Afghanistan is one country with two stories, told side by side. As talk of Afghan peace accords grows stronger, both of these realities must figure into the way forward.
In the first story, Afghanistan is a country of endless war, wracked by targeted assassinations and rising numbers of suicide bombs. Just this week, three Czech soldiers died in Afghanistan, killed in a suicide bombing while on a routine patrol alongside Afghan forces. This news comes on the heels of Czech parliamentarians agreeing to send more troops to Afghanistan. And the Czech losses come amid the deaths of two US soldiers, killed within one week of each other last month.
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And all of this while Afghan forces are fighting and dying for their country -- and facing astounding casualty rates. Between January and November 2016, nearly 7,000 Afghan soldiers and police were killed. And according to the Afghan government, between January and the start of May 2017, Afghan security and defense forces saw 2,531 service members killed.
On the other hand, Taliban offensives to date have been repulsed by Afghan forces, with the Taliban failing to take towns and hold them -- even as they have shown the ability to launch incursions.
And alongside the destruction, Afghanistan is a country that is home to real and visible progress. "Afghanistan's health outcomes have improved dramatically since 2001, despite persistent instability. USAID has cited these improvements as a significant development success story. According to United Nations estimates, maternal mortality rates declined from 1,100 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 396 in 2015 -- a drop of 64%," noted the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction in a recent quarterly report.
Independent media are flourishing, with TV, radio and online sources taking on topics from government corruption to rape and violence against women. Women are graduating from Afghan air force pilot training courses and focused on the economy of the future: coding and gaming. And Afghan cricket is now a source of pride for the country on the global stage.
Trade in some agriculture sectors is on the rise, thanks to air connections with regional powers such as India. And gross domestic product and government revenues are both growing, with GDP growth climbing to 2.5% and revenue collection nearly doubling between 2015 and 2017.
In short, gains have been made in Afghanistan amid entrenched tragedy and endless war. And as the United States moves to end the war in Afghanistan through talks with the Taliban, talks welcomed by many Afghans, it must keep these advances in mind.
Afghanistan, despite myriad challenges, is neither hopeless nor a basket case as its progress shows. It is home to a bright young generation I've had the privilege of knowing and writing about for more than a decade -- a generation fighting for its own future that offers a foundation, even if tentative, upon which to build stability.
As the recent, fleeting truce with the Taliban showed, Afghans crave peace. And it is crucial that the sacrifices and the advances of the last 16 years not be forgotten in the push to cement talks aimed at a peaceful future, notes Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Afghanistan. Those significant gains include the real steps forward made by women as well as the advances in a now vibrant civil society, in the education sector and in an economy increasingly linked to its neighbors.
The United States has made clear its desire to negotiate an end to the war in Afghanistan. NATO recently noted that "the people of Afghanistan demand peace and we are encouraged by the momentum building in that direction." US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said while in Afghanistan that the "United States will support, facilitate and participate in these peace discussions, but peace must be decided by the Afghans and settled among them." Indeed, Afghanistan's leaders and the voices of the High Peace Council, a group of Afghans nominated to further the peace dialogue, must play a central role in determining the future of the nation and shaping the path ahead.
The US talks with the Taliban may prove to be a critical step on the path to a peace that benefits all Afghans and that allows US and NATO forces to, gradually, come home. As a former US Army colonel and senior diplomat, Chris Kolenda, who played a central role in this diplomatic journey, told The Daily Beast, the tough decisions are still to come.
But that peace should come in step-by-step, confidence-building measures, and it must take into account the gains Afghanistan has made alongside the bloodshed the Afghan government and the US and NATO allies seek to end.