“Afghanistan is not hopeless.”
So said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) in a recent speech at the US Institute of Peace. Cotton, elected to the Senate last year after one term in the House of Representatives, is a former U.S. Army officer. He served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division and in 2008-9 with a U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan. Now a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Cotton is working to convince the president and his colleagues of the importance of continued U.S. and international engagement in support of the security, development, and humanitarian needs of the Afghan people.
Despite grim reports of attacks by the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other armed groups, along with the reality of Aghanistan’s mostly crippled economy, Cotton reminded his audience that “Afghans, Americans, and international partners on the contrary have made tremendous gains there — gains that have made the country safer and more secure, while giving millions of Afghans a chance to live safe, healthy, honorable, and meaningful lives.” He pointed to a six-year increase in Afghan life expectancy, to the eight times increase in children attending school since 2002, 8 million now, 40% of whom are girls, and to lowered incidence of infant and maternal mortality and improved access to health care and clean water.
In March, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abudllah Abdullah are scheduled to visit the United States and will be seeking the support of the Administration, Congress, and the public for continued U.S. assistance. Senator Cotton insisted that support should be forthcoming. These new leaders successful assumption of office marks an important milestone in Afghan history, namely the peaceful transfer of power. While the country had to wait for months for the election’s outcome to be settled by negotiations, the new president quickly signed security agreements with the U.S. and NATO, something former-President Karzai refused to do, despite public approval of these agreements. Officials have been named for a new cabinet and new investigations launched into the corruption and failure of the Afghan Bank.
In January the UN reported that increased ground fighting and the use of heavy weapons raised civilian casualties in Afghanistan to their highest level since 2009. Forty percent of the casualties were women and children and over 72% of the casualties resulted from anti-government elements. These attacks also displaced an additional 140,000 Afghans, increasing total registered displacement at over 700,000, the majority living in urban areas. Afghanistan last year adopted a national policy on the rights and treatment of its internally displaced. The new government is expected to be more attuned to implementing the IDP policy and to working with the United Nations, civil society, and local officials on developing durable solutions for its displaced citizens. One key, according to the UN, will be overcoming a severe shortage of adequate shelter for returnees, those forcibly displaced, victims of natural disasters, and extremely vulnerable refugee families. Afghan public opinion polls suggest people are most concerned with improving security, creating jobs, and lessening corruption.
Afghanistan has come a long way. No doubt continued security and development assistance from the U.S. and NATO nations may be keys to Afghanistan’s future, but the commitment of its leaders to good governance and reform will remain the essential element in the equation. Afghans I have met are hopeful, even optimistic about the future. They don’t want to contemplate returning to the past and more decades of war, which would undo all the hard-won gains. They ask that the U.S. and others not abandon them. Sen. Cotton would agree. As he said, “America is safer today because [of] our efforts in Afghanistan.”
Photo: An internally displaced Afghan woman and child. Kabul, 2011.