President Hamid Karzai’s recent visit to the United States highlighted recent progress toward reconstructing Afghanistan. On the economic front, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of South Asian Affairs noted on June 15 that Afghanistan’s “legal” economy grew at a rate of almost 30% in 2002 and 25% in 2003, and it is projected to grow another 20% in 2004.
At a June 14 luncheon for President Karzai, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans noted that U.S. companies are visiting Afghanistan in record numbers. A U.S. business delegation visiting last March was the largest group to visit that country since the end of the war in early 2002. In the first four months of 2004, Afghanistan issued 15,000 business licenses.
In order to promote foreign and domestic investment in Afghanistan, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is beginning construction of industrial parks in Kabul, Kandahar, and Mazar-e Sharif.
The United States also intends to pursue a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with Afghanistan that will create a bilateral forum to expand trade and investment relations between the two countries. The TIFA is a flexible instrument that establishes a senior-level bilateral council that meets on a regular basis. Washington has negotiated TIFAs with a number of countries, including Pakistan and countries in Central Asia.
Two notable accomplishments in 2004 are customs reform and subsequent improvements in collecting taxes on traded goods. This progress should help Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance become a member of the World Customs Organization (WCO). Membership will provide Afghanistan with access to bilateral and multilateral technical assistance and training, regional and international customs programs, and activities such as intelligence sharing and cross-border cooperation. This customs-reform program began nearly two years ago as part of an economic governance project funded by USAID.
Afghanistan now has several high-profile construction projects underway. First, work has begun to repair and improve the national Ring Road connecting several regions to Kabul (see EDM June 28). A $40 million project to build a Hyatt Hotel in Kabul began on April 17. Also, engineering surveys have begun for the construction of a USAID-funded bridge over the Pyandzh River, which will provide the first road link between Afghanistan and Tajikistan when it is completed in 2006.
Washington is also working to invest in human capital with an extensive program in cultural and educational exchange set up by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. As part of that program, the first group of Afghan Fulbright scholars is starting to arrive in the United States for one year of graduate studies beginning in September. Six of the 17 graduate students are already in the country with the rest expected to arrive in July and August. After orientation sessions in Washington, the first six Fulbrighters will enroll at the University of Oregon, the University of Arizona, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Ohio University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz. The 17 students will study subjects crucial to Afghanistan’s national development, including law, political science, public administration, economics, teaching English, and journalism.
The reinstatement of the Fulbright exchange program between the two countries after a 25-year hiatus is a landmark. Between 1963 and 1979 — when the program was suspended because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – over 250 Afghan students and 75 American students participated in the program.
The United States is also focusing on the welfare of women in Afghanistan — a segment of the population that was particularly oppressed by the Taliban regime. The “Report to Congress on U.S. Support for Afghan Women, Children, and Refugees,” released by the U.S. State Department on June 14, records the progress Afghan women have made so far. There are some 187 new and ongoing USAID-supported projects to assist women and children. The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, a public-private partnership between foundations, non-governmental organizations, and individual contributors, is helping women succeed in the economic sector.
The USAID-funded REACH (Rural Expansion of Afghanistan’s Community-based Healthcare) program aims to improve the health of Afghan women of childbearing age and children under five years of age through improved basic health services in rural areas. On April 17 USAID announced a $3.3 million program to promote midwifery training in four of Afghanistan’s most heavily populated provinces. The training will take place at the campuses of the Institute for Health Sciences in Nangarhar, Kabul, Balkh, and Herat provinces and involve at least 700 midwives over the next two years. Observers estimate that there are only 450 trained midwives in Afghanistan and that half of Afghan women receive no prenatal care.
In combination, these U.S. programs should improve Afghanistan’s economy, infrastructure, intellectual capital, and public health for many years to come.