Almost twelve years have passed since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but peace remains elusive. Four interlocking challenges with internal, regional, transnational, and international dimensions impede Afghanistan's stabilization and reconstruction. Each challenge facing Afghanistan feeds off the others, and together they have engendered a vicious circle that is destabilizing the country.
First, Afghanistan is an underdeveloped country and much of its infrastructure has been destroyed by conflict. Its new state institutions lack the basic capacity and resources to administer their mandates. These structural problems are compounded by the country's expanding population, 70% of which is illiterate and demand jobs that do not exist. Taken together, abject poverty, a lack of basic services, and a demographic explosion significantly contribute to instability in Afghanistan.
Second, it is clear that the Taliban leadership continues to receive protection from the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments. It stands to reason that without an external sanctuary, sustainable funding, weapons supplies, and intelligence support in Pakistan, the Taliban would be unable to reconsolidate its control over Afghanistan. Since 2003, the Taliban and its affiliated networks have gradually expanded their influence in the ungoverned southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, launching daily terrorist attacks that have injured and killed thousands of innocent civilians.
Third, Afghanistan is vulnerable to transnational security threats, stemming in particular from the narcotics trade and terrorism stand. These security threats feed into and are fed by Afghanistan's internal and regional challenges. Rife poverty and weak governance, for example, are as much responsible for mass drug production in Afghanistan as is the global demand for narcotics; this is not to mention the alliance between the Taliban and drug traffickers, who exploit Afghanistan's vulnerable population to destabilize the country.
Fourth, although the diversity of nations present in Afghanistan demonstrates international goodwill and consensus for supporting the country, each contributing nation has pursued its own aid strategies, effectively bypassing coordination with each other and the Afghan government. Hence, a lack of strategic coordination across international military and civilian efforts to ensure aid effectiveness has so far crippled the Afghan state and left it with no capacity or resources to deliver basic services to its people.
It is important to note, however, that in the face of the aforementioned complex challenges, Afghanistan and its international partners have a number of significant advantages, which must be fully harnessed to regain the momentum necessary to achieve peace in the country.
Foremost among these is Afghanistan's key, untapped asset: its people, who make up one of the youngest, most energetic, and most forward-looking nations in the world. They should be supported in acquiring higher education in technical fields, and their energy and skills must be harnessed to exploit Afghanistan's vast natural resources, worth more than one trillion dollars, to help the country develop a productive economy.
Secondly, Afghanistan's vital location should help it serve as a regional trade and transit hub for easy movement of goods and natural resources to meet the rising energy demands of India and China. Indeed, without this realization and utilization of Afghanistan as the heart of the New Silk Road, achieving regional economic integration will remain impossible. The recent India-China dialogue on how to protect their shared long-term interests in Afghanistan is a welcome development. The more these key regional players, including Russia and Turkey, get constructively involved in Afghanistan through investment in the country's virgin markets, the less space for the region's peace spoilers, whether state or non-state actors, to destabilize the country.
Finally, Afghanistan's friends and allies have gone through the learning curve, and gained invaluable experience in assisting Afghanistan effectively. Together, they have made many mistakes and learned many lessons over the past 12 years, which should be used as a strategic opportunity to avoid more of the same, and to do the right thing henceforth.
In line with the agreed-upon objectives of the 2010 Kabul Conference, which were re-affirmed in the Tokyo Conference last year, Afghanistan's nation-partners should align 80% of their aid with the goals of the country's national priority programs, while channeling at least 50% of their assistance through the Afghan national budget. This is the best way to prevent further waste of taxpayers' financial assistance, which have largely bypassed the targeted beneficiaries.
This means a firm re-commitment to bottom-up and top-down institutional capacity building in the Afghan state so that Afghans increasingly initiate, design, and implement reconstruction projects on their own. Meanwhile, the Afghan national security forces must be equipped with the necessary capabilities -- including capacity for logistics and equipment maintenance as well as adequate ground and air firepower -- to execute independent operations against conventional and unconventional enemies. This way, they will gradually relieve international forces of the duty Afghans consider to be theirs - to defend Afghanistan now and beyond 2014. On the whole, these vital efforts will help ensure the irreversibility of the transition process currently underway.
The Afghan people have placed much hope and trust in the strategic partnership agreements the Afghan government has signed with the United States, India, and other allies to help address the above security challenges confronting Afghanistan. But this long-term and necessary task cannot be accomplished by any one party alone. Every state in the region and beyond has a stake in the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan, knowing that the effects of terrorism and insecurity in one country can easily spill over to affect the rest in a globalized world. Thus, with Afghans leading the way forward, the burden of securing Afghanistan must be shared by the whole international community, both to ensure durable stability in the country and to maintain global peace and security.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the deputy chief of mission of the Afghan Embassy in India. He formerly served as Afghanistan's deputy assistant national security adviser, as well as deputy chief of mission of the Afghan Embassy in the United States.
As the United States continues to withdraw troops and materiel from Afghanistan, the rhetoric from President Hamid Karzai's administration wavers between being fairly pro-American and caustically anti-American, and speculation about reconciliatory negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgent groups abound, it is difficult to remain optimistic about the durability of institutions America has helped build in Afghanistan. However, there is one institution that stands out amongst its peers as a clear success story.
Southwest of Kabul's beautiful Babur Gardens, home of the Mughal Empire founder's tomb, a nondescript maroon door is set back into cream blast walls. Although they look no different than the other concrete walls surrounding compounds along the main road to the battered Darul Aman palace, what happens inside those walls is changing the minds and lives of individuals from all over the country who have the opportunity to attend. Just over the hill from the center of Kabul and past the old city wall, the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) may be on the outskirts of the capital city, but it is quickly sinking roots into the town and making connections around the country.
It is changing the way that Afghans view and access higher education. Mrs. Sultana Hakimi, wife of Afghan ambassador to the United States Eklil Ahmad Hakimi, spoke of the importance of the university's activities when she observed that, "With such a dynamic society [in which] 60 percent is under the age of 20, Afghanistan will rely heavily on the emerging generations." These young Afghans have no small task ahead of them, even if they seek only to restore their country to a level of stability and security similar to that it last enjoyed in the mid twentieth century.
Since it opened in 2006 with an initial enrollment of 53 students, AUAF has had great success.
AUAF graduated its first class in 2011 and currently has just under a thousand undergraduate students, with the student body nearly doubling during seasonal classes that focus on adult education programs. These adult education programs focus on teaching the GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) ministry staff, which dovetails with other U.S Government efforts to build professional capacity across Afghanistan's administrative bodies.
The university's campus is housed in a series of buildings that was originally constructed as the American International School of Kabul from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, and the campus has long been the center of learning, including the brief period during which it served
as the Soviet intelligence headquarters during their occupation of Afghanistan through the 1980s. The five-acre campus is currently near its maximum capacity of one thousand undergraduate students, and houses administrative offices, classrooms, science and information technology (IT) labs, a teleconferencing suite, athletic facilities, and a state-of-the-art library that receives Western publications a mere two weeks after their official release.
Across the road is another 80 acres-recently acquired by the university-which will accommodate a women's center and another IT center, as well as staff and faculty housing. The International Center for Afghan Women's Economic Development, the first center of its kind to facilitate both international and Afghan public and private sector efforts to advance the role of women in the economic stabilization of the country, is only the first of many new resources planned for student use on the new campus. It is slated to open just 13 months after groundbreaking, demonstrating an unheard of rate of construction for a complex of that size pretty much anywhere in the world, let alone in the middle of a conflict zone.
Said Jawad, former Afghan Ambassador to the United States and President of the Foundation for Afghanistan, remarked of the center that, "True economic prosperity and peace can only come from harnessing the myriad talents and courage of Afghan women... the lessons we have learned in the last decade teach us to avoid duplication of efforts but, rather, be force multipliers." Like many other supporters of the AUAF, the Foundation for Afghanistan stands ready to connect rural and urban women and their respective projects with the work of the university and its new women's center. The center will open on May 25, 2013, in conjunction with the graduation of AUAF's third undergraduate class and first cohort of business school students.
Needless to say, the security situation in Kabul is a concern for the students, faculty, and staff of AUAF. In October 2011, a massive suicide car bomb was driven into a military shuttle bus just beyond the gates of the university. The attack took 13 American lives, as well as those of at least half a dozen bystanders. That event was the second largest single loss of American lives since the war began, behind only the tragic helicopter crash that killed 30 U.S. troops a few short months earlier.
As Matt Trevithick-who worked for two and a half years as the university's Media Relations Manager-remarked, "We don't forget where we are, [and we] provide the safest environment we can." Visitors are screened prior to entry through the main gate, and are vetted and searched thoroughly before proceeding through metal detectors to the campus grounds. Armed guards keep watch over the campus and quickly blend away into the sense of normalcy that blankets the university's goings-on.
Within the perimeter of the blast walls is a safe zone, and at the heart of the campus is a grass quad where students are free to act as they like and voice their own thoughts. Building a community in which students feel comfortable engaging in free discourse is important to the university's academic environment, and plays a foundational role in building a strong civil society that students will export outside the university's walls following their graduation.
Aspects of pedagogy and thought that are central to many Western educational experiences can prove to be revelatory to new students at AUAF. Given Afghanistan's highly hierarchical social structure where elders make almost all of the most important decisions, the idea that it is the young students' responsibility to take ownership of fixing the country's problems is often intriguing to them. As Trevithick observed, "We're always telling them to ‘Identify the problem, propose a solution, and try to fix it.' Amazingly, students will come up to staff and professors here later and let us know that they have never been told this before."
In addition to exporting knowledge to villages far from the capital city, the university offers a rare
forum in which individuals from across the country can openly discuss events and debate ideas. As Trevithick explained, "We're the only school in Afghanistan that has the country's name in our name, and we have students from 33 of the 34 provinces. So, if there's an uprising in, say Ghazni, there's a good chance we have a student from that village that we can ask about it." In a country that is still in the nascent stages of redeveloping its national character, a place like AUAF is pivotal in building shared relationships and common identities.
Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who was awarded an honorary degree of humane letters by the university at the Friends of AUAF gala in March of this year at Washington, D.C.'s Museum of Women in the Arts, has said that he is a "strong believer in the power of education to change our world... at its best, education is a great equalizer. It unites us."
The value of education that both Afghans and Americans share is important to remember at times like this, when rhetoric can easily overtake reality. As Mrs. Shamim Jawad, also an AUAF Board of Trustees member (and wife of Amb. Jawad) said of the university's role in advancing Afghan-American relations: "The people of Afghanistan will never forget your sacrifices and count on your continued support and friendship...Afghan people have come a long way in building a peaceful, pluralistic, and prosperous society, and are determined to finish the journey that we have started jointly with you a decade ago. I can assure you that Afghans will never return to the dark days of repression."
The marked success of the independent university blazes a trail for other private entities to assume the risk and reward of pursuing their own ventures. As there is a move from coalition-led projects to Afghan-led initiatives, so too is it time to transition from government-led efforts to private sector-provided services like tertiary education. The university has already proven to be innovative and successful in a number of valuable ways, and its outlook for the future is equally promising.
CBS reporter Lara Logan summed up the university's value at the Friends of AUAF gala succinctly when she remarked, "There's stuff born in those classrooms that can outlast a war." If there is anything that the people of Afghanistan need right now, it's the durability of an education that students can never thereafter be deprived of.
Today, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its 2013 Annual Report, focusing on Pakistan and 28 other countries around the world, including Afghanistan. As an independent U.S. government advisory body separate from the State Department, USCIRF's Annual Report identifies violations of religious freedom, as defined by international conventions, and provides policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress.
Based on our monitoring over the past year, we have concluded that the situation in Pakistan is one of the worst in the world.
The report found that "sectarian and religiously-motivated violence is chronic, especially against Shi'a Muslims, and the government has failed to protect members of religious minority communities, as well as the majority faith." An array of repressive laws, including the much abused blasphemy law and religiously discriminatory anti-Ahmadi laws, foster an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism. The growth of militant groups espousing a violent religious ideology that undertake attacks impact all Pakistanis and threatens the country's security and stability.
In the face of increasing attacks against Shi'as and consistent violence against other minorities, Pakistani authorities have failed to provide protection and have not consistently brought perpetrators to justice or taken action against societal actors who incite violence.
In light of these particularly severe violations, USCIRF recommends that Pakistan be designated a "country of particular concern," or CPC, by the U.S. Department of State for these systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom. The CPC designation is a special blacklist created when Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed in 1998 the International Religious Freedom Act. Unlike some other ‘blacklists,' the CPC designation does not carry any specific penalties for the countries on the list. What it does do is assign a framework through which U.S. officials can encourage the designated country's government to address the egregious violations of religious freedom. This can come in the form of a binding roadmap of agreed actions, a waiver, or punitive steps if progress is lacking.
Countries currently named by the State Department include: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated as "countries of particular concern," and USCIRF has concluded it overwhelmingly meets the threshold established in the Act.
The facts speak for themselves. As the report states:
The Pakistani government failed to effectively intervene against a spike in targeted violence against the Shi'a Muslim minority community, as well as violence against other minorities. With elections scheduled for May 2013, additional attacks against religious minorities and candidates deemed "unIslamic" will likely occur. Chronic conditions remain, including the poor social and legal status of non-Muslim religious minorities and the severe obstacles to free discussion of sensitive religious and social issues faced by the majority Muslim community. The country's blasphemy law, used predominantly in Punjab province but also nationwide, targets members of religious minority communities and dissenting Muslims and frequently results in imprisonment. USCIRF is aware of at least 16 individuals on death row and 20 more serving life sentences. The blasphemy law, along with anti-Ahmadi laws that effectively criminalize various practices of their faith, has created a climate of vigilante violence. Hindus have suffered from the climate of violence and hundreds have fled Pakistan for India. Human rights and religious freedom are increasingly under assault, particularly women, members of religious minority communities, and those in the majority Muslim community whose views deemed "un-Islamic." The government has proven unwilling or unable to confront militants perpetrating acts of violence against other Muslims and religious minorities.
Designating Pakistan as a CPC would make religious freedom a key element in the bilateral relationship and start a process to encourage Islamabad to undertake needed reforms.
There are a range of issues that should be on the bilateral agenda, whether or not Pakistan is designated a CPC. The U.S. government should include discussions on religious freedom and religious tolerance in U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogues and summits, as well as urge Pakistan to protect religious minorities from violence and actively prosecute those committing acts of violence against Shi'as, Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, and others; unconditionally release individuals currently jailed for blasphemy; repeal or reform the blasphemy law; and repeal anti-Ahmadi laws. The United States can also highlight to the new government how the Federal Ministry for National Harmony is an institution unique among other nations, and maintaining it would keep a partner to discuss ways to promote religious tolerance and freedom. For sure, none of these are easy, so naming as a CPC would cut through the distractions and help create the political will to act.
The situation in Pakistan is acute, with the increasing violence against diverse religious communities and a system of laws that violate human rights. With a new government soon coming to power, there is a unique opportunity to work together to confront these threats to Pakistan. At the same time, negative pressures could tilt the new government in the wrong direction. For instance, the Pakistani Taliban's targeting of "secular politicians" could give traction to their offer from late 2012 to cease violence in exchange for constitutional amendments to install their religious vision over the country. The CPC process would support Pakistanis who want a better future for their country and counterbalance these pressures -- if the Pakistani government fails to address these issues concretely, penalties could follow after a CPC designation.
The United States is Pakistan's only friend that has the heft and desire to encourage it to tackle these difficult challenges. For sure, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is complicated and designating a CPC would likely complicate things further. However, to protect all Pakistanis, these issues cannot be ignored and must be confronted and addressed.
Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Any personal views expressed are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the commission. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22.
Pakistan's security and economic woes are frequently discussed in policy circles in Washington, D.C. and Islamabad. Little attention, however, is given to the country's youth population which, at a staggering 50 million, comprises more than 25 percent of Pakistan's population (in the United States, youth account for only 13 percent).
When practitioners and pundits speak about Pakistani youth -- defined by the Ministry of Youth Affairs as the population within the age bracket of 15-29 years -- they often depict the demographic as a potential security threat or as a misguided group that is unable to move the country forward.
For instance, when talking about Pakistan's youth population to a global news agency, the United Nations Population Fund Country Representative warned that "If young people do not find their expectations met, their energies may be directed towards undesirable activities, like radicalization." This is a view held by most development practitioners and analysts. However, the declaration of the "International Year of Youth" in 2010-2011, and the October 2012 release of the U.S Agency for International Development's first Policy on Youth in Development reveal a growing international consensus on the importance of youth integration in development initiatives. As a result, the time to pivot the conversation from Pakistani youth as a security threat to them as viable partners is now.
To help prepare the youth in Pakistan to be better leaders, there must be a concentrated effort to create channels that go beyond simply providing a platform to voice concerns. Programs must enable youth leaders to shape and contribute to national development efforts. The United States AmeriCorps program, which offers youth of all backgrounds to serve communities through partnerships with local and national nonprofit groups, is one such example.
If analysts and practitioners continue to adhere to the ongoing negative narrative about youth, which assumes that young Pakistanis are prone to violence, radicalization, or simply disinterest, they block youth's access to positions in political parties, government institutions, and private and public decision-making bodies that build their capacity to effectively lead national development efforts.
This is unfortunate given that close to half of Pakistan's voters are considered youth by Pakistan's government standards. Local youth feel disengaged with the national and provincial policymaking process, as revealed by a recent roundtable on youth participation organized by the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. The roundtable further noted that when youth--particularly those from rural constituencies--do vote, it is largely along the lines of traditional allegiances and biradari (tribal) affiliations. This is a reality check for pundits who feel that youth as a demographic entity in and of itself will affect change. It will take well-defined policy measures and serious resource allocation to transform the country's youth into a demographic dividend.
One obvious step is greater investment in education and job training for Pakistan's youth. The World Bank's 2007 World Development Report suggested that developing countries which invest in better education, healthcare, and job training for their young people are better equipped to take advantage of their demographic dividend to accelerate economic growth. This is corroborated by a recent report by the Population Reference Bureau, a data-focused international non-profit organization, which states that large numbers of young people can represent great economic potential, but only if families and governments invest in their health and education, and provide them with economic opportunities.
Macro-economic benefits aside, investment in education and job training provide both urban and rural youth with greater options, such as moving to another town, finding alternate and better sources of livelihood, and setting their own values and priorities, which will ultimately influence voting patterns.
A recent United States Institute of Peace paper, "Prospects of Youth Radicalization in Pakistan" highlighted how growing inequality in Pakistan has manifested itself in the high level of underemployment among youth from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Although the labor market has expanded, its growth is not commensurate with the size of the youth cohort. Therefore, a majority of non-elite young graduates can only find relatively blue-collar jobs. Graduates from a vast majority of Pakistan's public sector institutions are simply not considered competitive by Pakistan's private sector firms that seek English-speaking individuals with diverse exposure, a broad knowledge base, and robust analytical ability.
Sobia Nusrat, Manager of Academics and Admission at the Institute for Career and Personal Development, a new organization that specifically aims to equip middle-class university graduates with the skills needed to succeed professionally, states that one of the major challenges faced by the students she and her team work with is their inability to communicate in English, both written and verbal. "Their thinking and problem solving skills are quite weak due to Pakistan's academic institutions' focus on rote learning." She adds that in order to help address this challenge, in addition to greater investment in education and job training, "There is need for more collaboration between the industry and education providers in terms of not only increasing the skills of youth but also linking them to Pakistan's economic needs."
Some government agencies are making an effort to address this issue. The Punjab Government-through its Youth Affairs, Sports, Tourism and Archaeology Department-announced the establishment of the Job Bank-Online under its first-ever youth policy. The portal aims to conduct job market surveys, build a database to inform Punjab's youth about potential openings, and guide educational and vocational training institutes regarding industry trends. Under the new policy, the Department also announced the establishment of the Youth Venture Capital Fund, which will support new business ideas and entrepreneurship amongst young men and women.
Local-level initiatives like this are a welcome approach to a complex, widespread issue. That said, close monitoring and evaluation must be done to measure the Punjab Government's progress in meeting its goals. If effective, there is potential for scaling and replication elsewhere in Pakistan.
And while providing Pakistani youth with meaningful livelihood opportunities is important to national economic growth, parallel efforts must be pursued to develop their soft skills and competencies such as effective communication skills, teamwork, problem solving, and critical thinking, all which will make them more workplace ready and equip them to lead Pakistan's local and national institutions in the future.
Young Pakistani leaders have already launched a large number of promising local programs that work to create social and political awareness among youth, and encourage youth participation in development efforts. That said, many of these organizations are centered around a vague notion of ‘change' and general disillusionment with Pakistani politics, and are largely disconnected from Pakistan's mainstream political parties and government bodies. While the passions of dedicated citizens instill hope in the future of Pakistan, the isolation from policymaking and disconnect from implementing institutions impede their ability to expand and scale. They also hinder the youth leaders' abilities to sustainably build capacity later as policy professionals working within Pakistan's institutional system.
To that end, efforts such as the Youth Parliament Pakistan-established by the local non-profit Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency to educate and train youth in the norms of politics and democracy in the country-are critical and deserve national government and international donor support. Haider A. H. Mullick, a former adjunct fellow at Spearhead Pakistan, a non-partisan think tank, has put forth a few thoughtful recommendations including expanding the voting rights of political parties' youth-wing members and introducing leadership and civic education courses on campuses.
With Pakistan's general election taking place this May, the time for the country's civil society organizations and political parties to begin constructively engaging youth in the campaigning and election process is now. One hopes that the Pakistani youth's professional and civic growth will not be held hostage by the adult populace's failure to recognize their value and role in Pakistan's development.
Maryam Jillani is a youth development specialist at an international non-profit organization in Washington D.C. She received her MPA from Cornell University, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most people remember the harrowing cover of TIME in late July 2010 depicting the 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off following a Taliban sentence for her attempt to flee from an abusive husband. Many can recall the penetrating glare of the green-eyed Afghan girl in a refugee camp on the cover of National Geographic. Both images are powerful reminders of the past atrocities, present humanitarian strife, and future aspirations of millions in Afghanistan as the international military presence draws down. Many Afghans ask, "Can my country avoid a relapse into civil war?" Even those who assess this question with some optimism still find themselves asking, "Will Afghanistan be safe enough to raise my children and build a livelihood?"
Preventing an outright civil war is directly related to the national interests of the coalition countries engaged in Afghanistan. A civil war would strengthen the hands of the numerous terrorist groups that operate on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Moreover, destabilizing spill-over effects would weaken an already fragile Pakistan, exacerbating the internal cleavages and security threats confronting the state with the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal. Therefore, the primary objective of the U.S.-led coalition is to ensure a stable and cooperative Afghan political order that denies terrorist groups the capacity and opportunity to conduct large-scale attacks against Western interests.
Human rights perspectives, beyond those necessary to achieve this primary objective, are at best second order issues. If human rights were a primary objective, the international community would have intervened earlier and stayed longer-something that is unfeasible and not in the interest of any of the coalition countries currently engaged in Afghanistan. But this does not and should not preclude an effort to advance human rights in Afghanistan while the international coalition is present. Though a second-tier objective, the international community has an interest in and a moral duty to improve human rights, or at least to do no harm.
The problem is that the human rights agenda has been undermined by unrealistic goals and ineffective efforts, too often driven by a desire to please domestic, Western audiences rather than to help the Afghan population. International rhetoric has often elevated the drive to promote human rights-in particular the equality of women-as a goal on par with the primary security agenda. This reflects measures of both idealism and cynicism. Some have held sincere yet naïve visions of Afghanistan's social and political transformation. Others have simply used the human rights agenda as an instrument to garner political legitimacy and justify the human and material costs.
Both views have led to vast amounts of foreign aid and political attention being squandered. Many schools and clinics have been built irrespective of the local demand. Foreign aid has been conditioned by counterproductive gender quotas. Incredible amounts of time and resources have been spent on largely symbolic cases such as legislation on women's shelters or on Shiite marriages or the recent appointment of the new intelligence chief, Asadullah Khalid. But battling atrocious laws or a controversial appointment is the wrong fight. What matters is what affects the human rights that Afghan's exercise in their daily lives.
This raises the question: What is the right fight? What is the realist perspective on human rights in Afghanistan? Without reverting to naïve aspirations and while maintaining a realistic order of objectives, how can the international community more effectively advance human rights?
The single most effective thing the international community has done to promote human rights in Afghanistan and empower women is to send Afghan boys to school. This should certainly not be understood as an argument against girls' schools or female education in general. But under conditions tantamount to patriarchal totalitarianism, the key to promoting human rights resides in the hands of Afghan men. Save a rebellion by Afghan women, only a voluntary shift in the attitudes of Afghan men can empower women and advance the human rights of every Afghan. All Afghan girls should get an education, but unless the men ease their repressive dominance, half of the population will never have the opportunity to exercise their human rights. Such attitudinal shifts are more sustainable if nurtured indigenously and voluntarily through education. Conditioning aid on gender quotas and human rights principles mostly leads to counterproductive tension or symbolic gestures by Afghan counterparts.
In theory, conditioning aid could perhaps entice a shift in Afghan behavior but unless the international community is ready to withhold aid entirely if conditions are unmet-and be willing to jeopardize their national interests at stake-it is very unlikely to occur in practice. Afghans know this. Besides, once the international presence in Afghanistan recedes, human rights gains will erode in the absence of the indigenous preference shifts necessary to sustain them. For change to last, Afghans must want it.
The good news is that primary education is one of the greatest legacies of the international effort in Afghanistan since 2001. Fewer than 1 million children were in school before the intervention and virtually no girls received primary education. Today, some 9 million children receive primary education and about 40 percent are girls. This is a monumental achievement. Unfortunately, it is not mirrored in the higher education sector. Although progress has undoubtedly occurred-Kabul, for instance, has witnessed a surge in newly established universities-the capacity of the higher education sector is still far from sufficient to absorb the influx of students from the primary sector. A more concerted international effort to improve the higher education sector would significantly increase the opportunity of the youth to fulfill their potential and, in doing so, improve conditions for advancing human rights and greater gender equality.
A realistic time horizon is also important to establishing an effective human rights effort. Too much, too soon is too risky. Some say clocks tick slower in Afghanistan. It is safe to say, at least, that past attempts to quickly roll out vast social reforms have triggered civil unrest. Modernizing efforts by King Amanullah Khan ignited revolts and eventually a civil war in 1928. He was forced to abdicate the next year. Only the Soviet intervention in 1979 kept the Communist rule from the same fate after it had introduced its radical reform agenda in 1978.
The lesson is that sustainable social change in Afghanistan is slow. The human rights agenda must therefore be attuned to a long-term perspective. Here is great potential. Navigating between currents of modernization and conservatism, between forces of societal change, tradition, and stagnation, Afghans will chart their own course on human rights after 2014. In doing so, the Afghan youth can be decisive. In a country stricken by an adult illiteracy rate around 70 percent, and where 43 percent of its 30 million inhabitants are aged 14 or younger, the 9 million children currently in school have truly transformative potential.
Surely the lives of too many Afghans can still be described in Hobbesian terms as brutish, nasty, and short. Immediate and concerted action remains necessary as human rights violations and humanitarian strife across the country must be addressed. It is because of this that many international actors take a short-term view when assessing how to advance human rights and show legible results. This has a persuasive logic, but it also has counterproductive implications. In particular, this short-term lens has led to a strong inclination in the international community to focus on the near-term ebbs and flows of the human rights agenda in insulated Kabul.
International pushback against proposed legislation and specific cabinet appointments has often dominated the human rights agenda. Highly visible international intervention in a specific political or legal case may resonate well with Western audiences, but through Afghan eyes it risks tainting the human rights agenda as an avenue of international social engineering and a principle question of Afghan sovereignty. Such perceptions render Afghan advocates of human rights much less effective and undermine the local ownership which is so difficult to nurture, but so important in order to sustain change.
An incremental, low-profile, long-term international effort holds the greatest chance of success in the promotion of human rights in Afghanistan. A more realistic and effective approach must cultivate and support Afghan agents of change, particularly the educated youth. But their potential can only be unleashed if they are given the opportunity to do so by a stable environment. As security is the basis of any human rights progress in Afghanistan, the primary objective of a stable country bereft of terrorist havens both meets and complements the human rights agenda.
Christian Bayer Tygesen is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Copenhagen University. He conducted field research and diplomatic assignments in Kabul in 2011 and 2012.