Today, the global spotlight is on Gaza and Ukraine. But remember when it was Afghanistan and Iraq? The two war-ravaged countries have faded from our collective memory as the news cycle moved on to more immediate conflicts and crises. But top officials from the United Nations Development Programme recently visited Washington, D.C. in an effort to keep Afghanistan and Iraq on the radar of United States policymakers.
“There’s so much happening in the world, and particularly with Israel-Palestine, that’s sucking up all the oxygen, that Afghanistan and other places … are likely to be overlooked,” UNDP Afghanistan Resident Representative Stephen Rodriques told Devex during his visit this week to D.C., where he met with officials from the World Bank, Congress, the State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, among other agencies.
Likewise, UNDP’s resident representative from Iraq, Auke Lootsma, was in town to tout his agency’s work rebuilding parts of the country that were destroyed during the years of Islamic State rule, until the so-called caliphate’s fall in 2017. Since then, UNDP has partnered with the Iraqi government and a coalition of 30 global donors to stabilize the country by restoring essential services and infrastructure such as schools, health systems, and electrical grids; creating jobs; empowering women; and other initiatives.
But Lootsma says the $1.5 billion program — known as the Funding Facility for Stabilization — is coming to a close and transitioning to a new phase as UNDP and its partners hand over more control to the Iraqi government.
“I think the stabilization program in Iraq is unrivaled when it comes to the scale and the speed at which it has operated,” Lootsma told Devex, noting that out of 6 million people displaced by the Islamic State, 5 million people have returned home.
“There is no other program in the world, I believe, that has managed to bring 5 million people home. It’s really a huge number — and also in a relatively short span of time as well. So that for us, is of course the biggest indicator of success,” Lootsma said.
“But if you dig a little deeper, when you see the achievements on the ground in the liberated areas in Iraq … you really see the impact in terms of so many hospitals repaired, so many bridges repaired, schools, courthouses, police stations. ISIL basically had a tendency to blow up everything they came across,” he added, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Lootsma said he’s been particularly inspired by the transformation of Mosul, the onetime capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate which he calls a “symbol of revival, resilience, and renaissance.”
That includes the University of Mosul, which had 35,000 students until the Islamic State takeover in 2014. “ISIL bombed it, burned all the books, placed all their families in the dormitories in the compound of the university, and basically, when they were defeated, the amount of damage to Mosul University was quite enormous.”
Today, though, the campus has been rebuilt and boasts 70,000 students, “and they come from all walks of life — rich, poor, Yazidi, Sunni, Shia, whatever — it is really a melting pot of different groups in Iraq and really, I think, a showcase of how the future could look like.”
The future looks quite different in Afghanistan if the present-day is any indication.
There, universities are hardly booming. All the women have been kicked out — just as they have vanished from public life — because the Taliban re-imposed its austere vision of Islam after wresting control of the country back from the U.S.-backed government in 2021.
Unlike UNDP’s work in Iraq, where the agency is handing power to the government after notching some key victories, in Afghanistan, UNDP is steering clear of the de facto authorities and doing what it can to keep the tanking economy from collapsing even further.
Rodriques said that means building infrastructure like wells, supplying basic services “to millions of poor Afghans across the country,” and, critically, providing cash-for-work programs. UNDP is also taking advantage of “carve-outs” the Taliban has made that allow women to hold certain jobs, including in the health sector and, somewhat surprisingly, in the private sector.
Rodriques noted that women own businesses that specialize in carpet weaving, for example, agro-processing foods such as yogurt and cheese, and artisan crafts.
But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the draconian restrictions placed on women. Even though some have called for countries to recognize the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan for the sake of allowing more money to flow into the country to alleviate the humanitarian suffering, Rodriques is adamant that’s not the answer.
“No, absolutely not. The de facto authorities should not be recognized for as long as they have these kinds of restrictions on women,” he said. “Fundamental human rights is so embedded in the charter of the United Nations … that I would be hesitant to see any member state, any country in the world, recognize a government that treats women in this particular manner.” Rather, he hopes donors will step up and see that you can work in a “principled” way to support the community without abetting the Taliban — support that’s especially urgent after the earthquakes in Herat last month that killed nearly 1,500 people and leveled entire towns.
“It has disappeared from the headlines, but I guess we have to be pragmatic. This is the way the world works,” Rodriques said. “This, regrettably, is yesterday’s news for many people.”
But it’s front and center for UNDP, which is trying to prepare tens of thousands of people living in tents for the winter. “We are using our internal resources to do much of this work, and so we’re appealing to the international community for assistance,” he said.
Lootsma also came to Washington appealing for donor support. Even though UNDP’s stabilization program is wrapping up, there are ongoing projects, such as an oncology hospital in Mosul, that will spill into 2024. Plus, myriad challenges remain, Lootsma said, including endemic corruption, climate change — temperatures in Iraq reached 50 degrees Celsius this summer — and diversifying an economy built primarily, and ironically, on fossil fuels.
Then there’s the Islamic State. While recent headlines have centered around attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq by Iranian proxies, a troubling sign that the violence in Gaza may be spreading, Lootsma warns that the Islamic State is not a spent force — and could reconstitute itself if conditions are ripe.
“Just because we run a big stabilization program, as does the government, doesn’t mean, everything is hunky dory,” he said.
If the achievements of the Funding Facility for Stabilization aren’t sustained and the government isn’t providing people with livelihoods, the Islamic State could reemerge, especially given Iraq’s porous borders with Syria.
“There’s certainly ground … for people to be recruited by violent extremist groups,” he said. “So that is definitely a concern.”