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Don't ignore Afghanistan achievements

Published May 05. 2013 4:00AM

The prevalent opinion is that despite all the blood and treasure the United States has invested in Afghanistan it remains unchanged - a backward, impoverished and corrupt country. Yet while it is indeed in many ways all of those things, to say it is unchanged would be wrong. It has arguably changed and improved more than any country in the world since American and international forces invaded in 2001.

By most every measure, massive U.S. (predominately) and international aid has led to dramatic improvements. People on average are living much longer, more children have access to education and everyone to health care, the economy has grown substantially, an independent media is in place for the first time since the Soviet Union invasion in 1979, and women have made exceptional advances.

Some would compare the situation now, as the United States moves forward with plans to withdraw most troops and end military operations in 2014, with the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989 after that country's 10-year occupation of Afghanistan. In reality there is no comparison.

With the withdrawal of the Soviet military - its defeat brought about in signficant part by clandestine U.S. military assistance for radical Islamic rebel forces - the country was left with a damaged infrastructure, no central authority and an economy in ruin. Neither the U.S. nor the Soviets seemed to care what would follow.

Filling the resulting void was the Taliban, a religious/military movement that slaughtered its opponents, tolerated only its extreme form of Islamic practice, outlawed all entertainment, and insisted women remain uneducated, fully covered and subservient.

Perhaps a lesson learned, U.S. humanitarian efforts will, conversely, leave behind a stronger country and a society better positioned, both militarily and socially, to resist the reemergence of those forces.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has invested $14 billion in civilian assistance, a fraction of the $625 billion invested militarily, but an outlay that has produced some dramatic success.

In 2002, about 900,000 boys were going to school and virtually no girls. Now 8 million students are enrolled, around one-third are girls. University enrollment is up nearly 10-fold, now 77,000 students. USAID has built about 600 schools and helped train 54,000 teachers.

There are about 2,000 health care facilities, four times as many as 2002, and 60 percent of the population has access to health services (considered to be within a one-hour walk), up from 9 percent. Life expectancy has increased from 42 years to 62 years; the child mortality rate has been cut in half; and the ratio of women dying during childbirth has dropped from 1,600 per 100,000 births to 327. Assisted by USAID, the Afghan Midwives Association trains thousands of Afghan women to assist in child birth.

Other developments:

• Afghanistan's GDP in 2011 was $19.1 billion, a five-fold increase since 2002, averaging 9 percent growth per year.

• While electricity reaches only 18 percent of Afghans, that is up from 6 percent in 2002.

• Women, who had no role in government a decade ago, hold 27 percent of Parliament seats and 120 judicial positions.

We don't suggest that all has gone well. Corruption, poor performance, contractor overcharges and security challenges have hindered progress. After three years and $222 million invested, USAID ended a provincial road project that fell far short of objectives. But inspector general reviews found military spending far more susceptible to fraud than the civilian aid.

As the United States withdraws, it will still be leaving behind a struggling country. And most of the progress has been seen in Kabul and other cities. Vast remote areas will remain difficult to govern and most susceptible to the return of Taliban and associated forces.

The question is whether Afghanistan can sustain its advances after the U.S. military drawdown. Alex Their, a top administrator in the USAID program, is guardedly optimistic that it can. The vast majority of Afghans are invested in the current path, he said, and see the philosophy of the Taliban as backward. Surveys find the Army the most respected institution.

Mobile communication has changed the dynamics of life in Afghanistan. In 2002 the country had 40,000 fixed telephone lines and virtually no outside phone communication. Today there are 18 million cell phone subscribers and the phone network covers 90 percent of the population. Afghan's people are less isolated and so less easy to exploit.

Afghanistan has a chance to keep moving toward the modern world. It was not all for nothing. That should provide some small solace to the families of the 4,486 U.S. service people who died there.

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