Afghanistan: The more it changes...
Americans like to think the war in Afghanistan is over, but that would be a serious mistake.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
, Volume: 59, Issue:2, March/April 2003
By Sohail Abdul Nasir

ONE MIGHT CONCLUDE THAT HAMID Karzai, the interim head of the Afghan government, is doing well. Foreign dignitaries visit frequently, relief work is going on, and streetlights have been installed in Kabul by a German firm. The Japanese are constructing apartment buildings, and the Afghan national army is in the process of being constituted. The Taliban-Al Qaeda network has been broken; its leaders vanished. Nearly 18 months after September 11, Afghanistan could be said to be sailing along.

But there is another side to this picture: Karzai just narrowly escaped an assassination attempt last September; Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir, a prominent Pashtun leader, was killed on July 6, 2002, by unknown assailants; and Aviation Minister Haji Abd-ur-Rehaman was killed on February 14, 2002, by angry pilgrims whose plans to fly to Mecca were crushed when no flight was available. Outside the capital, the rule of warlords prevails. In the countryside, poppy cultivation has not only resumed, production is approaching historic highs, and quality heroin is now being supplied to Europe and America from newly established factories in different parts of Afghanistan. Hit-and-run attacks on U.S. troops, military installations, and airbases are a daily routine. Above all, despite all the political help he has received from the international community, President Karzai has not been able to extend the government's reach much beyond Kabul.

Opium crops in W. Nooristam (RAWA photo - June 2003) The poppy

All over Afghanistan, farmers are freely cultivating the poppy, and according to various reports, sophisticated factories have been set up in eastern, northern, and southern areas, where hundreds of kilograms of high-quality, easily transportable heroin is being produced. In the late 1990s, Mullah Omar banned poppy cultivation in Taliban-occupied areas, but even in those days, poppy was still cultivated in the northern province of Badakhshan and in some areas of the Panjshir valley, controlled by Burhan-udDin Rabbani and the late Ahmadshah Massoud, respectively.

Renewed heroin production, and the danger of an influx of the drug into the United States and Europe, is a great setback. It appears that the Afghan drug mafia has not only survived, but maintained its contacts with the rest of world, its financial resources, and its ability to smuggle heroin abroad.

Lawlessness and a weak central authority are the most prominent reasons for the revival of the heroin syndicates. Neither the international peacekeepers nor U.S. special forces are engaged in preventing poppy cultivation or heroin manufacturing. Nor has a British-led, 220 million anti-poppy campaign made much difference. And the drug mafia has the backing of local warlords.

According to a report in the London Observer, sophisticated lab equipment and the special chemicals used to refine heroin are freely traded even in Kabul, and one can easily find someone to arrange a heroin deal. Others can readily tell you the different grades of heroin on the market and their cost. Brown heroin is considered the poorest quality, and is used in cigarettes; its cost is approximately $700 per kilogram. The same quantity of liquid heroin solution, which is taken intravenously, costs more then $70,000.

One should keep in mind, though, that not every poppy grower wants to be a heroin producer. The devastating civil war destroyed Afghan agriculture. An Afghan farmer cannot imagine access to proper irrigation systems, mechanized farming, high quality seeds, or fertilizers. Poppy is one of the few crops that will do well enough under current conditions to bring in a reasonable return.

According to a just-completed multi-donor assessment coordinated by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), an estimated $195 million will be needed over the next two years to rehabilitate Afghanistan's shattered agricultural infrastructure and preserve its natural resources. The (draft) final report calls for a community-based, consultative approach to development. The report emphasizes the need to rehabilitate irrigation systems, which helped produce cash crops before they were devastated by decades of war and neglect. It also calls for the adoption of modern dry-land farming technologies to meet at least half the country's cereal needs. It sees a leading role for the private sector both in marketing agricultural products and in supplying seeds, fertilizers, machinery, agro-chemicals, and animal health products.

The report also points out that 85 percent of the Afghan people are directly dependent on agriculture. Rural areas have suffered greatly from the long conflict and the recent years of drought, which have resulted in severe damage, including unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, fragmentation of social institutions, and the loss of community and household assets.

Agricultural output declined dramatically during the past decade. Cereal yields-at about 0.6 tons per hectare of unirrigated land-are well below their potential. Forestry and horticulture, which once accounted for 40 percent of export earnings, now contribute only a small share of total agricultural output. Livestock, which formerly provided an additional 40 percent of exports and was a principal source of cash income, is estimated to have declined by about half. Afghanistan's range lands have deteriorated due to drought, while fragile forests have been depleted by illegal logging and community demands for firewood.


Power plays

The slaying of Haji Abdul Qadir is ample testimony of the ongoing struggle between ethnic groups and the helplessness of the interim administration. Hiji Deen Mohammad, the new governor of Nangarhar province and elder brother of the late vice president, announced that he will never go to Kabul because his brother was invited there by Karzai and then assassinated-proving that the Afghan capital is in control of unseen hands, which may treat him in the same manner.


Qadir had been an influential jihadi leader, who enjoyed close relations with bin Laden in the 1980s and early 1990s. In response to my questions about bin Laden's current whereabouts, he merely smiled and said that no one knows where he is.

Although his killing remains unsolved, some believe he may have been assassinated because he was fast emerging as a leader who was simultaneously popular among the Pashtuns and well-connected with other ethnic groups. Others attribute his killing to drug barons. In either case, his death has further isolated Hamid Karzai. Many Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, believe Karzai is merely a puppet in the hands of the United States.

Tajiks-and the Tajik-dominated interim government-are the prime suspects in the eyes of Pashtuns. Younis Qanooni, who heads the United Front's political side, went to Jalalabad as Karzai's emissary to attend memorial services for Qadir, but his effort did nothing to change the increasing Pashtun view that the interim government is untrustworthy.

The army

The creation of a national army is proving to be another headache.

A national army is a must for the stability of the country, but there is dissatisfaction with the proposed army's ethnic makeup, as well as that of the police force, which is also in the process of being organized. According to a number of reports, Gen. Mohammad Fahim, the defense minister, has appointed only his own close associates to key army positions-- a bone of contention between him and Karzai. Fahim is also believed to be using supplies of arms and ammunition from Russia to stabilize his own militia's position in northern Afghanistan, in an effort to attain military superiority over ethnic Uzbeks, who are led by Gen. Rashid Dostum, and also to curtail the power of Burhan-ud-Din Rabbani, the ex-president, who still controls the Badakhshan province, and who is not ready to bow to Fahim, Qanooni, or Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Consolidating their military might help the Tajiks exercise more effective control over Kabul.

The creation of the army is expected to cost more then $290 million in the first year alone. At the moment, U.S. efforts at coordination are the only ray of hope. The United States is not only soliciting other governments for donations, it is also providing training to Afghan soldiers, who receive a $30-per-month allowance. The first battalion trained by American special forces graduated in July, and French instructors are now engaged in training as well.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's warlords are mistrustful and competitive, and their private militias are the source of their strength. They are unlikely to give them up without a fight. It is difficult to know exactly how successful the national army will be in exerting its influence in the presence of more then 200,000 armed militia members.

The creation of the police force is not much different from the creation of the army. Qanooni, the interior minister until last June, recruited 800 police constables-including 600 Tajiks, 80 Uzbeks, 60 Pashtuns, and the rest from the Hazaras and other ethnic communities. This means that Kabul's police force is dominated by Tajiks. Now that Qanooni is Karzai's security adviser, he is the de facto head of all law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Tag Mohammad Verdik, the new interior minister, is merely a puppet who has no role in security matters. That is why Karzai, instead of depending on the Interior Ministry's security guards, uses U.S.-supplied guards for his personal security.

Guerrilla war?

The circulation of shabnama has always marked the beginning of an internal resistance movement in Afghanistan. Shabnam is a Persian word that means "message delivered at night." Traditionally the message comes in the form of a poster, handwritten in Pushto or Dari, through which secret messages are conveyed about the enemy and operational strategy, and urging jihad.

In almost all the Pashtun belt of Afghanistan, the circulation of shabnama has become a daily matter. One shabnam says: "By the grace of God, jihad once again has started, the enemy is fleeing. Keep your morale high and prepare yourself to fight against intruders and their local agents and motivate your brothers for the sacred cause."

A shabnam may be short or long, depending on the nature of the message. It is believed that the latest ones are being circulated by Taliban commanders from their hideouts. The Hezb-i-Islami, led by Gollbuddin Hekmatyar, is also known for such activities. It is widely reported that the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami have joined hands and are preparing to launch a resistance movement against the U.S. presence. One ex-jihadi leader reports that they have formed a joint war council consisting of six to eight persons from each side, and that it is agreed that Hekmatyar will direct a guerrilla war because the Taliban are not sufficiently trained in the technique.


General elections

The Bonn agreement on an interim government, signed in Germany by the many Afghan factions on December 5, 2001, calls for general elections in 2004. But it already appears as if the deadline cannot be met.

First, there are no political parties. And if the armed militias are to be turned into political parties and the warlords into political leaders, then the gun will once again play a decisive role, not the vote. Many prominent leaders in the interim administration, ranging from General Fahim, to Dostum, Ismail Khan, Hazrat All, Gul Agha, and others, are primarily militia commanders; their political orientation is nonexistent. Younis Qanooni and Abdullah Abdullah may be termed politicians, but General Fahim remains the most powerful of the United Front leaders. Karzai emerged as a political personality, but without U.S. help he has no standing. The former king may have some political support in some quarters.

Given the slow inflow of pledged financial support, participation by the many refugees and internally displaced seems nearly impossible, especially now that the U.N. agency for refugees is discouraging their return. If millions are absent, how truly representative will an election be?

Pakistan enthusiastically supported U.S. efforts to establish a transitional government with the understanding that its interests in Afghanistan would not be harmed, but Pakistan feels that the leading role the United Front (with its anti-Pakistan posture) is playing in the interim government is tantamount to the betrayal of the U.S. promise.

U.S. actions on the Pakistan-- Afghan border have also created problems for Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. If the United Front dominates after the elections, it could be a greater problem. Last December, the five countries bordering on Afghanistan signed an accord of friendship and non-interference in internal Afghan affairs. But given Afghanistan's immense economic and strategic importance to them, it is a serious question whether its neighbors will be able to refrain from intervening.

The need for a census

Since the fall of the Taliban, the international community has made a number of efforts in Afghanistan, but the need for a census has been ignored.

The percentage of various ethnic groups is a subject of debate in every town and street. Pashtuns are especially sensitive on this subject-they believe they represent 50 percent of the population, but other ethnic groups, particularly the Tajiks and Uzbeks who are in power, claim that the Pashtuns number less than 40 percent.

The last reliable census figures are from 1963, at which time the total population was 16 million. Some estimates put the current population at 20 million, but in the absence of reliable information about ethnic groups, political stability will remain merely a dream. The Pashtuns, who ruled the country for two and a half centuries, are not ready to accept the idea that they are a minority.


In some areas, civil war has broken out. In the north, Rashid Dostum and Tajik commander Ata Mohammad are at odds, while in Paktika, the new governor nominated by Karzai is fighting with Badshah Khan for control. In that conflict, hundreds of people have reportedly been killed.

Aid . . . has been much lower than expected or promised. In comparison to other conflict or post-conflict situations, Afghanistan appears to have been neglected.

Iraq is receiving 10 times as much development assistance with roughly the same size of population. Development inflows amount to Dollars 67 (Euros 55, Pounds 37) per person, compared with Dollars 248 in Bosnia Herzegovina and Dollars 256 in East Timor.

Morer than half the population live in extreme poverty, and only Sierre Leone ranks below Afghanistan on the UNDP's human development index. Life expectancy is below 50.

In Badakshan, northern Afghanistan, a maternal mortality rate of 6,500 per 100,000 is the "highest ever recorded in any part of the world".

From UNDP report to International Afghanistan Conference in Berlin
Financial Times (London), March 29, 2004

In effect, Afghanistan's old warlords are the new rulers of the country. Their importance is clear from the fact that even now U.S. troops are unable to carry out their operations against Al Qaeda without their active participation. And the warlords are not merely assisting the United States, they are conducting operations-and their role will remain critical as long as the United States continues its military presence in Afghanistan. The regrouping of the Taliban and the increase in hit-- and-run attacks increases their importance: Despite its state-of-the-art espionage equipment, on the ground, the United States depends on the warlords for intelligence. As a result, the government is becoming poorer while the warlords grow richer and richer.

The United States and Britain have been paying the warlords to lend their support to the Karzai government, but the flow of money to the government itself has been painfully slow, and construction and relief work has also slowed down.

The amount of money spent on warlords for operations against Al Qaeda is a separate issue. For example, according to some reports, Badshah Khan alone was paid $400,000 to train his soldiers to patrol and carry out search operations on the Pakistani border. Commander Hazrat All is one of the best-paid warlords in eastern Afghanistan, while the United Front leaders appear to be paid by the Americans, the Russians, and the Indians.

Civilian casualties-a result of poor intelligence and local rivalries- - have caused major unrest and hatred of the Karzai administration and the United States. On July 1, 2002, a failed operation in Urozgan province, in which a trap was set for Mullah Brother, a leader who was believed to be in contact with Mullah Omar, killed nearly 200 people. The operation had particularly negative repercussions for Karzai-Urozgan is his native province.

Land of the proxy war

For decades, the biggest proxy war in modern history has been fought on Afghan soil, which is one of the leading causes of chaos in this ill-fated country. Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and Russia were the main players on Afghan soil after the demise of the communist regime, but the United States has exerted the most influence since September 11.

Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and India all had significant interests in Afghanistan, while China was a silent operator, simultaneously maintaining relations with both the Taliban and the United Front. Although China did not offer the Taliban government diplomatic recognition, its tilt toward the Taliban was becoming visible. The former Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, Lu Shulin, was one of the few foreigners who met with Mullah Omar in Kandahar. China had invested in Afghan mining, hydroelectric projects, communications, and agriculture.

Before the Taliban regime fell, Russia, Iran, and India gave massive financial and military support to the United Front, while Pakistan alone assisted the Taliban. After some hesitation, the Chinese were moving cautiously to establish relations with the Taliban, but the regime came to an end before it did so. Chinese landmines, found in various parts of the country, are believed to have been laid during the civil war, suggesting that Chinese military assistance was provided to several of the warring groups.

China is once again silently watching events. In contrast, Pakistan is in search of new friends to counter the increasing influence of the United Front. Surprisingly, both Iran and the United States are staunch supporters of the United Front, and it is also the biggest recipient of Russian and Indian assistance.

The Zahir Shah factor

King Zahir Shah is too old to govern the country, and he was not given any role in the Bonn agreement or by the loya jirga. Despite his return to his homeland after a quarter century, the old king feels himself as helpless and idle as he was in Rome. He returned after being assured by the United States that he or his associates would have a role in the future governance of the country; in the meantime, Karzai and the United Front are in power.

Zahir Shah has been ignored, and his presence in Kabul went practically unnoticed. After more than a year, though, he is gaining importance in the eyes of the Americans-and in the eyes of the local Pashtun population as well, which feels deprived by the United Front's dominance. With his Pashtun father and Tajik mother, Zahir Shah is preferred by Pashtuns who feel that Karzai has not lived up to expectations.

The Americans seem to be having second thoughts about Karzai as well, given his failures on the political front, the worsening law and order situation, U.S. military failures against the Taliban in the eastern and southern parts of the country, and Karzai's subordination to the United Front. Some meetings between the king and the Americans have taken place. Zahir Shah is promoting a role for his grandson Mustafa, whose mother is Italian. Mustafa is young, well educated, and understands the dynamics of international politics, which has become increasingly important for Afghanistan. But he is not familiar with the complexities of Afghan tribal values-a great drawback. Without deep insights into one of the most diverse ethnic and linguistic populations in the world, it may be impossible for him to gain wide support. Nonetheless, both in Kabul and Washington, some are discussing the idea that Karzai and the United Front should be replaced, with Mustafa as interim president and Abd-us-star Seerit, a close associate of the king, as foreign minister.


At the January 2002 International Conference on Reconstruction and Assistance to Afghanistan, held in Tokyo, 61 nations and the World Bank pledged $1.8 billion for aid in 2002, but only $890 million was released, and just $90 million went to the Karzai administration. The rest was handed over to relief organizations. The distribution of financial assistance is political-if the Afghan administration does not have sufficient funds to run the ministries, how will public administration work? Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and relief organizations with money to spend are becoming powerful government substitutes.

The Taliban faced the same problem, even though the role of the NGOs was very limited during their rule. I remember that a director in the Taliban's ministry of foreign affairs received a monthly salary equivalent to $30, but a worker at an international organization in Kabul was paid $75 per month. The Taliban were afraid that the disparity in salaries would erode their influence.

Afghans were looking to the second Bonn conference, held last December, for announcements of additional aid, but it merely reviewed the prevailing situation and announced that the reconstruction of Afghanistan would be the main focus in 2003. Donor assistance slowed down last year, although more aid is needed in seven key areas: return of refugees and the internally displaced, food insecurity and malnutrition, shelter, security for minority ethnic groups, general security and the rule of law, public administration, and health and education. This list does not include other needs-for public transport, management of natural resources, cultural and information activities, urban management, and so forth.

On January 6, the U.N. refugee agency announced that remaining refugees should not return home yet because the country was still not safe, the drought was continuing, jobs were scarce, health facilities were rare, and problems with sanitation and clean water were widespread. More then two million refugees returned last year from Pakistan and Iran, and the agency expects another 1.5 million to return this year.

The United Nations and World Bank calculate that after 20 years of war, Afghanistan needs considerable aid to rebuild. These two organizations presented this assessment at the conference in January 2002, at which major donors planned an aid package for the country.

"According to our tentative estimates, $9 billion would be needed for Afghanistan over the next five years," said Mark Moloch-Brown, head of the U.N. Development Program. The estimate does not include the cost of maintaining security.

The donors, including the European Union, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, say they will contribute substantial, long-term assistance, but that their contributions are dependent on the interim government maintaining peace.

An earlier conference, attended by representatives from 40 countries and many non-governmental organizations, decided to create a trust fund to collect money for reconstruction, including road and bridge rebuilding and revitalizing the crippled farm sector. The conferees had earlier agreed to set up a $20 million fund for the Afghan government, mainly to pay salaries for its ministers and equip their offices.

Humanitarian aid began arriving in Afghanistan as soon as rival factions agreed on the interim cabinet in December 2001, but many donors say action must be better coordinated to prevent funds from being wasted and misused.

The danger of neglect

The United States led the battle for change in Afghanistan, but its interest is gradually diminishing, which could have grave consequences. If the proposed U.S. operation against Iraq goes forward, it is not likely to spare the time, money, or enthusiasm needed to continue the transition in Afghanistan, perhaps abandoning the country much as it did after the demise of the Soviet Union, only to have to compensate later by mobilizing against the Taliban.

Already, a lack of aid means that this winter has been harsher than the last. Hundreds and thousands of internally displaced people and refugees returning from neighboring countries lack shelter, food, and medicine. NGOs operating in Afghanistan are crying for assistance, but much of the promised aid has yet to arrive, and private charities and governments alike complain that they have stretched their scarce resources as far as they will go.

Sohail Abdul Nasir, a Pakistani journalist in Islamabad, writes on security and foreign policy issues for the Nawa-i-Waqt, an Urdu- language daily.

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