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Afghanistan’s Success Story? Its Young Leaders

Afghanistan’s young leaders are uniquely prepared to move Afghanistan toward a better future.
By Maiwand Rahyab

Seventeen years after the international community toppled the Taliban regime, Afghanistan remains a fragile country. With a struggling economy, a deteriorating security situation, and widespread corruption, the picture looks grim. Amid these challenges, it is easy to lose hope. But all is not lost. Afghanistan’s oft-portrayed troubles represent one side of our story, a limited perspective that fails to capture the generational transformation – civic, political, and cultural – that has taken place.

Afghanistan team member Kwasar Rashan, center, walks with her teammates to line-up for the opening ceremony march of the FIRST Global Challenge 2017, a robotic competition, in Washington, Sunday, July 16, 2017.
Afghanistan team member Kwasar Rashan, center, walks with her teammates to line-up for the opening ceremony march of the FIRST Global Challenge 2017, a robotic competition, in Washington, Sunday, July 16, 2017.

Modern Afghanistan has produced a new generation of young leaders - men and women - that is taking charge to transform the war-torn country for the better through an unwavering commitment to its success and survival. This vision is underscored by a pragmatic approach to address the country’s challenges.

Eighty-four percent of Afghanistan’s population is under the age of 40. For a country at the heart of the world’s youth bulge, with a 40 percent unemployment rate and a history of youth radicalization, it is nevertheless reassuring to see this cohort moving from a numerical majority to an influential constituency. Years of investment in human capital are starting to pay dividends, as a new generation of leaders steps up to chart pathways toward a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan.

This new generation is uniquely situated to move Afghanistan forward for three key reasons. First, its members lost their childhoods to civil war and the oppressive rule of the Taliban. A return to the past is not an option for them, but they also do not wish to leave their homeland and the extraordinary opportunities – educational, social, political, and economic – they have been granted since 2001. Second, this group of Afghans has achieved an unprecedented set of qualifications and capacities to advance a competent civil service, a vibrant economy, and a strong civil society. Trained in some of the world’s finest academic institutions, many have merged their experiences of living and working in a developing country with a drive to improve life in Afghanistan. Third, and perhaps most importantly, they represent the country’s largest demographic; their presence in all aspects of public life inevitably lends key institutions energy and ambition while offering vital examples to young people across the country that more is possible.

For decades, patronage politics dominated Afghanistan’s politics and public institutions, enabling pervasive corruption with dire consequences for security, rule of law, and economic growth. Most senior government officials in Afghanistan have served the interests of their patrons, which have often been incongruous with those of the public. That is changing. Today, the National Unity Government is committed to empowering a cadre of well-educated, socially connected, and professionally qualified young leaders to move forward a reform agenda.

Most of those newly recruited in the senior government positions – including a number of young women leaders – come from ordinary middle class or poor families that previously had little access to opportunity or power. This new generation of leaders in Afghanistan understand that there is simply too much at stake. They understand that the future of the country depends on their ability to mobilize around a common vision, to put the country first, and to dedicate themselves to public service. The Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission – where I serve as a commissioner – has become one example of a government institution capable of successfully challenging patronage politics in the public sector. Most recently, in an effort to improve public financial management and ensure merit-based recruitment, the Commission completed recruitment for 700 procurement positions, an area especially prone to fraud and corruption. This was a bold and unprecedented effort, carried out by a revitalized team of young commissioners - all in their 30s - in an environment long defined by strongmen who have treated public office and resources as their own.

This transformation is not limited to Kabul. In the provinces, too, more young leaders are taking charge. At least three women serve as district governors, positions that bring female leadership to the heart of Afghan society. They are part of larger cohort of young mayors, deputy governors, and other senior officials in the provinces - a demonstration of the government’s commitment to women’s empowerment as well as a testament to the courage and capacity of Afghan women. A similar change is taking hold in the foreign service. Our ambassadors to the United States and China - two key posts - represent a new generation of dynamic diplomatic leaders. Our embassies in Rome and Jakarta, once isolated and quiet, are now led by two dedicated young ambassadors who have made them some of the most active and vibrant missions.

However, this is not a story of only the public sector. With the drawdown of international forces and engagement, there remains an organic, spirited civil society, pushing for reforms, demanding accountability, and creating new public spaces for dialogue and debate. For example, Afghanistan Institute for Civil Society, an organization I founded, has pioneered initiatives to protect civic space, including publication of the first-of-its-kind Annual State of the Enabling Environment for Civil Society Report. Likewise, ArtLord, a grassroots movement of artists, converts security blast walls across the country from depressing reminders of our insecurity into beautiful, provocative works of art that enable citizen expression. Integrity Watch Afghanistan, through over a decade of relentless research, reportage, and community-based advocacy, has emerged as a strong, competent voice for fighting graft and corruption.

Afghanistan’s new generation is also on the frontlines of the fight for freedom of information and expression. TOLO News, Afghanistan’s biggest and most influential TV network, is run by young journalists, as are three of the country’s leading newspapers - Hasht Sobh, Pazhwak, and Etilaat-e-Roz. These men and women promote and protect Afghans’ right to freedom of expression. In so doing, some have paid the ultimate price. We lost nine of our finest young journalists in a recent attack on the media. The terrorists took innocent lives, but could not silence the voice of our national press.

While the way ahead will be difficult, perhaps more than we can imagine, I see great hope in the ever-growing investment and sense of responsibility my generation has assumed. Young leaders, many of whom could easily build lives abroad, have tied their fate to that of a stable and democratic Afghanistan. This is a generation that embraces ethnic and linguistic diversity as a source of strength and richness and continues to insist on the right of all Afghans to lives with dignity and pride. Afghanistan’s international friends and partners can rest assured that, despite the inevitable pessimism of the news cycle, we remain steady in our dedication and commitment to steer our country in the right direction. Afghanistan’s new generation is its success story; a hard-earned achievement and an unmistakable product of Afghan and international blood and treasure.

Maiwand Rahyab serves as a commissioner on the Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission of Afghanistan.
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