The South Asia Channel

The eleventh day of September

The eleventh day of September

On the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the ongoing Syrian crisis dominated international headlines. Even in the United States, fewer anniversary memorial events were held to remember the victims of that tragic day.  But in Afghanistan, it was a different day and a different story.

Last Wednesday, Afghans poured out by the hundreds onto streets across the country, celebrating the victory of its national football team in the 2013 South Asian Football Federation Championship. Every celebrating Afghan man, woman, and child was filled with unprecedented excitement, joy, and hope. The jubilant cheers of the crowds waving the tri-color Afghan flag were deafening, and it felt as if Afghans had been waiting for more than three decades to unleash their collective joy as a nation. Indeed, the Afghan people have been repeatedly denied any chance of celebrating what they could accomplish in peacetime after years of conflict and devastation.

Although peace has yet to prevail across Afghanistan, many Afghans recalled that Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium – one of the places where they were celebrating – had been used by the Taliban as an execution ground 12 years ago. But since then, Afghanistan has made great strides in sports, actively participating in regional and international tournaments, including the Summer Olympic Games, where Rohullah Nikpai won his (and the country’s) first and second bronze medals in men’s Taekwondo in Beijing and London.

These dramatic successes, within such a short amount of time, have boosted the morale and ambitions of all Afghan youth, participating in all sports. They are now training even harder with a firm determination to achieve more victories for Afghanistan in upcoming tournaments. In these efforts, they have the full backing, not only of their families and friends, but their government as well.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, for example, personally followed the recent football matches in South Asia, and encouraged the national team to win for its country. For the championship match between Afghanistan and India, he sent a senior official delegation — comprised of the ministers of education, finance, and rural rehabilitation and development, as well as Afghanistan’s non-resident ambassador to Nepal — to support the team.  President Karzai also spoke by phone to the team’s coach, giving them encouragement; personally received the team at the Kabul International Airport upon their return to the country; and awarded the team medals of recognition, as well as financial tokens of appreciation.

Indeed, the credit of victory goes not only to the football players, but also to all those involved with the team’s effort. Afghans everywhere closely followed the championship series and appreciated the unity of effort and purpose which its football team and their victory demonstrated. As Khalid Sadat, a Kabul fruit seller, told the Washington Post: "After 30 years of war, the world thinks of Afghanistan as only having wars and violence. Today, we are showing that our young men can become world champions."

However, these visible gains on the sports field fade when Afghans look at their overall achievements during the past 12 years. It is unfortunate that domestic and international media mostly focus on sensational news, at the cost of many ongoing positive developments in every sector across Afghanistan. Such imbalanced, one-sided reporting effectively strengthens the terror campaign being waged by the Taliban, as well as their destructive propaganda, which is focused on creating an environment of fear and alarm as coalition combat forces prepare to withdraw at the end of next year.

Facts which are seldom reported by the mainstream press include:

  • Over 10.5 million Afghan students are enrolled in schools and more than 150,000 students who graduate go on to pursue higher education at home and abroad, including in India where there are nearly 10,000 students pursuing advanced degrees in different fields;
  • Afghanistan’s 2011 per capita GDP of $591 is five times higher than that in 2001;
  • The country’s commercial infrastructure is vastly improved, with nearly 8,000 kilometers of national, regional, and provincial highways and roads being built over the past 10 years;
  • Access to electricity has increased by 250%; and
  • Today over 18 million Afghans have mobile phones. 

All of this is helping the country maintain a 10% growth rate, and is creating access to employment for the first time in countless years.

But these and many other achievements are works in progress and works at risk. Therefore, it is essential for the international community to stay the course in Afghanistan. The country’s gains over the past 12 years should be consolidated by implementing win-win objectives that have been outlined at the Bonn, Chicago, and Tokyo conferences, as well as through regional initiatives like the Istanbul Process. In effect, winning or losing in Afghanistan depends squarely on whether its allies and friends will actually deliver on the commitments they have made or the strategic partnership agreements they have signed.

Of course, the implications of winning are clear: a sovereign Afghanistan at peace internally and within the region can only prosper and aid economic cooperation and stability. We live in a world that is increasingly interdependent and where zero-sum designs have proven to be failures and disasters. Sincere, results-oriented cooperation is the call of all people in the region and beyond. As the recent victory of Afghanistan’s national football team has shown, the Afghan people can succeed. They just need a much reinvigorated partnership with the international community to translate their shared 12-year gains into national, sustainable, institutionalized peace, pluralism, and prosperity.    

Wais Ahmad Barmak is Afghanistan’s Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.

M. Ashraf Haidari is Afghanistan’s deputy ambassador to India.