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Reconstructing Afghanistan: Priorities and Challenges

Soldiers from Task Force Pacemaker provided the comfort items. (Department of Defense)

Soldiers from Task Force Pacemaker provided the comfort items. (Department of Defense)


On March 19, 2002, Asia Society convened a group of experts on development aid and reconstruction in New York, to discuss the challenges facing reconstruction in Afghanistan and priorities for the international community’s role in creating a new, peaceful nation. Several of the speakers had recently returned from visits to Afghanistan and provided their insights into the on-the-ground realities at this time.


Gerald Martone, Director of Emergency Response, International Rescue Committee, New York
Nicola Cunningham Armacost, Knowledge and Communications Coordinator, Women’s World Banking, New York
T. Kumar, Advocacy Director for Asia and Pacific, Amnesty International, New York
Letitia Butler, Deputy Director, Central Asia Task Force, United States Agency for International Development, Washington, D.C.

In Brief…

  • After 23 years of a civil war that broke down state and societal institutions, Afghanistan finally faces the prospect of peace. However, a difficult and complicated task of reconstruction lies ahead.
  • Rebuilding the country will mean not only reconstructing infrastructure, roads, schools and hospitals; but also ensuring a livelihood for the Afghan population and establishing a secure state with democratic institutions; while also securing the rights of women and girls; enhancing civil society; and allowing the equal participation of Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups.
  • A pressing question is how the international community--including regional actors, humanitarian, aid agencies and others can create immediate economic opportunities and support other short-term reconstruction programs in the areas of health, education, de-mining, and crop-substitution.

Political and Historical Context for Reconstruction
Immediate Food Needs and Long-term Development Strategies
Prospects for Micro-finance
Role of USAID in Reconstruction

Political and Historical Context for Reconstruction

The last time the international community had significant political will to change the situation in Afghanistan was during the time of the Soviet invasion in 1979. Afghanistan was one playing field of the Cold War; millions of dollars worth of weapons contributed to the continued civil war that killed over two million people. With the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989, Afghanistan was neglected by the international community - with horrific results. The country is one of the most heavily mined sites in the world; 500,000 children have been killed, six million people displaced, and three million disabled. In the future, as much as the international community currently claims commitment to the cause of reconstructing Afghanistan, it is possible or even likely that attention will, once again, shift away from creating a peaceful nation of this war-torn state.

The status of human rights in Afghanistan remains deplorable even as Western actions in the region are not necessarily meeting international standards. It is therefore difficult to expect Afghan warlords to respect human rights norms when there are violation of human rights laws committed by Western powers themselves. For instance, there were 500 Al-Qaeda captured and many were killed, rather than imprisoned as prisoners- of-war governed by international protocol. The current detention and the planned military tribunals for prisoners of war currently in Guantanamo Bay is another glaring example of the misuse of power. There was also some controversy over the forcible shaving of the prisoners’ beards, which have religious significance for observant Muslims. The interim administration has also been at fault on this issue. There was the case of the aviation minister being beaten to death in the airport for which no one has been held accountable. Furthermore, while women’s rights are an issue often discussed with vehemence in connection with Afghanistan, the United States has still not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). (Editor’s note: The United States is the only nation other than Afghanistan to have signed the convention in 1980 but to not yet ratify it).

The international press has been skewed in the reporting of the military action in Afghanistan. They have tended to mention bombing missions undertaken by the Northern Alliance, while neglecting to provide details of American bombing missions. There have also been many unintended civilian causalities (roughly 3,500 according to some estimates-approximately the same number as were killed in the World Trade Center) during the conflict with little or no public accountability.

Before 9/11 the US administrations came very close to recognizing the Taliban because of the pressure of various oil companies wishing to do business in the region. This was only prevented through the continued efforts of women’s rights and human rights groups that kept up pressure for sanctions and policies of isolation. However, there were still second-tier communications going on in spite of the repressive regime and their role in sheltering Osama bin Laden. It remains to be seen if oil companies will again become the largest interest group with an interest in Afghanistan and if their combined interests will help to shape policy in the region.

Afghanistan is not a “failed” state, but a destroyed state. The continued existence of civil society in Afghanistan after 23 years can only be credited to the resilience of the Afghan people, although it is now hoped that the international community can now play a positive role in renewing societal institutions. However, there are enormous challenges to face. The first is simply not to forget ordinary Afghans who have borne the brunt of the destruction. Individual citizens in the international community, including in the United States, must be involved in the regeneration of Afghan society. Secondly, there needs to be a multi-faceted approach to shaping Afghanistan policy-not simple a policy dominated by oil or power interests. Thirdly, there needs to be a consistency in the application of human rights and other standards in Afghanistan. And lastly, there needs to be a financial commitment to back up lofty statements. When the Russians invaded, instead of using the rebellion as a national liberation movement, the Allied forces contributed to the creation of a “jihad” to remove the Russians. Osama bin Laden was a product of such a plan. Policies now should not be shortsighted and decisions should be well balanced in order to avoid similar catastrophes in the future.