Macro-Indicators of Afghanistan: Do They Mean Anything? Should We Care?

by Joshua Foust on 4/27/2007 · 4 comments

The World Bank has released its latest batch of reports about Afghanistan. They tell an interesting story:

  • Considerable progress has been made in constructing roads to and between rural communities. Additionally, several new airports have been built, and both projects employed thousands of people in wage labor.
  • Almost all districts have medical clinics now, a significant increase since the Taliban drove the women out of healthcare (there were no nurses for many years). There is also a growing vaccination program, coupled with improved neonatal care in many provinces. In Wardak they are testing new protocols for water purification, with the hope of expanding the project to all provinces.
  • For the 2007 school year 6 million children enrolled, despite the utility of keeping children working farms.
  • There is a growing credit market, and Kabul continues to computerize its financial systems.

These are, to be sure, stunning achievements, considering they have happened from scratch in the midst of a civil war. Furthermore, Afghanistan has posted a significant decline in infant mortality—8%!—and continues to trend in the direction of better and better managed healthcare for all segments of society. In other words, by most soft indicators, Afghanistan has been a story of steady, if slow, improvement.

Here’s my question, though: should we even care? I’ve become enamored of a paraphrase of a cliche: development without security is void. Though it is indeed wonderful to see a local-led force retake Giro district in Ghazni province (after a bloody capture by the Taliban), it was but the latest of a series of local take overs by the Taliban. Though they often amount to little more than sweeps, or temporary grab-hold-smash operations, each village temporarily felled to the Taliban was a huge loss of face to the Karzai government, and deeply undermining of the NATO forces.

The economic front is not all roses, despite the good news. Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah sees a growing gap between the public and the state with regards to Afghanistan’s future. He means that people, after a high from the wave of elections, are starting to feel disenfranchised.

Victory in other words, is not assured. It is good to see the Afghans taking over a larger and larger portion of their own security; at the same time, three years ago the Taliban retaking towns and districts was unheard of, while it is now almost common. Much as I balk at an over-focus on security, it cannot be ignored.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Ben April 27, 2007 at 3:32 pm

Interesting findings. I remember watching the Defence Committee’s hearing of evidence from a field mission to Helmand Province some days ago. Norine MacDonald QC, the founder of the Senlis Council, struck me as rather insightful. Their publications are quite interesting, and I’d like to hear your opinion on them. In the hearing, Rory Stewart was making a good figure as well (as usual, I might say?).

Joshua Foust April 29, 2007 at 5:42 am

I’ve read their some of their policy work that focuses specifically on counternarcotics (and referenced a few in papers), but that testimony is great. There are some good quotes in there I can use elsewhere. Thanks!

Wais Lodin April 29, 2007 at 12:58 pm

Have you ever been to Afghanistan? I also see disagreements about the border between Pakistan, and Afghanistan, what border are they talking about if Afghanistan does not recognize the current border. Do you think the border issue could solve some of the problems facing the nato and the countries involved? I think so, and the time for it is right to find a peaceful solution for this important issue.

Joshua Foust April 30, 2007 at 12:19 pm

I’m afraid I can’t say I’ve ever been to Afghanistan — much as I’d like to go, many factors such as money and work (and how one flows from the other) have prevented me.

But you’re right that the border is a huge problem. The Durand line, which now forms the border, almost perfectly bifurcates the traditional Pashtunistan, which means that many tribal units don’t recognize the border, creating the problem. Fencing it off is not a solution, and I don’t see either Afghanistan or Pakistan ceding territory either.

It’s terribly vexing — I have no idea how it could be peacefully resolved.

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