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News and Views

OP ED: Afghanistan: Forget me not

By Khaleda Atta and Hawa Ghaus
The Hill


There are fronts in the fight against terrorism that are fought without firing a single shot and are won without fanfare or media attention. One such victory is on the horizon.

Before the Senate adjourned for its Easter recess, legislation (S. 2776) was introduced by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) that would authorize President Bush to designate Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan. If passed by the Congress, ROZs will enable non-trade sensitive exports such as rugs, gemstones and handicrafts to enter the U.S. duty-free. They provide a compelling economic incentive for private sector investment in Afghanistan and Pakistan and become an additional source of jobs for the people of these two nations desperate for employment. This sustainable approach will allow Afghanistan and Pakistan to transcend political differences and to find common ground in the promise and potential of the private sector.

Strengthening Afghanistan’s private sector is the most sustainable approach to empowering ordinary Afghans to build their common future. The Afghan government has identified the private sector as the driver of economic growth and has adapted a liberal investment policy that encourages and protects private sector investment. Afghanistan’s embrace of the free market will best serve us as we advance along the path toward self-sufficiency and prosperity.

Reconstruction Opportunity Zones are modeled on the success of Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs), an economic vehicle that has helped to nurture a fragile peace in the Middle East while creating diplomatic and economic linkages between Jordan, Israel and Egypt. QIZs have generated hundreds of jobs and stimulated impressive economic activity in Jordan, with Jordanian exports to the United States surpassing $1 billion in 2006. Further economic cooperation and integration along these lines can engender cooperation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. A peaceful and stable Afghanistan will be Pakistan’s greatest ally and trading partner. Pakistan’s annual exports to Afghanistan have increased from $25 million to an astounding $1.2 billion in the last six years. As the cooperation between the two countries improves, so will the benefits to the Afghan and Pakistani peoples.

In recent years, the Afghan people have witnessed a number of historic landmarks in their country. They have democratically elected a President and Parliament; adopted one of the most progressive Constitutions in the Islamic world; sent 6 million children back to school (34 percent of whom are girls); and have been joined by 4.7 million refugees who have returned to their homeland. Eighty-five thousand Afghan infants are alive this year because of improvements in access to basic health care that were made possible by U.S. taxpayers. The Afghan lawful economy has increased from $2.4 billion to nearly $8.8 billion, GDP growth remains in the double-digits, and per capita income has doubled since 2001.

And yet, security in southern Afghanistan has been deteriorating. Suicide bombings — a phenomenon foreign to Afghan culture — have become routine, and many of the schools we have painstakingly built have been burned to the ground. Understandably, U.S. citizens want to know if their investment in Afghanistan has been worthwhile given that some public officials and pundits have taken to calling the mission a “forgotten war.”

Rebuilding Afghanistan has been costly — both in blood and treasure —but we have to consider the cost of under-investing in Afghanistan. Comparatively speaking, Afghanistan has been the most under-resourced nation-building operation of the entire post-Word War II era. We cannot allow Afghanistan to backslide into the hands of terrorists and drug lords who would hold the country hostage and use it as a launching pad for future attacks.

The Taliban, recognizing that they do not pose a serious military threat to the allied forces, has resorted to terrorist attacks on soft targets. Their movement offers no political vision or charismatic leadership, only clandestine bombs and the flames of hatred. Afghans have not forgotten for one second the misery of life under the Taliban’s regime. The good will of the Afghan people is, has been, and will continue to be the international community’s greatest asset in the struggle for security and stability.

If the U.S. Congress passes this legislation, the resulting prosperity in Afghanistan and Pakistan will serve as a down payment against extremism and terrorism. Victory cannot be accomplished through military means alone. We are fighting terrorism as a phenomenon as well as terrorists as individuals. In Pakistan, the best antidote against the lure of certain extremist madrassas is a paycheck and a chance to support one’s family with a sense of pride. In Afghanistan, building civil society and encouraging investment in the legal economy will be a strong deterrent to the financial incentives of the drug trade.

The lure of virgin markets that attracted investors to Afghanistan from around the world has begun to fade as terrorist attacks undermine investor confidence. Last year, Afghanistan’s economy saw a 50 percent decline in foreign direct investment as some of these investors determined that the risks outweighed the benefits of a major Afghan investment. ROZs will become a catalyst to reenergize this vital community of entrepreneurs.

We urge Congress to move forward with this important legislation as expeditiously as possible. The Afghan people have been well served by our friends in the U.S. Congress and the longstanding bipartisan support for our noble and long-suffering country.

Atta is commercial attaché of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C. Ghaus is legislative counsel with the embassy.

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