A Checklist for a New Afghanistan

The new unity government has many challenges before it, but also the opportunity to build self-sufficient governance and economic growth.


The joint declaration signed on Friday, Aug. 8, in Kabul by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s two presidential candidates, offers a roadmap for the formation of a national unity government that finally can move the country forward.

Afghanistan’s history has been akin to Greek tragedy, filled with triumphs and tragedies — and lost opportunities. The nation’s recent history is no exception. From the savagery of the Soviets to the tyranny of the Taliban, the Afghan people suffered tremendous loss of life, destruction of property, and the uprooting of millions of people. Yet throughout these immense challenges, they have maintained their strong spirit.

I recall my first return to Afghanistan in February 2002 after a 26-year absence. Despite the visible destruction, people told me that they did not feel like victims. In fact, they had a tremendous sense of optimism that the then newly minted Bonn Agreement framework would provide the foundation for the rule of law and good governance. That is why the Afghans enthusiastically participated in 2004 elections. 

The Bonn process was flawed, and so was the government that grew out of it. But the Afghan people did see significant improvements in their lives. According to the United Nations, during the past decade country experienced the fastest growth in human development index ratings among all nations. For instance, infant mortality dropped by more than a factor of four; life expectancy grew from 42 to 62; access to electricity grew from 6 percent of the population to 30 percent; GDP grew annually by 9 percent; media outlets grew from one to over 700; and more that 86 percent of the population has cell phone access.  

Despite these important gains, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest nations. This dubious status speaks to the tremendous damage and destruction afflicted on the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

The greatest Afghan achievement in the past decade, however, was the development of a constitution based on sound principles of good governance. Once the new government is installed, its leaders must put a greater emphasis on implementing all aspects of the constitution. They should keep in mind that democracy is not an activity that is exercised one day every five years — it an ongoing pursuit.  

Despite the disappointments and broken promises over the past decade, the Afghan people have demonstrated tremendous courage, resilience, and faith in the democratic process. Millions of people defied the threats of the insurgency and exercised their right to vote this year. The presidential election in April turned into the runoff in June. Now, Afghans and the international community await the results.

In the arduous audit procedure now underway, both Ghani and Abdullah have demonstrated remarkable statesmanship. Their public agreement on Aug. 8, announced alongside U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, was an important step for Afghan democracy. Now, every Afghan leader must join them — setting aside partisan differences and personal interests to focus the future of the country on what needs to done after the results of the U.N.-supervised audit are announced. Together, they must utilize the nation’s constitution to build internal consensus and seek innovative ways to channel Afghanistan’s resources for maximum public good.

One of the first elements the eventual winner should concentrate on is providing economic opportunities for the new generation of Afghan youth. Over the past decade, the country’s educational facilities have made real progress, turning out talented young people eager to improve their lives and their families’. There is much still to be done to provide sufficient opportunities for the growing youth population, but the educational foundation now exists for young men and women to change the course of their nation.

There is an immediate need to ensure the rule of law in all key functions of the government. This should include, but not be limited to, creating an effective security service with clearly defined rules; ensuring public finances are adequately directed as part of a national accountability system; and creating a functioning judiciary that will be credible, meet international standards of due process, and can fairly adjudicate disputes in a timely manner.

It is essential that functioning markets are built to create sustainable jobs for a youth that is largely unemployed. This can be accomplished by developing an integrated value-chain system to create access for agricultural and other products within the country and abroad. Of course, the creation of jobs will reduce the potential recruits for insurgency and other illicit activities.  

Efforts to develop Afghanistan’s ample natural resources have been less successful in providing the country with a path toward self-sufficiency. The potential exists, but it is held back by the lack of a transparent licensing regime for mining and other industries that hold the key to weaning Afghanistan from both international assistance and the scourge of opium.

The modernization of Afghanistan’s dilapidated and insufficient infrastructure will harness new market forces and create new capabilities to grow the economy and build social capital for many citizens. This could include building key roads, alternate energy sources, and water ways that would collectively create additional market opportunities, promote entrepreneurial enterprises, and generate wealth.

The above list is by no means is comprehensive or complete. But it is a good start as Afghanistan confronts this historic opportunity to propel the country forward. The Afghan public heroically did its part. Now, Afghanistan’s leaders and the Afghan diaspora must have the audacity of imagination and the courage of commitment to rise up to these challenges and do their part, as well.

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