Mounting concern over Afghanistan

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

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.

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.

• Between 250,000 and 400,000 civil servants are working within the Afghan government, according to a study by the AREU. (The 150,000 margin of error speaks volumes about government disarray). Afghan officials estimate that perhaps 100,000 of these are directly benefiting (through transportation fees, profits, or bribes) from the drug trade.

• Afghanistan's colleges and universities graduate 38,000 college students each year, and the revitalized primary and secondary school systems in the countryside will see those numbers rise. But nearly 70 percent of the population of Kabul is jobless, and there is almost no job creation to absorb these college graduates.

• Aid groups are working in almost every district, but Afghan officials say that there are 21 provinces (out of 34) where it is unsafe to travel at night, either because of insurgency or crime.

Perhaps most telling is the US State Department's "warden message" in January warning US citizens not to travel to Afghanistan. "The ability of Afghan authorities to maintain order and ensure the security of citizens and visitors is limited.... Travel in all areas of Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, is unsafe due to military operations, landmines, banditry, armed rivalry among political and tribal groups, and the possibility of terrorist attacks, including attacks using vehicular or other Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and kidnapping."

These problems aren't isolated from each other, say some Afghan officials and foreign observers, who note that the the drug trade is encouraging corruption, corruption is creating public distrust, and public distrust is leading to at least tacit support for insurgency and criminality.

"The villagers know when someone has come from Pakistan, they know whose house they're sitting in," says Mr. Qaderi, the counternarcotics minister. "But they don't trust the police. They don't trust the government. They will hand them over, and then a few days later, someone will pay money and the police will release them."

Qaderi says that Afghan villagers have all the information that would be needed to shut down a terrorist ring, or a cell of insurgents, or even the organizers of the cartoon protests. After all, few Afghans are literate enough to read inflammatory news stories about the clash between East and West.

Dollar a day vs. drug profits

Instead, the clash is something that many Afghans feel in their gut. The average salary of a government worker is $40, but more than 70 percent of the population is unemployed. Overall, the median monthly income for Afghan wage-earners is around $35, according to the US military. That's just over a dollar a day, and most wage-earners here tend to have 10 or more family members to support.

"You had a window of opportunity in 2002, when the Taliban were gone and the people were ready to support you and make sacrifices," says one foreign consultant with long experience in Afghan aid projects. "But now, that moment is lost. The people have given up on this government. I don't see how you solve it now."

While wage levels remain stagnant for ordinary Afghans, there has been an ostentatious construction boom in Afghan cities that shows the growing economic appetite of the new Afghan elite, including government bureaucrats who could not afford such luxuries on their $50 to $100 monthly salaries. Foreign aid workers, living in large compounds and driving around expensive four-wheel drive SUVs, are increasingly seen as part of a privileged elite.

"These are time bombs," says the foreign consultant, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's just a matter of time before the anger starts to take some form."

Solutions: commitment and jobs

The way to turn Afghanistan around, diplomats and government officials agree, is to honor the promises made in the past, and to get the legal economy moving.

On Feb. 8, 22 former State Department officials and Afghan experts signed a letter to congressional leaders in the US, calling on the US to stay committed to Afghanistan.

"Much has been accomplished ... but Afghanistan is still a nation at risk, and success in turning it into a functioning democracy and an economically viable state is not assured," the letter read.

Referring to the new "Afghan Compact" signed this month by the US and 60 other countries, which generated $10 billion in donor pledges, the letter writers called for the US to consider its $1.1 billion pledge for next year to be the "floor, not the ceiling" of US commitments.

"The government would not last two months without external support," says Houmayun Assefy, a former presidential candidate who largely supports the Karzai government. "I told this to a minister friend of mine and he said, 'No, it will not last one week. You'll have fighting in the streets."

Privately, US officials are now beginning to admit that military action cannot succeed without a coherent political plan. After a year of serious US military victories against insurgents last year, it is clear that the Taliban are unable to defeat the US in a frontal assault. But this has not brought greater security. The Taliban have simply changed tactics. Now they attack poorly defended Afghan police checkpoints; leave roadside bombs for poorly equipped Afghan National Army patrols; or assassinate pro-government mullahs, teachers, and Afghan aid workers.

However, most attacks against NGOs appear to be pure criminality. "Right now, it is quite clear that these attacks are not being targeted for political reasons," says Christian Willach, manager of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Organization, which advises aid agencies on security issues.

According to ANSO, 12 aid workers were killed in 2003, 24 were killed in 2004, and 31 were killed in 2005. This last number does not include the seven parliamentary candidates and four election workers who were killed during last year's parliamentary election.

And if, as many US Defense Department officials say, the Taliban are taking a cut from the drug trade, then they can sustain a guerrilla insurgency for quite some time.

"I don't think there is a pure military solution here," says Mr. Fishstein with the AREU. "In your military activities, you have to be more nuanced and sophisticated about how life goes in a rural environment, and try to build legitimacy for the government without creating more enemies."

While the US military is handing over command of the restive south to NATO forces, US troops will continue to remain in Afghanistan for some time.

But the nature of the US presence in Afghanistan still has a short-term feel to it. The US journalist David Halberstam once wrote that America's habit of sending diplomats to Vietnam on one-year rotations meant that the US didn't have 10 years of experience in Vietnam; it had one year of experience, 10 times. Many longtime foreign observers here say the same habit is being repeated in Afghanistan.

"In short tours, basically people go out to the countryside and by the time they figure out not to eat with their left hands, it's time to leave," says Fishstein, who has been coming to Afghanistan on aid projects since the 1970s.

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