I arrived in Kabul a week ago as Deputy Ambassador in the British Embassy. I’ve worked quite extensively on Afghan issues in previous jobs in London, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to learn more about Afghanistan and to help Afghans secure peace and prosperity for their country.
I come to Kabul direct from a previous posting as Consul General in Chicago. My main source of information for the last three years on what’s happening in Afghanistan has been the foreign media, which inevitably tends to focus on security issues, including the insurgency and the role of international forces.
But as I’m quickly discovering, there is a dynamism here which has nothing to do with conflict. Afghanistan already looks very different to the Afghanistan of a decade ago and it’s clear to me that progress will continue to be made in the months and years ahead.
Four things strike the newcomer at once:
First, this is a society in the midst of rapid change. Kabul has grown in a decade from around 1 million people to nearly 3 ½ million . The streets are bustling with traffic, and urbanisation is driving hectic economic development, with new buildings and new services like mobile phones and television.
Schools and healthcare have been transformed. The World Bank expects the economy to grow by a steady 3 per cent over the next year and, assuming favourable weather conditions and peaceful elections, growth could pick up in 2014;
Second, as everywhere in the world, there is an increasing focus on providing employment. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) alone has pledged to create 50,000 new jobs by 2015 through its programmes.
An example of this is through the DFID-funded organisation,Comprehensive Agricultural and Rural Development Facility (CARD-F), an Afghan led programme which builds capacity in local communities. Examples of what it has achieved include improving milk production and access to market in Balkh District and making poultry farms in the Kama District of Nangarhar more efficient;
Third, political change is coming to Afghanistan, with Presidential elections taking place in April 2014. The crucial laws providing the framework for the elections were passed this month and preparations are well under way to ensure the machinery for the polls will be in place.
As in any democratic society, Kabul is awash with rumours of possible alliances and candidacies. We’re hoping for a credible and inclusive electoral contest which results in a winner who can lead Afghanistan towards peace and prosperity;
Fourth, there will be a major change in the international presence here as our combat troops depart. Security throughout the country is already in the hands of Afghan forces and the commitments made at NATO’s Chicago Summit last year mean they will continue to receive international support well after 2014.
The international commitment to Afghanistan’s continued development was cemented by the commitments made at the Tokyo Summit the following month (Britain alone will be contributing over £178 million each year up to 2017 for development projects). So international support for Afghanistan will change in nature, but it will endure.
All this makes for a crucial year ahead. I’m looking forward to being here through this pivotal time, to helping lead the efforts to support Afghanistan being made across the British Government, and to getting to know this remarkable country.