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As US combat role ends, Afghanistan still needs help

The END of the US and NATO combat mission, marked this week at a somber ceremony in Kabul, represents the end of the era of complete dependency. Whether it marks the beginning of an era of eventual self-reliance remains to be seen. Since 2001, the West footed most of the bill for security and basic government services. The Afghan government spends more than $5 billion a year, but only collects a little over $1 billion a year in tax revenues and customs duties.

The good news is that Afghanistan’s new president, former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani, appears to be up to the challenge. Ghani’s first official visit as president was to China, where he sought two forms of assistance: Chinese investment in roads and other infrastructure related to developing Afghanistan’s extensive mineral resources, and Chinese diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to stop support for the Taliban.

Even if this outreach to China doesn’t produce quick results, it shows that Ghani is searching for new ways to solve old problems. At a donor conference last week in London, he assured Afghanistan’s long-term donors that they will soon see “results.” His decision to reopen the criminal inquiry into the theft of nearly $1 billion from Kabul Bank hints that he might actually tackle corruption and introduce much-needed reforms. While his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, demanded more and more aid and less and less accountability, Ghani’s message is the opposite.


“The world is not responsible for everything for Afghanistan,” he told donors. “It is us who are responsible for everything.”

That’s the right mindset, even if it will take years to truly come to fruition. Ghani’s government is still weak. Yet, as fractured and flawed as this government is, it still presents the best chance — and perhaps the last chance — for Afghanistan. That’s why the Obama administration’s decision to delay the withdrawal of all US troops was the right one. The extension of 10,800 US soldiers to train Afghan soldiers and assist with air support is a small price to pay, given all that the United States has already invested. The world should not turn its back on Afghanistan just as it leaders are finally getting their act together.