The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 demonstrated the United States’ military prowess, as well as its relatively weak plans for the future development of Afghanistan. The life of the average Afghan citizen is indisputably better than it had been under the Taliban – exposure to technology, education, and opportunities for women have exponentially increased. However, the economy remains hopelessly reliant on foreign aid. Close to 90% of public expenditure is funded by foreign aid, and most high paying jobs are contracted out to foreigners.
The lack of concentration on economic development also reveals perhaps the most fundamental flaw in Afghanistan’s reconstruction – assumptions regarding the cultural complexities of Afghanistan. Imposing a central government works best in more homogeneous societies with common cultural values, goals, or traditions. Afghanistan is far from a homogeneous society, not only culturally (religiously, linguistically, etc.), but also in lifestyle and quality of living. An understanding of this dichotomy is vital to the success of Afghanistan’s future.
Nearly 80% of Afghans live in rural areas where incidents of poverty are more severe and the Taliban has a stronger presence. In some rural areas of eastern Afghanistan, caravans of camels still carry the belongings of nomads who move from town to town on single dirt road. Contrast this with the crowded Kabul roads, with the foreign consultants who work in Kabul earning upwards of $250,000 a year and the buildings with en suite bathrooms and bulletproof windows they rent. A clear and growing divide between these lifestyles further complicates the cohesion of Afghan society, and thus the negotiation and election processes.
The condition of civil society in rural areas lags behind the institutionalized efforts at propping up civil participation in urban environments, perpetuating the urban/rural divide. Rural Afghans have yet to attain the means to actively challenge the government within the context of their new Constitutional government, while urban Afghans have a higher exposure to lessons in civil society. For example, the USAID has funded Civil Society Support Centers to provide capacity training and grant support in cities, but this aid has yet to effectively reach rural areas, where conservative governance remains particularly oppressive. In addition, the presence of the Taliban in these areas will foster a different political landscape that shows something much deeper than the material differences between urban and rural Afghan communities – a division in attitudes and fundamental beliefs regarding governance and the state of the country.
If we hope to see Afghanistan prosper and flourish from the election process in 2014, more attention must be paid to those in rural areas. Everything from their security, to their perceived role and participation in the centralized government, to their general quality of life, trails behind the status of their urban brothers and sisters. Foreign non-profits and governments must make a more concerted effort to reach these citizens with aid and support programs, all while attempting to ensure decreasing corruption and levels of wasted funds. The Afghan government must also push for greater influence in these areas, both as an effort to increase living standards of its people and as part of the larger battle against the Taliban. If their intention is to defeat the Taliban insurgency (or at least manage the threat), then a greater rural presence for troops and civil servant representatives is required. It is not a simple task, but to ignore it would result in the alienation of almost 80% of the Afghan population, a recipe for continued internal strife.
By Isabel Custodio