Things Are Better Today in Afghanistan Than They Were in 2001

Media coverage of Afghanistan over the past decade is notoriously prone to selective coverage of the negative — the latest bomb blast or kidnapping — while doing a dismal job of telling the story of the transformative progress that has occurred, and what exactly is at stake should security deteriorate this year upon the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Then there are the armchair pundits, who further help colour public opinion in the NATO countries towards unjustified pessimism. Last Saturday The Globe & Mail ran an opinion article by Doug Saunders called “Was our Afghan saga useless — or worse?” in which he suggests that Afghanistan may be worse off now than it was before international intervention (while simultaneously contradicting himself by noting that there are gains, though they may not last).

I’ve worked in aid and development in Afghanistan for more than a decade, and I am flummoxed by Saunders’ article, and more so, by his clumsy misreading of the sources he cites.

Saunders’ reading of the situation lies in contrast to all of the authoritative statistical research I am aware of, as well as to the human development and gender research I have personally worked on, such as UNICEF’s Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (2011), which measures the situation for women and children, including indicators like child health and nutrition.

In all of the nearly 80 indicators in this survey, important progress was measured in human development. In particular, child and infant mortality plummeted. This corresponds to similarly dramatic declines in maternal mortality, as found in the Afghanistan Mortality Survey (2010), and in mortality at large (life expectancy is 62 years according to the latest figures, not 45 as Saunders claims). Afghanistan’s maternal mortality was estimated for the period 1999-2002 to be between 1,600 and 2,200 (mothers who died of pregnancy related causes per 100,000 live births).

In 2010, the AMS found it had dropped to 329 per 1,000 births. Looking at a drop this extreme in such an important measure of human development, it’s difficult to support Saunders’ contention that things are worse now than they were before.

It would seem that Saunders relies on a blatant misreading, whether intentional or not, of highly selective data. In one case, what he refers to as “a large scale study” is in fact a small sample, using an “experimental” method, of 204 Pashtun villages (Afghanistan has an estimated 42,000 villages).

Given the extraordinary differences found in security, culture, ethnicity, reach of the government, among other factors, within Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, the findings of this study cannot be extrapolated to the rest of the country. That study found that in Taliban areas ISAF strikes lead to increased support for the Taliban while Taliban strikes do not lead to people supporting ISAF, a phenomenon known as asymmetry.

But Saunders’ interprets this to mean that “Afghans increasingly favour the Taliban over NATO and its own chosen regime.” In fact, The Globe & Mail adjusted the exact language in the article, which previously said “Afghans overwhelmingly favour the Taliban over NATO forces and their own chosen government,” but has made no retraction to date despite the fact that this particular example looks very much like what Terry Glavin calls “occasional outright malpractice” in the Canadian news media’s narrative of Canada in Afghanistan.

Saunders’ other data is one doctor’s statement in a recent New York Times report that malnutrition in that doctor’s ward is at an all-time high since 2001, as evidence that things are worse now. Besides this being a highly localized singular example from one province regarding one indicator of human development, from a data quality perspective using one individual’s quote in a news article hardly constitutes a reliable, accurate, comparative methodology for drawing conclusions about whether an entire country is worse off or better off now than it was 10 years ago.

But most frustrating of all is that Saunders falls into the trap of repeating a common but utterly false claim, that violence against women has risen. To be sure, violence against women in Afghanistan is severe. I met women in shelters with butchered faces long before Time magazine put Aisha, a young woman whose Taliban husband cut off her nose and ears, on their cover in 2010.

Yet it is only since the last few years that this human rights crisis has been properly exposed, with civil society mobilized to address it, the Afghan media regularly reporting abuses, and the issue becoming less taboo. In 2001, there was not a single women’s shelter operational in the country. Today there are over a dozen, among other services like legal aid, counseling, and medical treatment for survivors of violence.

There is now legislation that criminalizes violence against women, and an unsatisfactorily slow but steady increase in enforcement, as registered by comparative studies by the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2013.

And importantly, cases of violence are being reported and recorded for the first time ever. Prior to 2008 Afghanistan did not collect statistics on violence against women. Its data systems are still evolving, and the vast majority of cases go unreported. But each year, there is a rise in reporting. This is not the same thing as a rise in incidence. This is a distinction that makes the difference between an assessment of regress versus an assessment of progress.

Besides being inconsistent with the findings of UN data and other authoritative sources, Saunders’ claims run counter to all of my own lived experience, having witnessed a country come back from the brink to rebuild its political, social and economic institutions with true grit, and astounding results.

The extent of the transformation is so drastic that it’s difficult to articulate, but suffice to say it has given me every reason for ardent optimism. Today in Afghanistan, people live longer and better, they are on average wealthier, better educated and healthier. More of them have access to clean water and sanitation facilities.

Roads have been paved, homes rebuilt, police trained, and parks re-opened. Women are in the work force, the parliament, the universities, and the media. Major changes in attitudes and opinions on topics like whether a woman should be able to run for president are recorded in the annual Surveys of the Afghan People, from The Asia Foundation.

If Saunders had reviewed the findings of these surveys, which have been conducted annually since 2006, he would find that a minuscule minority of Afghans sympathize with the Taliban, in contrast to the small sample survey he cited. Indeed, my own experience has been that the overwhelming majority of Afghans — in the West, North, South and East — loathe the Taliban, and greatly fear the terror they continue to subject civilians to.

The challenges that remain are significant and they are copiously documented elsewhere and do not require repeating here. But the challenges should not overshadow the progress, and what can be concluded from the state of affairs in Afghanistan today is that Afghanistan is far better off today than it was in in 2001.

That’s one victory, if not a military war won. But Saunders’ suggestion is that things are worse now, rather than better. And this is an unequivocally unsupportable position, plausible only by a highly manipulative reading of the available evidence.

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