The story of Afghanistan known by most Americans is of horrific war scenes, lost lives and injuries to troops and civilians. Last weekend, another roadside bomb killed five soldiers working to rout terrorists.

Less well known is another campaign: building infrastructure, health facilities and schools. While tremendous waste and ineffective projects have been exposed, there is also evidence of striking improvements.

Life expectancy in Afghanistan, for example, rose from 42 in 2002 to 62 in 2010. Deaths of newborns fell dramatically, as have maternal deaths.

In 2002, only 900,000 boys were in school and virtually no girls. Now there are eight million students, more than a third of whom are girls.

And the number of primary health care facilities increased from fewer than 500 in 2002 to nearly 2,000 in 2010.

Alex Thier, assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs in the U.S. Agency for International Development, cites a report that shows Afghanistan has made more progress on a percentage basis since 2000 than any country in the world. That also shows just how miserable life was under the Taliban era.

To Thier, the biggest hope for the future rests with better-educated women who are holding a growing number of government jobs, serving in elective office and launching entrepreneurial businesses.

While calls routinely emerge in the U.S. to cut foreign aid, Thier says the entire development budget for Afghanistan over the last decade equals the cost of four to six weeks of the military campaign. “Continuing this investment will greatly diminish the likelihood of Afghanistan becoming fragile,” he said.

Thier finds hope in Afghanistan’s increasingly educated and tech-savvy youth. He suggests that this youth contingent plus upgraded infrastructure should help keep Afghanistan from slipping backward after troops depart.

One can only hope he’s a better prognosticator than the pessimistic analysts.

— The Kansas City Star, May 6

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