Warlords, poppies and slow progress
As most Afghans celebrate President Karzai's inauguration today, the country still awaits its promised regeneration
The Guardian, December 7, 2004
Declan Walsh in Kabul
The first act of America's war on terrorism in 2001 was a blockbuster victory. As the twin towers still smouldered, US bombers and Afghan rebels drove the Taliban from power.
Afghans emerged from the rubble of to hear enthusiastic pledges of a phoenix-like resurrection for their wrecked country. Children would go to school, parents would have jobs, peace would prevail.
But this second act, now drawing to a close three years later, has had no Hollywood ending. Warlords control entire provinces, bankrolled by a drugs boom that has spread like a rash. Police, army and government institutions are being built, but too slowly.
Insecurity is rife; so is poverty. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar has not been caught; neither has Osama bin Laden.
Yet most Afghans say life is demonstrably better - which says more about their wretched living conditions before 2001 than the success of reconstruction since.
Human poverty in Afghanistan is a multidimensional problem that includes inequalities in access to productive assets and social services; poor health, education and nutritional status; weak social protection systems, vulnerability to macro and micro-level risks (both natural and human-triggered); human displacement; gender inequalities and political marginalization.
Mental disorders are another of Afghanistan's war wounds, yet they have been largely ignored. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates indicate that 95 percent of the population in Afghanistan has been affected psychologically, and one in five suffers from mental health problems.
A UN report "Afghanistan, National Human Development Report 2004"
Still, international aid has accelerated, millions of refugees have returned home, and the proud success of the October election sent a clear signal to the gunmen that Afghans want democracy.
As one analyst said, Afghans did not vote for Hamid Karzai, they voted for change. His task from today is to deliver a brighter third act.
The peaceful presidential election promised an end to the ragged Taliban insurgency. Troops were demoralised and their leaders divided by the failure to scuttle the poll, said US generals who offered them an amnesty.
But a core of hardline fighters are still roaming the lawless south, mounting hit-and-run attacks on US troops. Even scattered and hunted, they remain a tenacious and dangerous enemy and continue to stall reconstruction.
The warlords pose a more insidious problem. "Local leaders" backed by small personal armies are involved in drug-running, extortion and thievery. Yet the central government and the US military still relies on them for security.
Democracy is unattractive to the warlords, although President Karzai has brought some to heel, notably Ismail Khan. About 26,000 of an estimated 60,000 militant fighters have disarmed.
Expectations that Afghan women would fling their burkas to the wind after the Taliban's departure have been dashed, as have other hopes.
Kabul and a handful of others cities have seen slow widening of opportunities - girls' education rates have crept upwards; women are taking new jobs, and the younger generation is starting to reject the burka.
Impressively, women accounted for 50% of voters in some northern cities during the October 9 election.
But in many rural areas, little has changed. In conservative southern Pashtun, jealous families keep wives and daughters penned into high-walled compounds. In extreme cases, some women have not stepped outside for several years. Education rates remain dismally low; teachers in the few girls' schools receive death threats.
Here too the election was a good yardstick of progress. In the arch-conservative Uruzgan province just 2% of voters were women.
The rocketing drugs trade is a critical challenge for the incoming Karzai government.
Having plummeted under the Taliban, poppy production has risen to dizzy new heights that threaten the entire reconstruction project.
The export value of the opium will reach $2.8bn this year, or 60% of GDP, according to the UN. Once confined to a handful of areas, opium is now cultivated in most provinces. A greater proportion of the harvest is being processed into heroin inside the country, boosting profits further.
The boom has spawned a new class of Colombian-style drug overlords. Some have powerful allies in the police, judiciary and government.
British-led efforts to persuade farmers to abandon opium have failed; now Britain is turning to counter-terrorist style operations against the drug barons that may involve British troops.
However, Mr Karzai is a vehement opponent of aerial spraying of opium.
Health and employment
Afghanistan has some of the world's worst health indicators. Dire infant mortality, maternal mortality and life expectancy rates mean Afghans are more likely to get sick and die young than anyone else.
Hospitals lack even the most basic surgical equipment; pa tients have to bring their own drugs or pay to get treated; there is a chronic shortage of skilled doctors and nurses.
However, international reconstruction has had successes in other areas of social policy - almost 5 million children are enrolled in school, the largest number in the history of the country.
Most Afghans scrape a living on a few pounds per day. Agriculture remains the economic mainstay; most workers are illiterate and have few skills. Industry is virtually non-existent, although the government has plans to revitalise the mining industry.
Many educated Afghans have either emigrated or been employed by aid agencies. A drought in the south of the country has further increased rural unemployment.
Foreign exchange comes through foreign aid, the US-led military operation and, increasingly, the opium trade.