Both candidates for the U.S. presidency pledged to make Afghanistan a top priority. The war there now tops the news on a daily basis with tales of the devastating hardships of the Afghan people and the deaths of Afghans and NATO soldiers. The untold story is that Afghanistan was well on its way to stability in 2004. It is essential that President Obama understands why the nation slipped into chaos. The challenge now is to win the peace.
After 9/11, stability was created through a partnership between the Afghan people and the international community. In December 2001, the Bonn Agreement laid out a political framework to allow increasing numbers of Afghans to become participants and stakeholders in their country's future, with a sequence of events set out in a clear timetable using mechanisms like the loya jirga—a national convention of Afghan representatives—that would be culturally familiar to Afghan citizens.
A group of Afghan leaders and managers was empowered to implement an economic reform agenda to complement the political process. It started with simple mechanisms such as putting in place a national currency. In 2001, there were at least three different currencies in circulation and millions of afghanis were required to buy a simple meal. The hawala dealers—the Afghan money changers—agreed with the government on a plan to change the currency, and before long a new currency was in use across the country. Afghanistan's new Cabinet designed its first post-Taliban budget, working out how many policemen, doctors, teachers, and soldiers would be required to keep the peace and restore essential services, and it set out a vision for the future of the country in the "National Development Framework." These leaders designed a transparent process to create a cell phone system where companies bid for licenses in return for a fair price to citizens and revenue to the government. The U.S. government made a risk guarantee available to investors. As a result, rather than the small numbers of satellite telephones that existed in 2001, there are now more than 5 million cell phones in the country, which have sent more than $1 billion in revenue to the government. They also designed a national health system that set standards for health care and contracted out basic services in partnership with nongovernmental organizations.
A system of good governance called the National Solidarity Program saw a block grant of roughly $20,000 allocated to thousands of villages across the country. Villagers could access the money if they followed three simple rules: elect a village council, have a quorum of the village meet to decide on projects, and then post accounts in a public place. The government hired NGOs to facilitate the process, but villagers decided how to use the money. This program is now operational in more than 22,000 villages across Afghanistan. Villagers participating in the program would often say that for the first time they felt like citizens, since someone was trusting them to make a decision. The leadership team also designed a ring road around the country to generate national unity and minimize geographical divisions. It set up a national public works program to create jobs. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it set up a reliable funding mechanism to finance their budget—and hired international firms to provide treasury management, accounting, auditing, and procurement assistance.
This process was not perfect, and—since there were no guidebooks on how to do state-building—it required a fair degree of improvisation. Some national programs—most notably an energy program, an irrigation program, and an agriculture program—were designed but not implemented because of insufficient funding. But the main trajectory was forward, with centripetal forces bringing Afghans and their near and far neighbors around the same table to discuss the issues and forge consensus. By the end of 2004, the Bonn Agreement was completed, and Afghanistan seemed firmly on track, significantly improving its rating on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. Suicide bombs were unheard of, and Afghans remained patient and hopeful.