James Dobbins, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, touted televised debates of presidential candidates, millions of new voters registered legitimately, and other visible signs to argue that Afghanistan has a chance at scoring the country’s first peaceful and democratic transfer of presidential power next month.

Election Prospects Give Afghanistan a Shot at Future Beyond 2014

“Whereas a year ago, many Afghans doubted that these elections would ever take place, more Afghans are now confident about the process and hopeful about the elections,” Dobbins told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace last week. Despite uncertainty “about the security transition and about the continued international commitment, recent polling suggest that most Afghans remain more optimistic about their future than most Americans are about Afghanistan’s future.”

Dobbins joined former American officials, U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) experts, Afghan media chiefs and others in calling for continued U.S. and international attention to ensure Afghanistan’s advances in health, education, economic growth and political development can be consolidated.

They spoke at a Feb. 28 forum at USIP, “Getting Beyond 2014 in Afghanistan,” co-sponsored by Voice of America and the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People (ASAP), to highlight the need for a focus on the country’s longer-term prospects. U.S. and other NATO troops are scheduled to leave this year unless an agreement is signed to allow a reduced force to stay.

“We need to take a long view here,” said USIP Chairman of the Board Stephen J. Hadley, who is among the signatories to ASAP.  For more than a decade, USIP has supported nascent civil society organizations, women’s empowerment, rule of law work and educational radio programming among a range of projects in Afghanistan. And, with the upcoming elections, the Institute’s top priority activity has been to help lay the foundations for a peaceful and legitimate electoral process.

The Feb. 28 forum was aimed at demonstrating that “Afghanistan still matters to the United States,” Hadley said, and that “America’s national security interests are best-served by the emergence of a stable and prosperous Afghanistan, that this objective can still be achieved, and that what has been accomplished in Afghanistan over the past decade offers some grounds for optimism.”

Andrew Wilder, USIP’s vice president for South and Central Asia programs, and VOA Director David Ensor lamented the drumbeat of negative news in America about Afghanistan. While it’s important to report the problems, that shouldn’t obscure and undermine the country’s true achievements in the past decade. Ensor, a former director of communications and public diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said the “If-it-bleeds-it-leads” imperative of U.S. media omits progress such as the building of health clinics.

“The American public has not heard the other half of the story,” he said.

Wilder recalled heading a policy research organization in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2005 and warning that all was not going as well as some in Washington were saying at the time.

“I now find myself somewhat in the opposite camp,” Wilder said. “Having worked in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, it is to me incredible what has been achieved.”

The United Nations Development Program has said Afghanistan registered the biggest improvement in human development -- health, education, and standard of living – of any country in the world, Dobbins said. Life expectancy has increased by more than 20 years to more than 62.

In addition, Afghanistan’s economy has grown. Improved legal and regulatory systems have helped attract more than $1.5 billion in investment by the telecom industry. So where there was one mobile phone company in 2001 with 21,000 subscribers, the country today has four companies with more than 16 million users. Telecommunications networks reach 90 percent of the population.

“All development progress in Afghanistan fundamentally rests upon the success of this transition,” said Alex Thier, an assistant to the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development who oversees policy, planning and learning.

Dobbins challenged conventional wisdom that the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan will go the way of that with Iraq three years ago – American forces withdrawing entirely because of the failure to reach a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) to keep some troops behind.

In Afghanistan, the accord is aimed at providing further training and support of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and for counterterrorism operations. U.S. and other coalition officials have made it clear that other types of assistance for development and economic support will mostly depend on whether a BSA is reached with the U.S. Karzai, who negotiated the agreement’s final terms with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, has since refused to sign it.

Dobbins said the Afghanistan case is different from Iraq in many ways.

“The Afghans want us to stay, they need us to stay, and we signed an agreement two years ago committing us to a long-term security partnership,” Dobbins said, adding that even Karzai has acknowledged the importance of such a pact. All leading presidential candidates also have said they would sign the agreement.  

The pact will be important to bolster the Afghan government’s position in relation to the Taliban in eventual peace negotiations, said Marc Grossman, Dobbins’ predecessor as special representative and an ASAP signatory.

Afghanistan’s future also will weigh on the future of that entire region, including Pakistan and India, Grossman said. He said he believes Afghans will fight for what has been achieved in the past decade for women, the economy, elections, politics, and media.

“We ought to have the patience and the courage to support the Afghans in their fight,” he said.

Clare Lockhart, the director and founder of the Institute for State Effectiveness (ISE Center) who also is a signatory to ASAP, said she was astonished to find the capabilities of 240,000 civil servants in Afghan institutions when she arrived there in 2002 because international institutions had said the country had little or no governing capacity. The main problem was a lack of resources because of the devastation of the previous decades of war. Since then there have been extensive reforms in those institutions as well.

Now, Afghanistan needs the coming election to help deliver inclusive politics with a leader who has a broad mandate, Lockhart said.

“Governance is part of peace and stability,” she said. “And it’s the many small wins, rather than a victory or a deal, that will deliver on that for Afghans.”

The fact that the country is running its upcoming elections without outside assistance for the first time is “a great sign,” said Thier, who first traveled there 21 years ago and was Wilder’s predecessor at USIP.

“Afghanistan has fundamentally changed -- when you look at its youth, its education, access to information, mobile phones, a taste of democracy, women in the economy, women in the political arena,” Thier said. “Those are all going to be powerful genies that are going to be really hard to put back into the bottle.”

Media outlets are taking their own steps to survive in a market where foreign assistance has generated 1,000 broadcast and print outlets that now must find independent financing in a conflict environment. Journalists are threatened, and warlords are vying to control the media.

Still, bestselling author Peter Bergen, director of the National Security Program at the New America Foundation, said freedom of the press is actually stronger in Afghanistan than in Pakistan. And Najib Sharifi, director of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (Afghan Voices), said journalistic professionalism in Afghanistan has come far.

Danish Karokhel, the director of Pajhwok Afghan News, said his company is looking for new streams of revenue from new products such as election and mining web sites and new subscription packages for mining companies. For security, 17 media outlets have formed an alliance to conduct investigative reporting in hopes of spreading the risk of attack.

Sharifi said Afghanistan’s 75 TV stations, more than 200 radio stations, and several hundred newspapers, web sites and other outlets made possible by U.S. and other international support has given the country remarkable freedom in a region controlled by authoritarian regimes.

“We cannot afford to lose this,” Sharifi said.

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