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When it was first invaded back in 2001, Afghanistan was a war-torn country with a human development index value of 0.238. Ten years later, the situation is statistically better, with the value rising to 0.398. Yet, despite the billions of dollars in aid, infrastructure projects and war economy, it remains one of the most underdeveloped and dangerous places in the world, in the same league as African countries facing civil wars and authoritarian regimes. in other words, despite all the effort and interest of the international community, it is almost as unfortunate being born in the region as it was a  decade ago.

Yet, good things are happening. Within the last decade, Afghans’ income and access to education have significantly improved. Men and women attend school and even go to University and there is some access to the internet. The infrastructure has improved. The central government takes up responsibility for the well-being of the citizen. Media is flourishing with a great number of press, television and radio stations diffusing varying content which is not always connected to religion and often challenges the tolerance of the cleric. Such an example is the progressive Tolo TV with the Western series, its locally produced shows, its reality song contests and its own edition of the Sesame Street. Young people are playing music and shoot video clips. Regardless of individual opinions of how “corrupted” all these initiatives may be, there is no doubt that Afghans, after years of being featured in the news for their political and security issues, get the spotlight for getting involved in entertaining activities and having some fun.

However, the imminent withdrawal of the American troops which will mark the end of a war never won is a terrifying prospect. Several unsettling events are reported. The Afghani government and the Americans are trying to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban to improve the stability of the country, which, if it happens, could bring interesting changes in the geopolitical relations in South Asia, a prospect that makes Pakistan nervous. At the same time, Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai is showing an equally unsettling attitude towards women’s right, which was in fact one of the major issues used by the US propaganda to convince the Allies and the public to get involved into that war in the first place. He recently endorsed a “code of conduct” which includes segregation of sexes and domestic violence under certain circumstances and ordered the release of a rape victim from jail, but apparently put pressure on her to marry her rapist. At the same time, women are incarcerated for a variety of other moral “crimes” (apart from being rape victims), such as escaping a violent marriage, being kidnapped, being forced into prostitution or running away. It has also been reported that women have been subjected to vaginal search when visiting their relatives in a notorious male prison in Kabul. The prospect of a peace agreement with the Taliban makes many human rights advocates nervous, as it is feared that women’s rights, already in a slippery slop, will deteriorate. Let’s not forget that Taliban militants were arrested in connection to acid attacks to school girls in Kandahar in 2008.

15-year-old Sahar Gul was imprisoned and brutally beaten by her husband’s family for refusing to become a prostitute. Her ordeal made the headlines worldwide.

National security is also crumbling. UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) released last February a disheartening report which indicated a significant rise in civilian casualties for the fifth year in a row, with a total of 3,021 civilians dying are a result of the conflict. That is more than eight people per day. The war economy and the presence of the Americans in the country brought some economic development and a number of investments. However, Afghani entrepreneurs seem to be looking for new investment opportunities abroad to secure their assets in the case of a slipping back to the pre-invasion situation. These people, survivors of the previous war, show no desire to go through another turmoil and put their families at risk. Who could truly blame them if they eventually decided to abandon a sinking ship?

What should be asked now is if Afghanistan is a failed case of enforced democratisation. If democracy is the product of consent of a matured society that has experienced democratisation and is able to function under certain social rules that do not rely on physical coercion and threat of violence, but rather on moral punishments, then Afghanistan seems like a failed case. However, there are other cases where lack of human development didn’t hinder the embracing of democracy (however flawed it may have been) by the masses. The most exceptional example is India. However, that was due to certain circumstances and specific local politicians that served as leaders to their people and offered a vision and reasons to embrace such a constitution. In Afghanistan there seems to lack such a strong figure that will build bridges and inspire confidence and admiration in a deeply divided nation still at war. At the same time, the serious obstacles posed in the functioning of even the basic democratic institutions (e.g. low participation in 2009 elections due to lack of security and electoral fraud) do not allow the people to meaningfully contribute as citizens and assist in the building of a reliable and stable nation.

Where there is also lack of security and corruption, development encounters many obstacles. For a nation to join the global economy, it needs the private sector to decide to invest money. There is only so much development – at times fictitious – that the public sector can achieve. Investments in Afghanistan are slowing down and with the withdrawal of the American troops, both providers of security and major source of income for the locals – the country needs to finds other means of attracting investments which will be especially hard if it cannot safeguard them. The country is trying to fight drug dealing, getting ride of the poppy fields, major sources of income for the locals who are left with no crops to cultivate. However, this righteous attitude is not applied to other members of the society, who take millions of dollars out of the country in suitcases and indulge in overt corruption.

Kabul Bank was involved in a very public corruption scandal in 2010 and nearly collapsed

It is quite obvious that Afghanistan has a long way to go before it can become a tourist attraction for the lovers of the Silk Road. On the other hand, if so far the International Community was tried to guide, protect and chastise the country, maybe it is better for the people to take control of their lives and shape their own future. The biggest lament is definitely the lack of security that does not allow wounds to heal and people to focus on the realisation of a vision for the country, putting aside clan politics. As long as stepping outside one’s house feels like a brave endeavour, balance will not be restored and democracy will still crumble in this mountainous and diverse country.