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Opinion: The forgotten formula in Afghanistan

The Afghan people must be persuaded that the government, not the Taliban, is a reliable advocate.

Afghan men and women in market
Afghan men and women walk through a busy market in Kabul on Aug. 4, 2010. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

PALO ALTO, Cali. — With all the talk about Wikileaks and the combat problems in Afghanistan, most people seem to have forgotten about the other half of the current formula for winning the war.

The Afghan people must be persuaded that the Afghan government, not the Taliban, is a reliable advocate, able to provide strong social services as well as security once the United States and other forces leave.

The sad truth, though, is that successive Afghan governments throughout time have done literally nothing for their people, leaving Afghanistan, by most measures, the least-developed nation on earth, its people the most neglected.

That’s why Western aid agencies are scrambling to build irrigation canals, power plants, medical facilities and all manner of physical infrastructure before time runs out. The United States Agency for International Development and the others are working against the Obama administration’s deadline, next summer, for winding down combat operations. Political and military leaders have repeatedly said the deadline is soft. But that doesn’t really matter. After next summer it will likely become difficult to win significant new funding for aid projects.

As it is, working in a nation as troubled as Afghanistan presents even greater challenges than similar projects in Iraq, a developed nation with well-educated people. In Afghanistan, at least two-thirds of the people are illiterate. That includes almost everyone in the army and police.

Iraqis are still complaining that they have electric service for only a few hours a day. But 90 percent of Afghans have never had electric service, even for a minute. About 17 percent of Afghans have phone service, mobile or land line, UNICEF says. In fact, most Afghans still live more or less as their forebears did a millennium ago. Now, however, aid agencies like UNICEF at least track the state of the people.

About 26 of every 100 children born in Afghanistan die before they reach the age of five. That’s the world’s worst child-mortality rate. Of those who survive, almost 60 percent suffer from moderate to severe stunting — also the world’s highest rate. Stunting results from malnutrition or sickness during infancy, and it’s irreversible. The children grow up to be small and not very smart. These poor people are “served” by a government that is among the two or three most corrupt in the world.

Why do all of these “superlatives” matter? Aid projects cannot be undertaken in a vacuum. As James Graham, director of a $60-million aid project in northern Afghanistan for four years, told the Christian Science Monitor: “Part of the problem is when you work in the 11th century, what is the capacity of the 11th century to absorb 60 million bucks — especially when there are people who are looking to put a lot of that in their own pockets.”