Now Back to Afghanistan

George Soros is founder and chairman of the Open Society Institute.

While the unremitting violence in Iraq grabs the world's headlines, Afghanistan still struggles for peace. The country's parliament is packed with warlords, the drug trade is thriving, and violence is on the rise.

World leaders have an opportunity to steer developments onto a new and more hopeful path when they meet in London to forge a new compact with Afghanistan. The compact builds on the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which laid the framework for a democratic Afghanistan but left much to be done to overcome that war-torn country's tragic legacy.

The need for renewed attention to Afghanistan could hardly be greater. Decades of neglect coupled with foreign intervention left the country in ruins, with reverberations across the world. It is now in everyone's interest to help Afghanistan rebuild.

The drug trade exemplifies the far-reaching impact of domestic instability. Last year, the value of drugs produced in Afghanistan—the world's largest supplier of opiate—is estimated to have reached up to 25 percent of GDP.

Security, too, remains a serious concern. In 2005, more than 125 coalition troops were killed, while suicide bombing emerged as a new and increasingly common tactic of the insurgency. Corruption is rampant, with government officials accused of cronyism and drug trafficking. Several members of the newly elected parliament are known warlords with bloody records. With international aid poorly coordinated and the United States reducing its troop strength, many Afghans believe that the outside world is abandoning them.

But the massive scale of the challenges facing Afghanistan should not overshadow the opportunities for positive change. The Bonn process established the principle of democratic accountability, gave Afghanistan its first directly elected president, and provided a new constitution that—approved after genuine debate and compromise—created a legitimate central government. It also paved the way for a parliament in which over a quarter of the members are women—this in a country where, just five years ago, women were not even allowed to leave the house without a male relative.

Moreover, most of the 20,000 village councils were elected through secret ballot. In a nod to the importance of the councils to realizing change at the most local level, the World Bank and its partners have adopted a highly innovative program that channels rural development aid through the councils, which have been empowered to decide how the funds will be spent. At the national level, the government recently approved a new development strategy that goes far to advance a vision for Afghanistan's future stability and growth.

Public opinion reflects widespread support for the latest changes. A recent poll shows that Afghans overwhelmingly favor their country's new direction—backing the participation of women in public life and international intervention against al-Qaida, the Taliban, and the drug economy.

But Afghanistan's potential for progress must be bolstered by concerted international action. At the London Conference, world leaders should support the counter-narcotics strategy recently approved by the Afghan government, which would reduce economic dependence on opium production, punish traffickers and dealers, and provide sustainable economic alternatives for poppy farmers. Afghanistan is grappling with the world's biggest narcotics problem and donors must commit to a long-term drug control strategy. The conference should follow up on a resolution by the European Parliament to consider whether Afghanistan should become one of the countries licensed to produce opium for medical purposes.

Furthermore, instead of pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into technical assistance and short-term capacity-building programs, the London conference should strive to help meet the Afghan government's benchmark for equipping young people with the skills and education necessary to lead their nation to a future of peace and prosperity. International support could help educate 40,000 Afghans each year in urgently needed fields, such as engineering, management, agriculture, law, and economics.

Judicial reform is another pressing issue. Currently, the judiciary is incapable of trying a case of petty theft much less of ensuring human rights. A Supreme Court dominated by conservative factions has selected judges and prosecutors, and Afghans have little legal redress in a system that allows local commanders, who hold sway over the judiciary, to act with impunity.

Without a viable legal system, foreign investment will remain elusive. Even Afghan expatriates in the Gulf states, who have invested roughly $5 billion in regional and global trading networks, are reluctant to invest in their homeland.

Reform is nonetheless clearly possible. Last month, the Afghan leadership finally adopted—albeit half-heartedly—a transitional justice plan that could remove from power the biggest war criminals who have consolidated their grip on the country over the past five years. Implementation of this plan would not only give a boost to the rule of law, but also would enhance security and lead to better governance.

Failure to act would mean a betrayal of the Afghan people, who in 2001 welcomed the United States army and NATO forces as liberators. For their sake, and ours, we must not let them down.

©2006 Project Syndicate

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