Today’s Afghanistan is different from the one ruled by the Taliban. The infrastructure is a bit better. The economy is precarious, still dependent on foreign aid. Girls are in schools. Women are working and earning. Both were excluded from social, cultural, educational and employment opportunities by the Taliban. Media, art, literature, and cinema are flourishing. A couple of Afghan filmmakers have even won international awards for their films. Music, banned under the Taliban, is improving and each year we are introduced to new talents through the Pop Idol, locally known as “Afghan Star.” The music competition has even succeeded in breaking social taboos by allowing female contestants to participate. In a conservative Afghan society that is a breakthrough. On the diplomatic front, there have been advances. The politically isolated Afghanistan under the Taliban was officially recognized by just three countries – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and United Arab Emirate. It now has diplomatic relations with major regional and global powers. Trade is catching up. Afghanistan has established trade relations with other countries. Afghan businessmen are more mobile with an increased number of business trips and improved profit margins.
These development achievements would not have been possible under the Taliban rule that pushed the country toward the stone age, darkness and ignorance. The U.S. led invasion of 2001 made a difference. It poured much-needed capital into cash-strapped Afghanistan. However, the achievements have come with a hefty price of a brutal occupation, the endless killings of Afghans, the mineral loot of the country by Western corporations and, the ever flourishing of poppy cultivation, making Afghanistan the largest producer in the world. Ironically, the Taliban had banned cultivation in 2000.
No doubt, Afghanistan has seen development in the post-Taliban era. But when we dig a little deeper, the development achievements enabled by the U.S. led coalition have been blown out of proportion. They are not as impactful as publicized. They are mostly over-publicized. Below, I will talk about three sectors – education, health, and women’s rights – which saw major investments and political attention by the West.
Education during the Taliban rule was religiously-oriented. Any kind of modern reforms in the sector were unthinkable, and were not treated as a top priority. After the overthrow of the Taliban, the new dispensation opened the doors of schools to all children, particularly girls. The number of children enrolled in schools was encouraging. It was even heart-warming seeing a multi-fold increase in the number of girls going to school. Based on the statistics of Afghanistan’s ministry of education, nearly seven million students are enrolled in schools and two and half million of them are girls. Since 2001, 4,500 more schools have been constructed with an eight-fold increase in the number of teachers, putting the overall number at 170,000. Thirty percent of these teachers are female. Although much attention has been paid to the numbers, figures, and percentages, the quality of education fell to the margins. The factors such as overcrowded classrooms, crumbling school buildings, the continuation of “rote learning”, the imbalance in the teacher to student ratio, and theoretically-driven curriculums have seriously hampered the quality of education. These issues have not made it to the agenda of policymakers and the donor community. What is more disappointing is UNICEF’s report, which says that almost half of the schools have no “actual buildings”, putting the health and safety of students in danger. Lack of physical and secure school buildings makes the prospects of dropping out, not to mention learning a challenge. And it has an even greater impact on girls’ education.
There was much fanfare and media limelight about millions of children, particularly girls, going to school. But meager incentives were used to retain the enrolled students in schools and help them finish. UNICEF’s report states that only 10 percent of students, mostly boys, complete high school. And a new report produced by ONE, a global anti-poverty organization, paints a gloomier picture of realities in Afghanistan’s education sector. Now, Afghanistan is one of the “toughest places” for a “girl” to get an education, and with the “highest level of gender disparity in primary education, with only 71 girls in primary school for every 100 boys.” The education sector is experiencing setbacks now despite the fact that since 2002 various American institutes such as the State Department, the Pentagon and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), have spent $759 million on primary and secondary education. The irony of the situation should not be lost on development experts, policymakers, donor community, the U.S., and the Afghan government.
Corruption in the ministry of education is endemic. Salaries are being paid to teachers who either don’t teach or teach in “ghost schools.” This form of corruption speaks to the stinking rot within the ministry. Moreover, the ministry has become a hotbed of nepotism and racism. When I visited the ministry led by the then minister, Farooq Wardak, I spotted endless employees from his province – Maidan Wardak.
Providing healthcare to all Afghans has been a daunting challenge for the Afghan government. This challenge is not new. It was there even before the Soviet invasion in 1979. In Afghanistan, there has never been enough doctors, clinics, hospitals, and medicine. This despicable situation shows the utter failure of the Afghan elite led by Pashtun leadership. Since Afghanistan’s political independence in 1919, and even before that through the monarchy, Pashtun leadership has shown no clear vision, no political awareness, and no policy priority to help Afghanistan achieve self-sufficiency in infrastructure, as related to the power-grid, dams, bridges, hospitals, schools, and roads. Its only achievement is a poor, divided, and economically dependent Afghanistan – thriving on ethnic divisions, exclusion, and hatred.
The ongoing conflict since 1979 has made the health sector even more deplorable. Conflict produces injured, amputated, and internally displaced people who constantly need medical attention. A glimmer of hope was created in the post-Taliban era when the health sector received funding, political attention, and technical assistance from the donor community and aid agencies that made the situation a bit better. According to World Bank data, the mortality rate for children under the age of five has dropped significantly. In 2002, it was 137 per 1,000 but in 2016 it fell to 55. Births under the supervision of “skilled health personnel” have increased from 14.3 to 58 percent, and the number of “functioning health facilities has increased five-fold.” Work to address maternal and infant mortality rates has not been profound. Afghanistan ranks number one in infant mortality with “an estimated 110.6 infants per 1,000 live births in 2017,” and the maternal mortality rate, “estimated to be 396 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births,” is high. Overall, “around 4,300 women diedue to a complication during pregnancy and childbirth,” making Afghanistan “one the most dangerous places in the world to give birth.”
Under the Taliban regime, healthcare was in shambles. There was an enormous paucity of qualified doctors. Afghans needing major surgery and expert medical opinion had to travel to Pakistan as there were no diplomatic relations between the Taliban and India, and still do to this day. Now, besides Pakistan, India and Iran have become major destinations for Afghan patients. According to a 2017 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), annually Afghans spend $285 million seeking “health services in other countries.” This money can easily be spent in Afghanistan if the Afghan government reorients its policy priorities. One step toward that goal is sending meritorious students for medical training abroad. This long-term goal should solely and strictly be based on “merit,” rather than patronage, which can potentially make Afghan health sector professional and eventually self-sufficient.
Since 2002, USAID “has obligated almost $1.5 billion to rebuild Afghanistan’s health sector.” But Afghans still face problems accessing medical care. In 2014, Médecins Sans Frontières’report stated that “one in every five of the patients interviewed had a family or close friend who had died within the last year due to a lack of access to medical care.” The over-publicized allocation from USAID has not been spent strategically and efficiently. With $1.5 billion, the framework for a new health infrastructure could have been built from scratch.
One of the stated objectives of the American invasion of Afghanistan was improving the plight of women. It caught much hype in the Western media, and seemed to make absolute sense as Afghan women were treated horribly by the misogynist Taliban. Their repression was unspeakable. So, what has changed for them under the so-called democratic setup? To some extent, their social exclusion has ended. They have started taking part in social, political and cultural activities. Has their participation been result-oriented? That can be debated. However, the media limelight and political rhetoric surrounding their plight and the promises made to them have not matched reality. Women’s rights were mostly trumpeted by the Western media and women’s rights organizations. The outcomes mostly have been marginal and over-sold.
The tremendous challenges that have hampered Afghan women’s emancipation for so long still exist. There is the menace of domestic violence that has robbed women of their physical and psychological security. In 2016, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) reported that it received more than 2,500 complaints of domestic violence, and 87 percent of Afghan women “experienced some form of domestic violence.” A safe home environment is a prerequisite for Afghan women to develop educationally, socially, and politically. The medieval practices of honor-killing and stoning continue.Between 2011 and 2013, close to 400 cases of rape and honor-killings were reported by AIHRC. In 2014, Afghan Women’s Network, a women’s advocacy group, estimated that 150 cases of honor-killing take place annually in Afghanistan. Stoning, which was an official punishment for adultery under the Taliban’s rule, has not stopped despite being abolished by Hamid Karzai’s government. Although it occurs irregularly, the medieval mindset that it represents is quite sickening. Even if it is not widespread, the worldview that makes it possible should ring an alarm.
But the biggest obstacle before Afghan women’s empowerment is the challenge of child marriage. This impediment not only puts the health and survival of women in serious danger, but hampers women’s educational development. In child marriage the chances of suffering from malaria, cervical cancer, and sexually transmitted diseases are high. Death during childbirth is a high risk. Education is needed to help a girl become financially independent and acquire skills. Child marriage hampers that and reduces the likelihood of girls finishing high school, thus affecting their decision-making power. Ironically, Afghan women face these challenges despite the presence of the West, which claimed to be improving their plight. After 17 years of engagement and spending money on women’s empowerment, Afghanistan is the worst country to live in for women. With each day the threats against women are growing with basic freedoms curtailed.
Women’s empowerment is a long-term project that is enabled by education. Instead of resorting to temporary projects, short-termism, and media publicity, the West should focus on the education of Afghan women through a long-term commitment, sustained funding, and political attention. The programs such as ‘Promote’ by USAID to “bolster Afghan women advancement in government, the private sector and civil society,” will be entangled in the labyrinthine administrative process of the organization and will lead nowhere. Even SIGAR has expressed its concern about its full implementation and impact. The literacy rate of Afghan women is a mere 14 percent, and this is the source of the problem for Afghan women. Investing fully and efficiently in their education with a long-term objective toward liberation should be the way forward, rather than relying on the propaganda of media hype and publicity.