The South Asia Channel

Tender shoots of green

The Taliban office in Doha is officially open for business, though it is unclear when now-stalled talks will begin. President Obama and officials in his administration have been quick to dampen expectations that peace is at hand -- or even in immediate sight -- which has proved wise given the current anger from Afghans over the way in which the Taliban office opened.

"This is an important first step towards reconciliation, although it is a very early step," President Obama said during a bilateral meeting with French President Francoise Hollande.  "We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road."  A senior government official echoed those words, stressing to reporters that everyone needed to "be realistic.  This is a new development, a potentially significant development.  But peace is not at hand." 

The United States has long spoken about winding down the war in Afghanistan and bringing its longest war to what the president has called a "responsible end." The 2009 announcement of an American troop "surge" in Afghanistan was accompanied by a drawdown timeline.  But as the Iraq example suggests, the United States is better at withdrawing on schedule than withdrawing while leaving peace in its wake.  Sectarian violence is surging in Iraq and as National Public Radio noted Tuesday morning, many analysts place the blame for the skyrocketing death count and rising insecurity on an America that washed its hands too soon of a country whose leader it had toppled.

America has vowed it will not "abandon" Afghanistan, including the country's women, with the president promising that the United States would "stand by" Afghans during the country's political and security transitions.  A presidential election is scheduled for next April and already questions have surfaced about voter fraud and the willingness of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to transition himself out of office.

Alongside the political transition is the pressing question of what, exactly, the economic transition will bring.  The past decade of economic openness has transformed a slew of sectors in a country that was largely isolated from the global economy just twelve years ago.  While many in the U.S. think of Afghanistan as simply an aid-dependent basket case, green shoots abound.

The telecommunications sector is booming in a nation that counts nearly two-thirds of its population under the age of 25.  Three-quarters of the country is covered by mobile networks and one in two Afghans say they have access to a mobile phone.  The Afghan government notes that "over a period of five years from 2002 to 2007, there was tenfold increase in the telephone subscriptions, indicating an annual growth rate of about 60 percent."  Media is thriving and the country now counts more than 70 television stations, with radio remaining an information staple in a country that counted the BBC and Voice of America as it news mainstays before 2001. 

While the technology sector is very much in its infancy, technology start-ups are found in Kabul, Herat and the north, and 3G reached Afghanistan in 2012.  Social networking is especially popular among urban twenty-somethings, with the country now home to roughly 400,000 Facebook users who talk and hang out online in ways they never could in person.

On the natural resources front in this mineral-rich country, Afghanistan has been doling out contracts to foreign firms, even as security has blocked some from advancing. The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is now developing the Amu Darya oil basin in the north of the country and the Atlantic noted that "an American chemical company and a consortium of diaspora Afghans are seeking to build refineries to service CNPC's extraction activities, as well as expected future extractors."

As the fountain of aid slows to a trickle, however, Afghanistan faces a funding cliff of daunting proportions.  The World Bank estimated that in 2011 the country's foreign aid tally was the same size as its GDP, $15.7 billion.  Since then, the economy has expanded with an outstanding harvest season and the start of mining activities, leading GDP to climb from 7.8 percent to nearly 12 percent. But the question of what 2014 means for the Afghan economy looms large -- and remains largely overlooked by many outside Afghanistan. 

Harvard University tried to change that recently by convening a group of entrepreneurs, diplomats, and security types to harvest ideas for developing a "job-creating infrastructure," but scant attention has been paid to economics, despite its intimate relationship with security.  The World Bank, among others, has cautioned that the "political and security uncertainties of the transition period are likely to take a toll on business confidence."

The political uncertainty ahead, and the funding cliff to come, has left Afghanistan's economic future filled with question marks.  While the world pledged continued economic support for the country at the Tokyo conference in July 2012, actual funding levels remain unclear.  And as the world's attention wanes, making sure these dollars reach Afghan coffers should be a priority for all those who have invested a decade of blood and treasure in the country.

In last year's vice presidential debate, Vice President Joe Biden told America "we are leaving in 2014, period, and in the process, we're going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion. We've been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's."

This week's news makes clear that, like it or not, America remains very much in the center of bringing a lasting peace to Afghanistan.  And while the United States may want to shed its Afghanistan obligations -- including its commitment to supporting the Afghan economy --  those who care about Afghanistan's security, and America's, will want to make certain the green shoots get tended. 

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/GettyImages

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