But now, as American forces are on the back half of trickling out of the war-torn nation, experts warn that this progress won’t continue.
Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said that in fact, just the opposite will happen.
“Now we are going through an enormous process of reducing the funding. … It is not only the foreign aid funding that’s going down, it is the huge amount of the economy that has been bolstered by military spending and that’s going down as well,” Neumann said. “This is going to be a huge economic shock.”
Since 2001, the U.S. has spent more than $19 billion on aid to Afghanistan, with approximately $14 billion coming from the U.S. Agency for International Development budget. As a result, tremendous strides have been made not only in Afghanistan’s economy, but also in the Afghans’ quality of life.
“If you think about public health, life expectancy in Afghanistan in the last decade has increased 15 to 20 years in a 10-year period, which is likely the largest increase of any country in the world in that time period.” said Alex Thier, assistant to the Administrator and Director of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.
According to a March 2012 USAID report, Afghanistan: Partnership, Progress, Perseverance, “Though the Taliban continues to make its presence felt and inflict violence throughout the country, more children are living past their fifth birthday than ever before. Afghan men and women are now living longer, too, with a median life expectancy that has increased from 45 years to approximately 64 years.”
However most of these gains have been almost fully dependent on external aid.
“Ultimately, if the Afghans are going to sustain the progress, it is going to have to come from their own economy, from their own revenues, from their own private sector,” Thier said.
One pressing question, is whether the Afghans will be able to continue—or at least sustain—the improvements after the U.S. military completes its transition out of the country by 2014. According to a May 2012 report by the World Bank, they will not.
“These inflows, most outside the Afghan budget, have been so high that inevitable waste and corruption, aid dependency and use of parallel systems to circumvent limited government absorptive capacity have impeded aid delivery and the building of a more effective Afghan state,” the report said. “The level of public spending—both on and off budget—that has been financed by such high aid flows will be fiscally unsustainable for Afghanistan once donor funds decline.”
For this reason, an international conference in July resulted in a pledge of an additional $16 billion for Afghanistan through 2015, on the condition that President Hamid Karzai works to reduce corruption.
But, as Neumann said, the diminishing foreign aid is not the only problem on the horizon for the Afghan economy. The positive economic impact that military spending has had locally will now fade away as well. The most conflict-ridden areas of Afghanistan, with the strongest U.S. military presence, will likely be hit hardest.
“Aid has not been evenly spread across the country,” according to the World Bank report. “Because of the choices made by donors, and the predominant role of stabilization and military spending, the conflict-affected provinces have had significantly higher per capita aid than the more peaceful, and often poorer, provinces. As a result, the slowdown in aid will be felt more acutely in the conflict-affected areas and in urban centers.”
Thier said the impending transition will likely define the future of the country and the region for decades to come. “For this to succeed, it is going to require an enormous degree of sustained commitment,” he said. “After 10 years, for many people, that is asking a lot.”
Exactly what that commitment will be is going to be one of the most important issues going forward for either President Obama or his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney. Neumann said even if it is a modest one, the U.S. commitment needs to be defined openly and honestly in the coming years.
“If we are not going to do that, then we are causing Americans to die for a fallacious policy,” he said. “Let’s stop saying we’re winding down a war that we’re not winding down. We can say we’re winding down our presence, that’s a statement of fact. We are not winding down a war; in fact, we are turning over less stability than we had projected ourselves as turning over two years ago.”