Afghanistan has long suffered from chronic instability and conflict during its modern history and while there have been many great strides in recent years towards increased economic development, civil and human rights, and political legitimacy, the Taliban and other hard-line Islamic groups have regrouped. They now characterize a resurgent force, particularly in the Southern and Eastern provinces, and the government continues to experience difficulty projecting its influence beyond the capital and forging national unity based on a shared Afghan identity. This article pertains to the necessity of nation-building efforts in post-2014 Afghanistan in an effort to pursue both (i) in country development to ensure the long-term prosperity of the Afghan people, and (ii) the amelioration of security risks to the international community that have emerged from Afghanistan in the past. In order to confront these issues it must be understood by both policymakers and practitioners alike that the politics of development and the politics of security are inextricably linked in a globalized world, as such, in order to maintain international security we must first ensure the security of the Afghan people.
Over the past thirteen years over four dozen countries have contributed militarily to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan focused on bringing peace and security, with many more contributing funding, expertise and manpower to peace support missions on the ground. Yet, even as the United States and various NATO member states transition their last troops out of Afghanistan in anticipation of the 2014 end date of the joint military mission, the country is devolving into conflict and insecurity once again. There are still significant gaps in stabilization efforts- areas which will require extensive political, military, and economic support from the international community in order to effectively transition to consistent order within the country. While much has been done in the way of traditional security over the past decade, little substantial headway has been made in the efforts to build an Afghan nation, identity and unity out of a broken, battered and fragmented society emerging from over thirty years of political strife. As peace support operations continue to focus on rebuilding infrastructure, economies and politics, very few are focusing on rebuilding a people.
Policymakers, military personnel and the plethora of organizations working on the ground in Afghanistan are well aware of the shortfalls in community development, yet there is very little consensus regarding how to address the shortfall. Nation-building is fuelled by the creation of institutions, and monuments that instill national pride. However, this concept is often lost in the face of more ‘vital’ projects pertaining directly to institution-building. Education is likely the most prevalent area of nation-building initiatives, and not without reason: it provides the backbone of societal progression. Prior to the NATO-led intervention in 2001 women and girls were excluded from all aspects of educational life and less than 40 percent of the male primary school age population registered in the education system between 1996 and 2001. According to figures published by UNICEF, between 2005 and 2009 the primary school attendance ratio increased to 66% for males and 40% for females while the figures for secondary school rose to 18% for males and 6% for females.
Over fifty percent of Afghanistan’s population is under the age of twenty-five. While this may seem unbelievable in most Western societies, it actually makes sense in Afghanistan since the average lifespan is forty-nine. As USAID has realized the problem is less the age of the population, and the fact that these young people are “disenfranchised, unskilled, uneducated and neglected- and therefore most susceptible to joining the insurgency.” However, while there have been numerous international projects put in place to alleviate this phenomenon there is “little evidence that the projects have made any progress towards their goals”: namely, re-educating and integrating these young people into civil society.
By 2005 education had become the beacon of hope in Afghan society, with the population viewing it as a path to the future that could be had if the necessary resources were made available. At the time about 5.2 million children were attending school in grades one through twelve and enrollment in higher education had jumped to 31, 000, from 4, 000 students in 2001. However, what is not often advertised in international media is that the Taliban have attacked hundreds of schools- more than 100 in 2011 alone. Of those that remain, few have the ability to provide the basic necessities necessary for students and teachers to learn effectively- running water and reliable electricity. Teachers are barely educated, often unpaid, “and the text books are mostly outdated,” according to Javid Ahmad, an Afghan writer and former aid worker there. “They’re mostly Pakistani, Iranian, Russian or Indian, published in the seventies or eighties.” People love to talk about the boom in childhood education, but no one wants to talk about what they are actually learning.
Education, or re-education, is one of the core necessities of a strong state and effective nation-building. From an external perspective, long-term investment cannot be justified to the public without the provision of services and the betterment of society. In countries where tribal, ethnic and social divisions are the norm and agricultural subsistence is the way of life, re-educating the public to take pride in Afghanistan as a country beyond their ethnic or tribal roots and invest in their children’s future is vital in moving towards a coherent state. But the re-education of a nation, particularly one so broken takes time- and lots of it. You cannot convince a father to see the value in his son’s education when the coming harvest could make or break the family’s livelihood. Nor can you convince him that his daughter is worth more than a dowry of goats and sheep and a life of servitude, if he has never seen a woman find success in a man’s world. These cultural shifts take time and persistence: two things the international community seems to be short on. Such reforms in national thinking take place over a generation; requiring no less than fifty years of continuous and unwavering commitment in order to build national pride in the education system that can prevail over ethnic pride. Without that, a stable Afghan state cannot possibly exist.
There needs to be a fundamental shift in the focus of educational reform within the country. With most of Afghanistan’s budding intellectuals seeking their higher education abroad, many of the potential leaders of the country, both in academia and in government and civil service have left in order to seek more fruitful opportunities in Europe and North America. The focus needs to shift to providing reputable, consistent, focused and rigorous academic research institutions, recruiting international academics to teach in Afghanistan and enticing the country’s most promising students to remain in, and invest their education and intellect in Afghanistan. While universal primary education is no doubt important, it will not develop the country past a very basic level, whereas a focus on a national higher-education system targeted to Central Asian research has the potential to recreate Afghanistan as the crossroads of civilization it typified in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, at present, efforts made to improve education in Afghanistan are beginning to slow down. The Ministry of Education has made progress in improving both the availability and quality of primary education, but continues to make little progress in redeveloping higher education. The resurgence of the Taliban within Afghan borders in recent months has meant that educational institutions are increasingly the targets of attacks by politically motivated insurgents. Reports indicate that damage to educational institutions and security fears have resulted in the closure of more than 70% of schools in Helmand and more than 80% in Zabul – provinces with some of the world’s lowest levels of attendance. With donors increasingly focused on stabilization and counterinsurgency rather than development, and with security deteriorating in many areas of the country, the gains made in improving access to all levels of education are in danger of slipping away. Retired Marine Gen. John Allen has also argued that the United States and NATO risk ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of something that could still resemble victory if it fails to make long-term financial and military investment in Afghanistan.’ This is particularly important in educational reform and nation-building initiatives as it becomes increasingly apparent how inextricably linked long-term security is to state-level development.
As the military mission winds down in the next eleven months discussions of transitioning focus will be apparent across all levels and sectors of the UNAMA/ISAF mission. An increased focus on nation-building initiatives would be welcome within the NATO framework and amongst member states as forces prepare to transition from a combat to peace support mission framework. While rebuilding physical infrastructure is most certainly a priority it must be complimented by a stable and united nation. els of attendance. With donors increasingly focused on stabilization and counterinsurgency rather than development, and with security deteriorating in many areas of the country, the gains made in improving access to all levels of education are in danger of slipping away. Retired Marine Gen. John Allen has also argued that the United States and NATO risk ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of something that could still resemble victory if it fails to make long-term financial and military investment in Afghanistan.’ This is particularly important in educational reform and nation-building initiatives as it becomes increasingly apparent how inextricably linked long-term security is to state-level development.