Laura Dupuy, Executive Director of the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, was selected as one of six ”Citizen Diplomats” invited to Kabul by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the U.S. Department of State.
With 56% of Americans believing that America should leave Afghanistan now, Ambassador Crocker invited the delegation to come to evaluate for ourselves if we should stay the course.
What the delegation saw was a country at a tipping point. While significant gains have been made on many fronts, in 2014 U.S. and ISAF forces will draw down troops and Afghans will go to the polls to elect a new President.
The delegation was given access to Afghanistan’s key leaders, including: members of the Afghan Parliament; Ministers of Finance, Public Health, Education, Agriculture, and Mining; leaders of NGO’s who are advocating for human rights, and the rights of women and girls; among others. The week ended with two extraordinary meetings: a military briefing with General John Allen, and a candid conversation with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.
In 2002, the life expectancy of an Afghan was 44 years of age. Today, it’s 62. Infant mortality has dropped by 22 percent and access to basic health care has skyrocketed from 9% to 64%.The delegation was surprised by the many gains made in the last decade in women’s rights and education, health, and the economy.
A decade ago, only 900,000 children attended school – all boys. Today, there are 9 million students with nearly 4 million of them girls. Women are attending university and starting businesses. But with an overall literacy rate of 28%, there’s still a long way to go.
Economically, there is tremendous opportunity for development in both the agricultural and mining sectors. Agriculture is the base of the economy, with 70 to 80% of rural people working as farmers. Successful crop substitution from poppy to pomegranate or potatoes has the potential to increase the hectare yield significantly, while reducing the global trade of heroin.
The potential for mining is astronomical, with nearly $1 trillion in untapped deposits ranging from huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold, and rare earths. In fact, the mining sector could account for 80% of the nations’ GDP should the barriers to mining, such as security and transportation, be successfully overcome.
When asked “what message would you like to send to the American people”, the delegation was told time and again, “please don’t leave.” Without U.S. assistance to train Afghan Security Forces, there is little hope for security for the individual; the rights of women and children; and the economic gains made in the last decade.
The Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement signed May 1, 2012, is a signal of the U.S.’s long term commitment to Afghanistan. The terrorist threat to U.S. national security remains real, with Afghanistan as the breeding ground. As Ambassador Crocker put it, if the U.S. leaves now, we will be back – to deal with the next 9/11.