I just returned last week from Afghanistan. While there, I met with senior foreign and Afghan government officials, including a provincial governor, as well as ordinary Afghans. I don’t claim to be an expert in this complex country, but my observations are rooted in Mercy Corps’ 26 years of work there. And I left more optimistic about the country’s prospects than ever before.
While everyone has grave concerns about Afghanistan's future — especially post-2014, when U.S troops have been significantly drawn down — no one I met thought this would leave the country in a doomsday situation. Instead, most thought that Afghanistan would forge ahead one way or another and that eventually the current government and the opposition would find some accommodation. That is encouraging.
I was heartened by the signs of positive change happening across the country. I spent two days in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan. In Helmand, which is the Pashtun heartland and a Taliban stronghold, Mercy Corps has done some of its most transformational work. Here we have trained 16,000 young people in vocational skills through our INVEST program. Of these, a significant percentage have now found jobs or ways to improve their economic prospects. This level of impact is almost unheard of.
Even more meaningful is the fact that a significant number of these youth are young women. I visited several training centers in which young women were getting the skills to either go on to higher learning or to advance their income prospects in the local marketplace. I was amazed by their high spirits and determination. They deserve our full support.
Mercy Corps has been able to reach all parts of Afghanistan and make real, measurable progress because we have gained local support. In the worst times, in the most difficult places, we have been able to operate because we have great local staff and because we take an impartial position with a view towards long-term success and impact. We have no armed guards or hard security. We operate in the most difficult places because we have community acceptance.
Conversation around Afghanistan is centered now on the implications of the Afghan security handover and on the size of U.S. and NATO forces post-2014. Yet alongside a careful security strategy, complementary strategies for governance and development will also be critical.
At the end of the day, Afghans themselves must own and govern their progress. They have to blunt corruption and pioneer the way forward. They have to embrace at least minimum standards of governance and human rights. In my view, they are ready and willing.
We should stay the course and support the best elements of the Afghan government and all the incentives that encourage right behavior — with humility and a nod toward Afghan complexity. With the right international support, including prioritizing community development and educating the Afghan workforce, Afghanistan can sustain the progress it has been making.
The path will be rocky, but the end goal of an Afghanistan moving forward, albeit with fits and starts, is very possible — especially if the international community provides the right support.
Thank you for your support of Mercy Corps and our work in some of the toughest places on Earth.