Afghanistan progresses but still needs support

Posted Saturday, Mar. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Kunduz Province in northern Afghanistan is littered with the relics of 30 years of conflict. Rusting Soviet tanks sit next to burned-out helicopters. De-mining crews still work the fields.

Kunduz was on the front lines of factional fighting during Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s and was one of the last holdouts against the Taliban when coalition forces attacked in late 2001. Fighting here was heavy, and most families have loved ones they lost in the war. Compared to my home in suburban Dallas, Kunduz might appear to be a different planet.

But juxtaposed with these grim reminders of the past is emerging a normal life that my friends in Texas surely would recognize. Crowds of young women gather in the streets each morning on their way to school, laughing, joking, talking on cell phones.

Produce spills out of overflowing bins in traders' stalls. Small crowds gather around televisions to watch Afghanistan's professional soccer league. People on the street exchange gossip, discuss business and debate the successes and failures of their government.

After more than 10 years of international presence in Kunduz, almost everyone here agrees that this is a fundamentally changed place.

As the U.S. State Department representative in Kunduz Province, I have been privileged to witness firsthand many of the positive changes. No one doubts that there still is much work left to do. Police officers and Afghan civilians still are at risk from occasional insurgent attacks. Corrupt warlords and private militias still hold sway in many remote districts. The poverty here still is crushing.

Nurturing democracy is one way we can help. A student here recently asked me, without irony, why a rich country like America only had two presidential candidates. "We are poor, but we have many more candidates!" he exclaimed.

His question reflects a country curious about democracy. Many Afghans are excited about voting, but they also worry about fraud and intimidation by extremists. With Afghans in the lead, we can help ensure a free and transparent presidential election in 2014.

The economy must grow faster. Despite a U.S.-built bridge between Kunduz Province and the country of Tajikistan, relatively few cargo trucks currently cross.

Closer trade ties with Afghanistan's neighbors and improved local production of high-quality agricultural products could change this. Here, too, we will continue to offer advice and assistance.

Finally, Afghanistan's progress depends on steadily improving governance. We must continue to support Afghans working to bring the government closer to the people, and increase their faith that the government and justice system will not serve only the powerful.

Last November in Kunduz, a poor shepherd girl named Lal Bibi testified in court against four policemen with political ties who had raped her. They all were convicted. This would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Every day, I see the wreckage of Afghanistan's past. But I also see its future. I see young men strolling through open fields, books open, studying for their exams. I see young women taking computer classes, learning the basics of word processing and internet research. I see a generation of young leaders asserting their independence from the older, too-often corrupt political networks.

The genuine optimism and aspirations of the young men and women of Kunduz are a powerful symbol of what the future might look like.

During the next year, our combat troops will draw down and our civilian role will change, but Afghanistan's young generation, with their drive and their hopes, still needs our support.

Derek Westfall of Richardson is the U.S. Civilian Team Leader at the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kunduz. The views expressed are his own.

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