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Mounting concern over Afghanistan

Cartoon protests are part of an impatience with the problems of drugs, jobs, corruption.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 14, 2006



KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Grim phrases are on the lips of diplomats, government officials, and aid workers in Kabul when describing Afghanistan these days. Narco state, political disillusionment, military stalemate, donor fatigue, American military pullout.

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Tie it all together, and it's a picture that suggests Afghanistan could be reverting back to a failed state. None of these issues is new, with the exception of the US decision to start drawing down its forces in Afghanistan and the expected arrival of NATO forces this summer. Yet four years after the government of President Hamid Karzai came to power, these various factors seem to be converging, with explosive results.

"This is what I keep explaining to the international community, these things feed each other, they are related," says Habibullah Qaderi, Afghanistan's minister for counternarcotics affairs. "There are two elements in terrorism. One is internal corruption, and the other is external interference. That is why we have problems. We have a corrupt administration, a corrupt government, and that is why people can't cooperate with us."

The cartoon protests of the past week - which have been the deadliest in the Islamic world - are largely a barometer of domestic frustrations. In the streets of Kabul, Laghman, Maimana, and Bagram, protesters turned their anger on the US, the West, and "the dog-washers" - a derisive term for the expatriate Afghan technocrats who have returned to top posts in the government.

Protests are not uncommon in Afghanistan, but it takes a certain threshold of anger for protests to turn violent, which these did, leaving 11 Afghans dead. If conditions were good or improving - if the fundamental factors of food, shelter, and income were being met - then the protest over a few cartoons would have faded quickly here, say analysts.

Recent poll finds goodwill not gone

At first glance, the latest opinion polls from December 2005, showed reasons for the Karzai government to be optimistic. The vast majority still prefer the present order over the Taliban, and 77 percent thought the country was moving in the right direction.

Yet that same poll also indicated that substantial problems existed for a majority of Afghans. Sixty percent of the respondents had no electricity in their homes. Seven out of 10 Afghan adults have had no more than an elementary education, and half have household incomes of just $500 a year. It doesn't take much of a spark to change public opinion when the fundamental aspects of life - food, shelter, jobs - are in such a precarious state.

"What do people want? A clean and accountable government, food on the table, jobs," says Paul Fishstein, director of Afghan Rehabilitation and Evaluation Unit (AREU), a Kabul think tank. When they don't get even those basic amenities, he says, their faith in government declines.

For this reason, Afghan officials are concerned with some of the economic and security measures here:

• Afghanistan's illegal drug economy (mainly opium and heroin) accounted for an estimated $2.7 billion in 2005, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. That's more than 50 percent of the size of the legal gross domestic product.

• Afghan officials estimate that 400,000 farming families benefit from opium poppy cultivation. Many of these participated in alternative livelihood programs last year, but expressed anger at the $2 a day short-term projects like clearing irrigation ditches that offer little stability.

• Afghan officials estimate that there are 50,000 heroin addicts in Afghanistan.

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