Sat, Feb 04, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Why it's in all our interests to help Afghanistan rebuild itself

By George Soros

While the unremitting violence in Iraq grabs the world's headlines, Afghanistan still struggles for peace. The country's parliament is packed with warlords, the drug trade is thriving, and violence is on the rise.

During the course of last week, world leaders had an opportunity to steer developments onto a new and more hopeful path when they met in London to forge a new compact with Afghanistan. The compact builds on the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which laid the framework for a democratic Afghanistan but left much to be done to overcome that war-torn country's tragic legacy.

The need for renewed attention to Afghanistan could hardly be greater. Decades of neglect coupled with foreign intervention left the country in ruins, with reverberations across the world. It is now in everyone's interest to help Afghanistan rebuild.

The drug trade exemplifies the far-reaching impact of domestic instability. Last year, the value of drugs produced in Afghanistan -- the world's largest supplier of opiates -- is estimated to have reached up to 25 percent of GDP.

Security, too, remains a serious concern. In 2005, more than 125 Coalition troops were killed, while suicide bombing emerged as a new and increasingly common tactic of the insurgency.

Corruption is rampant, with government officials accused of cronyism and drug trafficking. Several members of the newly elected parliament are known warlords with bloody records.

With international aid poorly coordinated and the US reducing its troop strength, many Afghans believe that the outside world is abandoning them.

But the massive scale of the challenges facing Afghanistan should not overshadow the opportunities for positive change. The Bonn process established the principle of democratic accountability, gave Afghanistan its first directly elected president, and provided a new constitution that created a legitimate central government.

It also paved the way for a parliament in which over a quarter of the members are women, this in a country where, just five years ago, women were not allowed to leave the house without a male relative.

Moreover, most of the 20,000 village councils were elected through secret ballot. In a nod to the importance of the councils to realizing change at the most local level, the World Bank and its partners have adopted a highly innovative program that channels rural development aid through the councils, which have been empowered to decide how the funds will be spent.

At the national level, the government recently approved a new development strategy that goes far to advance a vision for Afghanistan's future stability and growth.

Public opinion reflects widespread support for the latest changes. A recent poll shows that Afghans overwhelmingly favor their country's new direction, backing the participation of women in public life and international intervention against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the drug economy.

But Afghanistan's potential for progress must be bolstered by concerted international action. Measures need to be taken to support the counter-narcotics strategy recently approved by the Afghan government, which would reduce economic dependence on opium production, punish traffickers and dealers, and provide sustainable economic alternatives for poppy farmers.

Afghanistan is grappling with the world's biggest narcotics problem and donors must commit to a long-term drug control strategy. A resolution by the European Parliament to consider whether Afghanistan should become one of the countries licensed to produce opium for medical purposes also needs to be followed up.

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