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Time to Get It Right: Revising Priorities in Afghanistan

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I increasingly get the sense of living in an Afghanistan different from the one portrayed in the news media. As the international community prepares to disengage militarily by 2014, much of what makes news is the coalition's justification for withdrawal rather than the actual condition of the country. The focus seems to be on what we in the non-profit, humanitarian assistance world call 'hard security', essentially anything military or government-related. So we typically hear about whether the Afghan military and police are ready to assume control of the country's security, or whether the government of Hamid Karzai is prepared to run the country on its own. We do not hear about the important "human security" indicators that aid agency colleagues and I believe portray a seriously deteriorating situation.

These indicators include, for example, the number of Afghans displaced from their homes and the percentage of refugees who have not only returned to Afghanistan but have also been able to survive on their own. Together, these indicators enable us to evaluate the well-being of the Afghan people and to determine how good a job we have all done in helping the 30million people of this impoverished and conflict-ridden country. And judging by these measures, the international community has a long way to go. Sunday's meeting in Tokyo to consider development priorities in Afghanistan should have been be an opportunity to get it right.

When I drive through the streets of Kabul or travel into outlying provinces to see humanitarian aid projects carried out by my organisation, the International Rescue Committee, I see profound need. It epitomises the collective failure of the international community to break the cycle of poverty, violence and suffering that continues to plague the country after 10 years of massive military and civilian assistance. Most of that foreign aid has been military and government-related. The US Congressional Budget Office says the war cost America $443 (£283) billion through 2011, and in the same period the UK spent approximately £17 billion. The human cost has also been staggering: 12,000 civilians killed in the past five years alone, according to the UN, along with 2,000 NATO soldiers.

I have lived here for a bit more than a year, but I'm still shocked by the level of human suffering. In Kabul alone, there are dozens of what are euphemistically called "informal settlements." They are nothing more than slums of mud huts, with no water or sewers, providing temporary shelter for as many as 30,000 displaced people. Many living in these wretched warrens are former refugees who were prodded to return from the comparative safety of Pakistan and Iran. Others are internal exiles who have fled the conflict that ebbs and flows across Afghanistan.

A just published IRC policy report, Afghanistan: The Perilous Road Ahead, provides a snapshot of many of those essential "human security" indicators, and makes for sobering reading. Afghan people are voting with their feet: a record high number of Afghans sought asylum in other countries last year, while returns of refugees from neighbouring countries hit a record low. At the same time there was more internal displacement than at any time in the past decade. The UN refugee agency says the number of Afghans uprooted by violence last year rose by 41% to close to a half-million people. The UN mission in Afghanistan says 2011 was the deadliest year for civilians in the past decade, with 3,021 deaths. That's a 25% increase in two years. These are the figures that are most telling about the human security crisis in Afghanistan. The report also points out that while violence is the primary cause of Afghan displacement, natural disasters such as floods and droughts, and a lack of basic services (schools and medical care) and job opportunities add to their woes. These are especially acute challenges in much of rural Afghanistan, which receives virtually no assistance from the Afghan government.

The focus now must be on getting basic services to the local level. We could utilise non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the one I work for, to do this. In many cases, NGOs work in places in which the Afghan government has no presence, and they already enjoy the trust and confidence of local communities. This approach would continue to address underdevelopment and create economic opportunities that would enhance Afghans' quality of life. It would better prepare them to cope with conflict and recurring disasters. As we assess security, we must broaden the standard indicators to include human security threats such as economic and environmental challenges. We must also consider what population movements can tell us. Utilising all these indicators would provide an effective barometer indicating Afghanistan's ability to cope in an increasingly uncertain environment.

The focus must also be on investing in Afghans themselves. Providing funding to ensure all have food, water, shelter, and employment should be the priority. That will curtail their need to constantly move in search of those basic needs that most of us take for granted.

If we don't act, and instead turn our collective backs on Afghanistan, I fear a return to the violent years of the late 1980s, when warlords carved up the country into fiefdoms and terrorised the civilian population. We cannot let 2014 mark the start of yet another cycle of extreme hardship for an entire Afghan generation that has known nothing else.

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