Keynote Address at ASAP-USIP-VOA Conference on "Getting Beyond Afghanistan in 2014"

James F. Dobbins
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 
United States Institute for Peace
Washington, DC
February 28, 2014

As Prepared

To the extent Afghanistan has impeded at all in the American consciousness over the past year, it has largely been the security transition that has dominated. Most news stories have focused on the U.S. and NATO drawdown and the increasing role of Afghan forces in both conducting and leading the fight. Looking forward, most attention has been paid to the prospects for concluding a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), and the continued uncertainty about whether U.S. and NATO forces will be staying or going.

In Afghanistan, by contrast, increasing attention is being paid to the other transition that has been put in train, that from one elected leader to another. If the security transition goes badly, it may not make much difference who governs Afghanistan next year, but the reverse is also true, if this political transition does not take place successfully, nothing achieved in the security sphere is likely to endure.

So if the bad news is that uncertainty about conclusion of the BSA continues to cloud the security transition, the good news is that the political transition continues to move forward on schedule and so far without significant disruption.

Afghans Take the Lead; Election Preparations on Track

Important progress this past summer, including passage of electoral laws, appointments to electoral institutions, and finalization of an electoral operational plan, have put the Afghans in a much better place than previous election cycles. Additionally, the candidate nomination period concluded, vetting of candidates took place, hundreds of complaints against both presidential and provincial council candidates were adjudicated, and final candidate lists were announced—including a list of 11 presidential hopefuls.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC), constitutionally authorized to administer elections in Afghanistan, has demonstrated its growing capacity and institutional strength in preparations for the 2014 elections. The announcement of an electoral timeline, operational plan, ballot procurement, design and distribution, along with administrative guidance, staffing, and regular meetings with candidates, civil society organizations, and electoral organizations continues to help create an environment of transparency, contributing to confidence in the electoral process. The successful “top-up” voter registration drive begun during the summer of 2013, in which new voters registered by the millions largely without incident, also demonstrates greater IEC capacity. However, although there is room for optimism in the IEC’s performance, overt political pressure could derail the IEC’s progress. Fortunately, political entities have so far largely refrained from interfering in the IEC’s preparations.

The Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) is a relatively new institution, permanently established through the passage of the new electoral legislation this past summer. The ECC successfully adjudicated complaints stemming from candidate registrations in October, but since then has made halting progress. The slow pace of appointing provincial officers delayed the establishment of provincial ECC offices, and a memorandum of understanding between the IEC and ECC to co-locate in provinces and clarify relations between the two independent bodies is yet to be finalized. However, the publication of the ECC’s rules of procedure, along with the February 18 inauguration of the 102 provincial ECC commissioners, is important progress. We encourage the electoral bodies to clarify and publicize widely the procedural rules for settling disputes so that people with electoral complaints know where, when, and how to file their claims.

Election Security

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are hard at work with security planning for the upcoming elections, and they are devoting all available resources and energy into planning for many plausible contingencies. They are working in coordination with the IEC to strike the right balance to increase participation without increasing opportunities for fraud. On January 12, the Ministry of Interior issued its assessment of polling center security and concluded that 414 of the 6,845 polling centers proposed would be inaccessible on Election Day. Since then, the IEC has added an additional 323 polling centers. On February 19, the IEC publicly released its list of 6,775 polling centers with 21,663 polling stations (12,705 for males, 8,958 for females). The IEC does not intend to add any additional polling centers to the list, but given the dynamic security environment, some of the 6,775 in high-risk areas may fall into the “closed” category before Election Day. The release of the polling center list more than six weeks before the polls marks an improvement from the 2009 election, when the polling center list was released only days before Election Day.

Election Monitoring and Observation

Election monitoring and observation is one of the best ways to mitigate fraud and ensure the credibility of the electoral process. Consistent with Afghan responsibility for Afghan elections, domestic observation efforts are being bolstered to enable over 12,000 domestic observers to monitor the 2014 elections. Over 300,000 candidate agents are also expected to participate in monitoring efforts. The IEC is also inviting international observers to take part. National Democratic Institute (NDI), Democracy International (DI), and International Crisis Group (ICG) are the three organizations who are currently fielding international observation groups accredited by the IEC.

The EU and OSCE also plan to send election monitoring teams. USAID has awarded $8 million to support two independent international election observation missions for upcoming elections. The U.S. will continue to support the election process in a variety of ways, while in no respect supporting any particular candidate or party. We encourage the IEC and ANSF to work to ensure observer and candidate agent access to all open polling centers, including those in remote and high risk parts of the country.

The Campaign to Date

Posters appeared overnight and thousands attended rallies as presidential campaigning kicked off in Kabul on February 2. Enthusiasm for the elections is on the rise and Afghan society is showing increasing democratic political sophistication, with lively media coverage focusing on candidate rallies and platforms, and voter opinions. A series of televised live debates focused on issues rather than ethnicity have been particularly well-received. Afghan news outlets offered minute-by-minute debate updates on their portals, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds as candidates exchanged views on security, foreign affairs, the BSA, corruption, economics, and women’s rights, among other things.

Four weeks in, campaigns are increasing their presence outside of Kabul. Independent Afghan media outlets, such as Tolo News and Pajhwok, are highlighting citizen requests for candidates to travel to the provinces and present their platforms in person. Afghan civil society organizations are also inviting candidates to events and question and answer sessions to explain their platforms and thoughts. For example, one conference earlier this month brought together many presidential candidates and campaign officials with women from all 34 provinces to discuss substantive policy concerns – the first time something like this has occurred in Afghanistan, showing the growing voice of women in the political sphere.

Overall, a cautious sense of optimism has taken hold in Afghanistan over the elections. Whereas a year ago, many Afghans doubted that elections would even take place, more Afghans are now confident about the process and hopeful about the elections. If successful, the election can pave the way for Afghanistan’s first peaceful and democratic transfer of presidential power in its history. A successful transfer of power from President Karzai to a democratically-elected successor this year will do more than virtually anything to solidify the gains made over the last 12 years. It will also show all Afghans – including the Taliban that the rule of law matters and that country’s young constitutional system is resilient in the face of myriad challenges. To date, candidates have mostly played by the rules and respected the authorities of independent electoral institutions. Government organs have worked in coordination with the IEC on election security and administrative issues, and Afghan media have provided broad and generally balanced coverage and analysis of the candidates and election issues

Rising Expectations

Afghans are heading toward the polls at a time of rising incomes, rising longevity, rising literacy, rising mobility, rising political engagement, and, of course, also rising uncertainty about the future.

Despite uncertainty about the security transition and the continued international commitment, recent polling suggests that most Afghans are more optimistic about their future than are most American or other outside observers. Indeed Afghans tend to be more optimistic about their future than most Americans are about our own. Thus the most recent poll finds that 67 percent of Afghans believe their country is headed in the right direction, as opposed to the only 33 percent of Americans who hold a similar view about their own country.

Another striking figure is that 77 percent of Afghans believe that the upcoming elections can make a difference to their lives. Afghans may be divided by ethnicity, language and religion, but they don’t seem to be experiencing grid lock, and the current Presidential campaign does not evidence polarization, but rather the opposite, as the current presidential campaign is surfacing more agreement than discord on all the major issues facing the country.

According to the recent Asia Foundation survey, 76 percent of Afghans believe that they are economically better off today than they were under the Taliban. Among women, northerners and urban dwellers, the numbers are even higher. And it’s easy to see why. Between 2002 and 2012 Afghanistan experienced a greater improvement in human development, a measure of health, education, and standard of living, than did any other country in the world, as measured by the UN Development Program.


  • Literacy has increased from 12 percent in 2003 to 30 percent in 2012.
  • In 2002, an estimated 900,000 boys were in school and virtually no girls. Now there are 10.5[i] million students enrolled in school, nearly 40 percent of them girls.
  • The number of teachers increased from 20,000 in 2002 to over 175,000 today, 30 percent of whom are women.
  • Since 2002, the Afghan government and donors have built more than 4,000 schools and increased enrollment rates for school-aged children to nearly 50 percent.[ii]
  • Higher education has also boomed. According to the World Bank:
    • Student enrollment increased from 8,000 in 2001 to over 100,000 by 2012 in public universities and institutes of higher education.
    • Girls’ enrollment has increased from zero in 2001 to some 19,000 in public universities and institutes of higher education by 2012 (comprising 19 percent of the total).
    • Female faculty numbers stood at zero in 2001 and increased to 16 percent of the total faculty number (3,230) by 2012.
    • More than 65 private institutes of higher education were established, with nearly 50,000 students enrolled, licensed under the Ministry of Higher Education by 2012.


  • Life expectancy has increased by more than 20 years since 2002[iii], from about 42 years to over 62 years.
  • Infant mortality has decreased from 257 to 77 deaths per 1000 live births and under-age-five mortality from 172 to 97 deaths per 1000 births. Maternal mortality fell even more drastically, from 1600 to 327 deaths per 100,000 births.
  • Access to basic health services (ability to reach a facility within one hour by foot) has risen from 9 percent in 2001 to more than 60 percent today.
  • Since 2006, over 22,000 healthcare workers have been trained, including over 1,800 midwives – over half of all midwives trained in the past 10 years.[iv]
  • Prenatal care from a skilled provider increased from 8 percent in 2003 to 68 percent in 2010. There has been a similar steady increase in the proportion of women using delivery care services.


Afghanistan’s GDP has grown an estimated 9 percent annually since 2002 – overall, the economy has more than quadrupled over the last 12 years.

  • Exports have increased from approximately $69 million in 2002 to nearly $380 million in 2012.
  • Legal and regulatory reforms to improve the business-enabling environment have already resulted in more than $1.5 billion in telecom investment and created more than 100,000 jobs since 2003.
  • In 2001, there was one mobile phone company with 21,000 subscribers. Today there are four companies with more than 16 million subscribers, some offering 3G service. Telecommunications networks reach 90 percent of the population.
  • In 2002, only 6 percent of Afghans had access to reliable electricity. Today, over 30 percent have access[v], and more than 2 million people in Kabul now benefit from electric power 24 hours a day.
  • In 2002, there were only 50 kilometers of paved roads in the entire country. Today there are nearly 2,500[vi] kilometers of paved roads, giving roughly 80 percent of the population greater access to markets, schools, clinics, and government services.
  • Since 2009, licit agricultural cultivation has grown by 236,000 hectares, creating 174,000 full time equivalent jobs.

Government Revenue

  • Afghan government revenues have grown strongly since 2002, averaging almost a 20 percent increase per year. In 2011, domestic revenue reached an historic high of $1.7 billion or 11 percent of GDP, exceeding the IMF target of 9.2 percent per year.
  • DABS, Afghanistan’s national power company, increased revenues from $39 million to $159 million.
  • Revenue from customs is the fastest growing segment, increasing over 400 percent since 2006.[vii]

Democracy and Governance

  • Constitutional democracy is steadily taking root. Afghanistan’s constitution is arguably the most progressive in the region, enshrining the rights of women and minorities, the separation of powers, and elected leadership.
  • Over the last 12 years Afghanistan has had two presidential and parliamentary elections, and two elections for provincial councils.
  • 27 percent of seats in the Parliament, one gubernatorial, three cabinet, and 120 judicial positions are now held by women,
  • In 2001, there was one state-owned radio and television station. Now there are over 75 television stations and 175 radio stations, with all but two privately owned.
  • The Afghan constitution enshrines the rights of all Afghans, including women and minorities.
  • 75 percent of Afghans believe it is acceptable to criticize the government in public.


  • Female literacy has increased to nearly 15 percent nationwide, 30 percent among girls aged 15-24, and almost 40 percent among young, urban women. In approximately the last five years, nearly 120,000 girls have graduated from secondary school, and an estimated 40,000 are enrolled in public and private universities. While 37 percent (over 3 million) of the 8.4 million students currently enrolled in schools are female, girls still face formidable obstacles to education and illiteracy still remains high.
  • Women-owned businesses and associations number over 3,000 today. However, access to economic opportunities remains limited for women due to a variety of factors, including security concerns, geographic isolation, lack of education, and cultural restrictions on mobility. On May 20, 2013, the Afghan Ministry of Commerce and Industries signed a Memorandum of Understanding to memorialize the U.S. and Afghan commitment to empower women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. The agreement aims to address barriers to women’s entrepreneurship and develop initiatives that increase the ability of women to start, run and grow businesses. The Parties acknowledged a joint interest in ensuring the economic empowerment of women in Afghanistan as a way to strengthen their bilateral trade and investment relationship.
  • In the executive branch, three women out of 25 serve as Cabinet ministers (Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Public Health, and Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs), and in the legislative branch women hold 68 of the 249 seats in the National Assembly. Women make up approximately 25 percent of elected Provincial Councils. Although the new electoral framework law recently reduced the required percentage of women on provincial councils from 25 percent to 20 percent, the 20 percent quota was due to strong advocacy by some female MPs and civil society, as a previous version of the new law included no quota.
  • Three of the vice presidential candidates are women and 308 (11 percent) of the 2,713 candidates for provincial council seats. Female voters accounted for nearly 35 percent of all new registrations. Women are also represented on the IEC and ECC. The Ministry of Interior is recruiting female election officials to serve at the polling centers on Election Day.
  • Five out of six Afghans believe women should have an education.

These development and social changes are important to the daily lives and future prospects for Afghans. But they are also crucial to the achievement of our national security objectives in Afghanistan. An Afghanistan that is increasingly well-governed, increasingly prosperous, and whose people have a vision and expectations of a future that they want to see realized is one that will be more stable and secure and unlikely ever again to export international terrorism.

Uncertain Security Transition

Despite all these improvements, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest, least developed lands on earth. And also one of the more violent, although by no means the most. Despite its ethnic, linguistic, and religious divisions, there is no ethnic cleansing, no purely sectarian violence. But there is an ongoing insurgency, one conducted by those who would seek to reverse much of the progress of which I have spoken.

These advances are, in consequence, quite fragile.

A recent Congressionally-mandated study by the Center for Naval Analysis finds that Afghan security forces require not just external funding, but continued international military training, advice, and assistance for several more years if they are to sustain themselves against the Taliban insurgency and maintain control of the major population centers. This is certainly consistent with the Administration’s own analysis and that or our Alliance partners. This is why we have negotiated a Bilateral Security Agreement and why NATO is negotiating its own status of forces agreement. Our intention was to have concluded the BSA last fall, to have announced our intended 2015 troop commitment shortly thereafter, and to spend 2014 working with our NATO partners on the disposition and functioning of this new force. Unfortunately, President Karzai’s decision not to sign the accord that he negotiated, that he is not seeking to change, and that he agrees is important for Afghanistan has thrown this timetable badly off.

On Tuesday, President Obama told President Karzai that he was open to waiting until later this year to sign the BSA if necessary, but that this delay would not be without cost. While we will continue to plan for a residual force to train, advise, and assist the Afghan security forces and to conduct a limited counter-terrorism mission, the scale of this commitment may well wane as uncertainty over our welcome persists, and we will also need to plan for the alternative of a full withdrawal.

There are those who foresee a repetition in Afghanistan of our experience with Iraq three years ago, when a similar uncertainty led ultimately to complete withdrawal. But Afghanistan is different from Iraq in any number of respects. Back in 2011 the Iraqis did not want us, they did not need us, and we had already promised to leave. No Iraqi political figure was then ready to argue publicly for a continued American military presence. Iraq had plenty of money. And the Bush Administration had signed a legally binding agreement several years earlier committing the United States to withdraw all its troops by the end of 2011.

Afghanistan is different in all these respects. The Afghans want us to stay, they need us to stay, and we signed an agreement two years ago committing the two sides to a long term security partnership. So far almost the only prominent Afghan to speak out against the BSA is Mullah Omar. President Karzai repeatedly acknowledges the importance of this agreement for Afghanistan and nearly all other Afghan leaders have urged its early conclusion.

And for good reason. The Afghan state and its security forces are much more dependent on continued American and international support than was Iraq. Since 2011 Iraq has seen a slow increase in terrorist violence, but Iraq was not then and is still not yet in the midst of an all out civil war. By contrast, in the absence of a continued train, advise, and assist U.S. and NATO military mission, Afghanistan’s descent to more widespread violence and political disintegration is likely to be much more rapid. Recognition of Afghanistan’s continuing need for American and international support led our two governments to conclude our Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2012 and immediately embark upon the Bilateral Security Agreement to ground that aspect of the partnership.

Most Americans are tired of the Afghan conflict and believe the results have not justified the cost, but most Americans also recognize the need to withdraw gradually and responsibly. Two-thirds of Americans say the war was not worth fighting, according to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, but 55 percent nevertheless favor keeping some U.S. forces there for training and counterterrorism purposes.[ix] This margin of support for remaining so committed is narrow, however, and likely to diminish further as long as uncertainty about our welcome persists. President Obama’s decision to leave open the possibility of concluding the necessary agreement with a willing partner later this year provides hope that this can all be worked out despite President Karzai’s refusal to conclude the agreement now, but the delay could still prove costly.