USAID: Remarks by Andrew S. Natsios at Afghan reconstruction conference

Though rich in history, tradition and culture, Afghanistan has always, Afghanistan has always been a poor country. The 22 years of violence and destruction that followed the Soviet invasion in 1979, however, reduced the country to unprecedented levels of poverty, hunger, and desperation. In fact, on the human misery index, which is an index kept by U.N. -- they don't call it that, but that's what it is -- Afghanistan actually ranks among the most unfortunate countries in each of the indicators we use. That is mainly due to the destruction that took place over the last 22 years.
It's only since the United States, the Afghan opposition, and our allies overthrew the Taliban in the fall of 2001 and the beginning of 2002 that it has been possible to speak in terms of reconstruction. To expect that the country could be restored to status quo ante in a matter of months ignores our experience of reconstruction, experience in other post-war settings.

I have been working in this field for 12 years. I've worked on 12 different reconstructions of 12 countries after civil wars. There's always a conflict between people who want things done very quickly and those of us who know that if you do it too quickly you will make design mistakes that will come back to haunt you later on. There is always a push immediately to do it. Whenever we do that, we make mistakes we regret.

So we have to be responsive to the political requirements. If President Karzai does not show progress, there are serious political problems. On the other hand, we want to make sure the work we do with the ministries in Kabul and the government and the NGO community are done properly, so that a firm foundation is placed for the long-term reconstruction of the country. Europe was not rebuilt six months after World War II. And I have to tell you, Kabul looked to me like pictures of Berlin in 1945 when I visited there twice in the last year.

The United States government has spent $580 million in humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in the 12 months that followed September 11th. Of that my agency was responsible for $350 million. In the four months since fiscal 2002 ended --which is to say since October 1st -- AID has spent another $136 million, which is more than any other bilateral aid agency in the world.

No one should doubt our commitment to the reconstruction of the country. The President said late last year that "we will stay the course" to help the country develop. Last night, in his State of the Union address, he said, "In Afghanistan we helped liberate an oppressed people and we will continue helping them secure their country, rebuild their society, and educate all their children, boys and girls."

In addition to our emergency assistance, AID is deeply involved with helping the Afghan people through the central government to rebuild their country. Our programs can be divided into the following categories: humanitarian assistance and winterization; agriculture; infrastructure development; democracy, governance and a free media; economic development; health and education.

While I will discuss these elements separately, it is important to note that they are all aimed at improving people's lives. If there is not a tangible improvement in people's lives, there will be consequences politically to the country. We can have all the headlines we want in the United States; we can talk about all the money we've spent. If the average Afghan does not see an improvement, a simple change in their living standard and how they live, our efforts will not be successful. We want to strengthen the Karzai Administration and the central government's ability to provide services so that they can govern the country themselves, over the long term, without international assistance and to make sure the horrors of the past 23 years are not repeated.

First, humanitarian assistance. We purchased $200 million of emergency food aid, most of it through WFP and the NGO community for Fiscal Year '02. I have some expertise in famines; I've been through a number of them and written some books on them. Afghanistan was facing pre-famine conditions in the summer of 2001 -- that was before September 11th -- as a result of three years of drought and economic collapse and gross mismanagement by the Taliban. that I believe [inaudible] the destruction of large parts of the country.

I visited the Shomali Plain when I was in the country. It was a very, very rich truck farming area, a very prosperous area that was completely destroyed. Irrigation ditches were blown up, the tunnels when they brought water to the fields were destroyed -- deliberately, systematically. I even saw mosques blown up. I had an elderly mullah in his 70s sit down in front of me; it was very sad. He said the Taliban came into our village and they blew up the mosque. They blew up the mosque, because we do not practice the same brand of Islam that they did.

Three-quarters of all the foods that WFP distributed in Afghanistan was from the United States, and it did prevent the famine last winter. There's been a dramatic improvement in the amount of food aid available this winter. All of the aid was in place before the winter started. Ninety percent of that food was in warehouses, regional areas and the villages before the winter started so we would not have a repetition of the frenzied pace of last year.

We also used the food aid to pay people's salaries. You don't know this, but the one consistent salary everybody received from the Afghan government was not a check, because that went off and on depending on whether money came in from the donors. But it was a voucher stamped by the central government and AID that said you can go to a depot for government and receive this food. Fifty thousand teachers got paid for six months almost exclusively from that. They even said they preferred that because the money buys different things at different times, depending on prices. Food we have to eat no matter what happens. So it was a consistent salary supplement that we provided earlier on.

Afghanistan has always been primarily an agricultural society -- I might add a rich society, not just subsistence agriculture. They exported a lot of wonderful products. I have to tell you, I saw some apples in the market in Kabul when I was there in January, and I said these must have been imported from Europe or the United States. And they said, "no, these are Afghan apples, and if we can only get the orchards back we'll be exporting like we used to."

So it's not just a matter of subsistence agriculture. A large part of the country's revenues came from exporting agricultural goods, very high-value agricultural goods. So we want to remake that economy.

We also supplied an improved variety of seed, which we searched for over Central Asia with our agronomists working with the World Bank. It produced 80 to 100 percent more wheat per hectare. The farmers I talked to were ecstatic; they said this is a miracle. This is not a miracle, it's just you didn't have this before. And there has been an 800,000-ton increase in wheat production in one year.

If you ask me the most important thing, the one thing everybody has to have to survive is food. If you don't produce food, you're in big trouble. The schools are second. But the first thing is food. There is a dramatic increase in food production in Afghanistan. Part of it was the weather, the improvement of drought. But secondly, not only us but other donor governments brought this same wheat variety, which is drought-resistant, requires less fertilizer, and is much more productive. It is now getting into the agricultural system and will be replicated now and become a very, very productive part of the system. We sent them 15,000 tons of fertilizer, 7,000 tons of this seed; and over three years, AID hopes to replace 20 percent of the entire seed stock of the country with these improved varieties. These should bring back production above what it was in 1979. The country was self-sufficient in food in 1979.

I should also tell you, there's a 400 percent increase in cotton production in the Helmand Valley as a replacement for poppy, another one of our agricultural priorities.

Afghanistan has always been a bridge between Central and South Asia. Of course, that's a benefit because it's very prosperous trade that goes on, but it's also a problem because every powerful country wants to control that nexus of transportation. That's why there have been battles for two centuries or for more than that over Afghanistan, because it's a central transportation hub.

One of the most pressing needs, and one that Chairman Karzai insisted on, is to repair the road system both for trade purposes but also for revenue and customs duties. It is a trading culture. The Afghan people are extraordinarily well endowed by their culture and their traditions to be traders and business people. To revive that economy is a central part of what we want to do.

The President, along with the Japanese and Saudis announced a $160 million program to rebuild the Kabul-to-Kandahar-to-Herat road. I just got a report this morning. Our first contract piece of that road, south of Kabul, was to rebuild starting this fall. We've now completed 32 kilometers along with the de-mining we have to do. I ran the Big Dig in Boston, the biggest construction project in history, and I can tell you: weather counts. Not only can't you grade easily when it freezes, but you cannot put hot-top down. You cannot put asphalt down because the emulsion doesn't work. With the onset of winter, we've suspended activities there and moved our equipment down to Kandahar, to work on the highway west of Kandahar, because it's much warmer down there and the ground doesn't freeze. So we are moving along at about a half a kilometer a day. In three years the whole thing should be completed - at least our part will be. Hopefully, the others will complete their part. We're doing our part of it, and we're working very hard.

We're also working with the Afghan Ministry of Water and Power to restore the water supply to Kabul, Kanduz, and Kandahar. We're rehabilitating 6,000 wells, springs, and irrigation canals.

In terms of governance, we've provided the support very quietly, from AID, for the Loya Jirga that elected the Karzai government. We do not publicize that a lot, but there are 60 AID officers who worked on logistics, moving a couple of thousand people, feeding them and housing them and providing the sound system and the seats and all that. People don't think about that, but it was a critical part of the process. We worked with the U.N. and the ministry. We spent about $6 million on that.

Our economic development program also features a governance aspect. The Afghan Central Bank has just issued their new currency. They issued it; it was their project. But if you asked the central bank who helped them do it, they'd tell you that we provided the shredding machines to destroy the old currency and the counting machines to count new currency -- you can't do it by hand; it's too much -- and the security system to move the currency out to the regional banking centers, and then a public relations campaign, public information campaign, to explain to people how the currency works. It's very critical. We've done this in many countries. It was a great success.

If you ask President Karzai, he'd tell you that this was one of his great accomplishments. You cannot grow an economy without a stable, accepted currency, and they now have one in Afghanistan, in very short order, I might add.

In the health area, we vaccinated 4.25 million children against measles and treatment of 700,000 cases of malaria. We provided health care services to two million people since last summer, 90 percent of them women and children. We've begun training 1,154 health-based workers who work through the Ministry of Health. And we've just completed the survey, which is the template for the entire national system, working with the Ministry of Health to rebuild the entire primary health care system. There are 2,034 clinics in the country. AID has made a commitment that we will rebuild half of those clinics, a thousand of them. It will be massive undertaking over three years. Without that clinic system we will not be able to drop the highest maternal mortality rate in the world and one of the highest child mortality rates. That's on schedule now, and the Europeans and the Japanese are giving the money for the rest of the clinics.

Through the University of Nebraska at Omaha, we printed over 10 million textbooks and distributed them in time for the opening of school in March. This was temporary, but the minister of education liked the textbooks so much he said print more of them please, so we're going to extend this another season. And I think we printed another 3 or 4 million of them.

We have also refurbished schools. We just opened a school that we built with the civil affairs units -- I'm a retired civil affairs officer in the military myself. It was a joint project in the northern part of the country, for girls. It's a 3,000-girl high school -- I could show you a picture -- I should have brought them. The old high school was in complete ruins, and now there's new high school where girls go to school.

We also rebuilt the teachers college in Kabul that trains teachers for the schools. Because if you don't have teachers coming out of the schools, who's going to train the kids or educate the kids in schools?

This is a brief sampling of some of the things USAID is doing to help the Afghan people. I could go on for a couple of hours on this.

We're also working, though, on the new constitution. We are providing technical assistance to the convention. Here's a conservative Muslim country, and we have no right or intention to impose America on them. We need to be very careful about this. There's a tendency in Washington, particularly for people in Washington who've never been to the developing world, to say "here's what we are going to rebuild."

We are not doing any rebuilding. We are helping people in other countries -- in this case, Afghanistan -- rebuild. It's their country; it's not our country.

We are not writing their constitution for them. We're giving them the options that many countries all over the world have, because many countries have done the same thing. We've got 40 years of experience in constitution-writing within AID. We're giving them the options they can choose from, letting them make the decisions themselves. If it is not something that is Afghan-owned, it will not last very long. I can just tell you we learned a long time ago if you impose things on people, it will not last very long.

We strongly support - and the people I've talked with in Afghanistan support it, too -- very high standards and human rights standards, including religious freedom, women's rights, and the rule of law. I have to tell you, the old constitution, in the days from, I think it was 1964, also contains universal principles of human rights, because Afghanistan prior to '79 was making substantial progress toward moving toward a constitutional process. Unfortunately, it was interrupted by the Soviets in 1979.

The process of drafting the new constitution should be broadly inclusive, while the outcome should encourage national stability and give the Karzai administration the tools it needs to govern effectively. If properly drafted, the constitution will strike a balance between traditional Afghan values and international human rights standards. And that's something they intend to do, but they make their own decisions.

USAID is providing $22 million in technical assistance to the constitutional, judicial, and human rights commissions -- three commissions which the Bonn Agreement authorized. And I am pleased to note that members of the three commissions are with us today, as are the minister of justice, the minister of state for women's affairs.

The assistance, the $22 million, will also be used to prepare for the national elections -- in fact, it's the bulk of what these costs are - scheduled for 2004, June of 2004, which are to enhance a free and independent media and build and strengthen national political parties.

Our goal is to help Afghanistan achieve what our founding fathers achieved in Philadelphia 225 years ago. I sent the new president of East Timor -- he wasn't the president at the time -- a book by the founding father, James Madison, who kept a journal about the proceedings and speeches everybody gave at the constitutional convention. We came very close, within one or two votes, to having a plural executive -- three presidents. People should be a little humble in the United States about how close we came to having a dysfunctional constitution ourselves. I sent that book to him, and he said the he would read it carefully, to make sure they didn't make the mistakes that the United States were faced with.

Thank you.