a variety of other channels. Norway has paved the way for regional dialogue through the so-called Istanbul process. Continued support for this process is very important, both in order to fulfil the ambitious plans to make Afghanistan a transit centre for regional trade, and to enable the country to generate revenues from its mineral resources.

Apart from Taliban attacks, elections have been the major source of uncertainty and turmoil in Afghanistan in recent years. Extensive electoral fraud has been documented, and ethnic tensions have risen. But there have also been positive developments. Afghan civil society played an important role in the 2014 presidential elections, monitoring the electoral process and encouraging people to vote. The post-election compromise resulted in a coalition government and introduced the new position of Chief Executive Officer (CEO), a role with the functions of an executive prime minister. As the Afghan constitution does not provide for such a role, a constitutional amendment will be necessary in order to avoid future political crises. This amendment will need to be handled sensitively and not forced through. This is an area where both Afghan civil society and international experts should contribute advice on democratic development. It will be important to identify a long-term solution that transcends ongoing power struggles. It is now time to debate what kind of democracy is best for Afghanistan, rather than merely advocating in favour of democratic processes and elections.

The development work that has taken place since 2001 has provided Afghans with hope for a better future. More children are attending school, healthcare has improved, roads have been built and towns now have electricity. But this is only one aspect of the true story. In reality, many of these investments are falling apart: many schools lack qualified teachers; clinics outside the urban centres lack medicines and health workers; many roads have fallen into disrepair; and electricity is rationed. Although Afghanistan has moved slightly up the UN Human Development Index, the country still faces huge challenges: two-thirds of the population are aged under 27; huge numbers of Afghans are leaving rural districts to resettle in urban areas; and the country may well have to accommodate millions of returning refugees deported by neighbouring countries. Although these challenges are enormous, they are also the mostly easily addressed of Afghanistan’s problems. A new generation of better-educated Afghans is eager to contribute. And it is in this context that further improvements will likely have a major impact, with Afghans becoming mobilized to secure their own future. The knowledge that they can rely upon continued international development support is positive in itself, and will increase Afghans’ confidence in the future. If such confidence were to lead the Afghan elite to invest their money at home instead of in Dubai, Europe and the USA, this would represent major progress. Education, agricultural development and healthcare are all areas where major gains are being made. And they are also the areas that will suffer the greatest setbacks if international support is reduced. This should be a key consideration when the Norwegian authorities are setting their priorities.

In addition, education and healthcare lie at the core of the debate on Afghan women’s rights. Both Afghan organizations and individual female activists are fervently promoting women’s rights. Afghan women have become more aware of what rights they actually possess. Access to the media and mobile phones has given women knowledge of their rights at the household level, and ideas are exchanged between girls at school and women at health clinics and development projects. Nevertheless, women and children continue to suffer serious abuse. Women lack fundamental rights and cultural and religious restrictions hinder their participation in society. Reversing this situation will take time, and assisting in the process is a challenge: too much external interference will likely create resistance; while measures driven by Afghans themselves may take too long. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has an important role to play in this process, and it will be important for the commission to remain truly independent to be able to engage in the debate over women’s rights. Until now, Norway has been an important supporter of the commission. There could be much to gain from Norway continuing this role.

Many people described 2014 as the year when Afghanistan’s fate would be decided: the year that would determine finally whether the outcome would good or bad. The answer, however, is not decisive. This acknowledges that the country’s development can be influenced both by Afghans and by their supporters. To ensure a positive development, it is essential to adopt the right priorities. What we know is that better governance, greater inclusion, and a strengthening of fundamental rights will make a major difference for the future of Afghanistan.

Arne Strand is Deputy Director at the Chr. Michelsen Institute.

Liv Kjølseth is Secretary General of the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee.