Afghanistan's Recovery Strong, but Still at Risk, Envoy Says

By Charlene Porter, Washington File Staff Writer, 31 October 2002


Asst. Secy. Dewey Assesses Progress in Afghanistan

Washington - The U.S. Secretary of State's special envoy assessing recovery and reconstruction in Afghanistan has returned from a month long journey to the country using words like "remarkable," "encouraging" and "gratifying" to describe what he has seen in a country attempting to lift itself from the wreckage left by 22 years of occupation, war and oppression.

"There's just been a lot of progress in a very short time ... coming from a failed state - one of the most failed of states - to a state that has a chance," Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Arthur "Gene" Dewey said in a Washington File interview.

Dewey first traveled to Afghanistan in August, then returned to conduct a more extensive assessment in mid-September. He said the Central Asian state is advancing down the road to recovery at such a rapid pace that he saw that circumstances had improved between his first and second visits.

Having visited bustling, urban markets, the homes of returning refugees, newly reopened classrooms, and fledgling government ministries, Dewey said he got a sense of a people and a country ready to confront the challenges of reconstruction.

"It really is a new birth of freedom," he said.

The progress the country has made since the fall of the Taliban in December 2001 is evident in many sectors, but to Dewey the most remarkable change is the return of Afghanistan's "human capital." He said the return of some 2.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons has been the largest repatriation to occur any where in the world over the last 30 years. The tide of returning Afghans has far exceeded the 800,000 returnees anticipated in the first year by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Dewey praises UNHCR for its capability and professionalism in meeting the demands of a return far beyond its expectations.

The greatest message to be extracted from the repatriation, however, is in what it says about the tremendous coping power of the Afghan people, facing difficult and uncertain conditions as they return to their homes and villages, Dewey said.

"They're betting on improved freedoms and the presence of freedom after the Taliban and al Qaeda were displaced," Dewey said. "It's like a new world in Afghanistan if you can imagine the oppression that existed while the Taliban ruled the country, as compared to now."

Despite his optimism and excitement about what has transpired so far, Dewey remains cautious. U.S. policymakers and humanitarian aid officials are still concerned about meeting the needs of the returnees. Without a continued focus on immediate humanitarian issues, the continuing drought, food shortages or persistent insecurity could force those returnees to flee again, a possibility that Dewey calls "the nightmare scenario."

That prospect looms larger as the days grow colder and Afghan winter sets in. Though agriculture production has increased dramatically in some areas that have received rain, the country is still unable to feed itself and will be dependent upon international food aid to survive the winter. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates that more than six million Afghans still need food assistance.

The World Food Program (WFP), the principal coordinating agency for international food assistance, reports that its supplies of commodities are running short. Interruptions in the flow of grain into Afghanistan are anticipated in the final months of 2002.

Assistant Secretary Dewey said international donors must not lose sight of that problem. "So this is why we keep pressing the other donors, and reminding the other donors that the United States can not continue to do 80 percent of the food through the WFP. We have to have more help from the Europeans, Japan and the other donors to share that burden, to give some margin of safety that we really will make it through the winter."

Dewey said that if donors fulfill their promises, WFP will have adequate food supplies to last through the winter, but he's concerned about Afghanistan's need for further aid from March until July 2003 when the first harvest comes in.

The United States is the world leader in the provision of aid for Afghanistan. Since October 1, 2001, the United States has provided more than $350 million in assistance, and pledged almost $300 million in reconstruction aid at a conference of donors last January.

Some Afghan officials have been placing greater emphasis on the need for reconstruction aid than humanitarian assistance in recent statements. Dewey characterizes that position as a "miscalculation."

He emphasized that the investment in humanitarian aid - providing food, shelter and medical care for returnees - is an investment in the long-term reconstruction of the country. "It's building on that human capital base. These are people with all the energy and all the confidence that they can make it back in Afghanistan," Dewey said. "They are the base of reconstruction. You have to make that investment before you can really start to realize the benefits and see the progress of reconstruction."

Dewey said the gains realized from the humanitarian investment so far are easily quantifiable: 2.5 million returnees, three million children in reopened schools, eight million children vaccinated against measles.

"You can count the numbers, you can see what you've bought, what the international community has bought with this investment," Dewey said.

On his travels through Afghanistan, Dewey visited cramped, makeshift schools, where children attended in shifts to make use of the limited space and supplies available to them. Despite those hardships, the students were excited to be there, Dewey said, especially the girls. "It's almost as if they found a new lease on life by being able to get back to school and prepare for their future, however uncertain it might be. They're excited about getting ready for it."

The enthusiasm of the children also helps to motivate the teachers who are paid neither well nor consistently, Dewey said. "What is surprising to me and gratifying is that so many of the teachers have kept teaching. They're betting that the pay is going to come through eventually, and then they see the kids so eager to learn, and those two things keep them going."

Dewey said not only the children, but also the government is in a learning mode. He said he noted significant progress in some ministries that are working to organize themselves and develop the capacity to govern. The international agencies and non-governmental organizations have been providing significant services in response to the nation's emergency, but now the agencies are beginning to transfer those responsibilities to government ministries which are becoming increasingly engaged in planning and priority-setting in the U.N. programs.

"The ownership of the program is really fixed by their being able to make the policy, do the planning, own the plan, and set the priorities in the plan," Dewey said. "This is a remarkable way to transition from ...(the) U.N. structure to a longer term sustainable local government structure to deal with both emergency humanitarian needs and reconstruction needs."

For all the progress he has seen in a short time, Dewey still counsels patience. The recovery of a failed state "doesn't happen overnight," he said. He said the United States is committed to maintaining the progress in Afghanistan. "The momentum is still there, and we have to keep it there," Dewey said. "The investment must be protected. The consequences of not protecting it are unthinkable."


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