Despite challenges, Afghanistan moving ahead


Despite challenges, Afghanistan moving ahead

This year was another eventful one for Afghanistan. Despite a long list of security challenges and economic troubles, there is immense optimism for the year ahead when we look at the major developments of 2017.
In May, a huge explosion ripped through the heart of Kabul’s diplomatic enclave, killing 90, wounding hundreds and causing millions of dollars worth of damage to public and private properties. Just hours later, President Ashraf Ghani called an emergency meeting in which I participated. He assigned Kabul’s mayor and I to immediately carry out a damage assessment and initiate reconstruction works.
Working around the clock, most of the vital government buildings were made operational in a couple of days. Kabul hosted an international conference without giving the impression that the city had been subjected to a horrific bombing just days prior. This shows the tremendous resilience of both the government and the people.

President Ashraf Ghani’s major achievement in the peace process was bringing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar back to Kabul in early May to become part of mainstream politics.

Ajmal Shams 

Ghani’s major achievement in the peace process was bringing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar back to Kabul in early May to become part of mainstream politics. Since the Taliban’s overthrow in late 2001, the powerful Hezb-e-Islami leader was a frontrunner of the armed opposition against US-led coalition forces and the government.
The peace deal with Hekmatyar, which former President Hamid Karzai could not achieve in more than a decade, was inked by Ghani within just two years of taking office. Most ordinary Afghans and the general polity look forward to Hekmatyar’s return.
In his speech at the welcome ceremony at the presidential palace, Hekmatyar was critical of the formula of the National Unity Government (NUG). But that does not bother anyone because he now accepts the Afghan constitution and has become part of mainstream politics. He has the freedom to promote his party’s vision within the confines of a peaceful political process, instead of leading an armed insurgency against the state. 
In the economic sphere, several milestones were achieved. Under a trilateral agreement to operationalize Chahbahar port, India and Afghanistan can now trade via Iran. The first shipment via the new trade route arrived in Afghanistan in November. The port will be fully operational by 2018.
Ghani is a great advocate of regional economic integration, and considers it a source of stability and a reason for peaceful coexistence. The two major regional projects are the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, and the Central Asia South Asia (CASA 1000) electricity transmission line.
TAPI was inaugurated last year at a joint summit. Implementation of the pipeline will begin in 2018 with a huge economic impact on Afghanistan, especially employment generation in the short term.
CASA 1000 has already been inaugurated, linking Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan by providing 300MW of electrify to Afghanistan. The implementation plan for the $1.2 billion project was launched in 2017. Upon completion, it will contribute significantly to meeting the domestic and industrial power demands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On the political front, the NUG considers the new US strategy for South Asia, which focuses on Afghanistan, a major achievement. The NUG believes that after years of ambiguity, the US now has more clarity regarding its military and political roadmap for Afghanistan. The dividends of the new strategy are yet to be seen, but hopes run high.
Along with the persistent problem of security, a worsening economic situation is a key challenge for the government and the nation. Rising unemployment — due to a continuous drawdown of foreign aid, which kept the economic engine running for more than a decade — has raised concerns. Ghani’s economic strategy, which focuses on national and international private sector investment, seems to be a credible long-term solution.
His main emphasis is on creating an investment-friendly and enabling environment for Afghan investors to bring their billions of dollars of assets back home. Afghanistan cannot remain reliant on international assistance forever. The good news is that the government, for the first time, will be funding more than 50 percent of its development budget for the fiscal year 2018 through domestic revenues.
About a week ago Ghani removed Atta Mohammed Noor, the powerful governor of Northern Balkh province, who had remained in power for about 15 years and had built a virtual empire for himself. Removing him from power was the biggest news of the week, and shows Ghani’s commitment to extending the rule of law across the country.
Despite all the challenges and impediments as Afghanistan enters 2018, the major developments of 2017 herald new hopes and opportunities for the country in terms of politics, the peace process and economic development.

• Ajmal Shams is president of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party, and a deputy minister in the National Unity Government.
Twitter: @ajmshams
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