Vol. 5 Num 418 Sat. July 30, 2005  

Post Breakfast
Problems and solutions in Afghanistan

Intensive and bloody fighting has started once again in Afghanistan over the last few weeks. We have had reports of militants from fundamentalist Islamic groups attacking district headquarters in Helmand province, 560km south of Kabul. An attempt to kill US Ambassador Khalilzad was also foiled. This has been followed by Afghan and US troops, backed by the air force, attacking Taliban guerillas north of Mian Nishin, a district capital in the northern part of the Kandahar province. This escalation in violence, in the run-up to the September 18 parliamentary elections, confirms once again that trouble continues to brew outside the safer precincts of Kabul.

This scenario contrasts with statements from the Afghan leadership that everything is under control and that the Bonn process initiated over the last year and a half has met with success.

It would probably be unfair to state that some good news have not emerged from Kabul. Permanent government institutions are slowly being woven into place. A new constitution has been adopted through the Loya Jirga and the central government has managed to extend some of its authority to provincial areas. The Afghan Stabilisation Programme (ASP) and the effort to promote disarmament demobilisation and re-integration of factional armies (DDR) have also strengthened local government. Another important fact has been the visible deployment of NATO military personnel as a form of psychological assurance.

However, as has been evidenced in the recent past, many problems remain.

Reports indicate that there are several factors promoting discontent. The foremost appears to be related to the slow pace of reconstruction, especially in provincial areas. Ordinary Afghans tend to believe that the US dollar 4.5 billion pledged during the 2002 Tokyo reconstruction conference did not sufficiently or visibly materialise. They believe that the bulk of international assistance either was used to hire foreign experts and buy cars and other equipment for them or was put into the pockets of corrupt government officials and local NGOs.

This view has been re-inforced by the central government's inability to secure a flow of funds to the provincial areas. Some aid agencies have described this as due to the government's lack of success to fully implement national programmes for recovery and reconstruction and to the continuing security situation, which itself adds to the difficulties in completing reconstruction projects in the rural areas.

This has particularly led to disappointment among some donors with regard to the limited extent of actual implementation of the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) and the National Emergency Employment Programme (NEEP). Apparently, projects undertaken under these programmes are not working well because of overlly complicated procedures and disinterest on the part of local government agencies to demonstrate accountability.

This lack of success on the part of the central government to get the rehabilitation and development of rural areas moving has resulted in many cases of farmers turning again to poppy cultivation. In fact, this pernicious crop has increased. When asked, farmers have also gone on record as having said that they know that poppy cultivation is bad, but that they have no other choice. Apparently, they are growing poppy 'because we have no ability to grow alternative crops and sell them at the market.' This is indeed sad.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in their 2004 survey has revealed that in 2004, agricultural land acreage in Afghanistan turned over to opium poppy cultivation increased by 64 percent, and the number of persons involved in producing opium increased by 10 percent compared with 2003. These are terrible statistics. They also indicate that drug lords have been more successful than the Afghan government in gaining the support of the Afghan farmers. The same UNODC survey estimates that the value of the narcotics industry in Afghanistan is equivalent 60 percent of Afghanistan's 2003 GDP.

There has been a direct consequence within Afghanistan to this situation. Warlords and drug traffickers are again rapidly increasing their economic, military and political presence in that country. This is natural, given the fact that they are providing money-earning opportunities to farmers and also tertiary employment opportunities through the hiring of armed militias to protect this illicit trade. Drug money is also assisting indirectly and financing the renovation of houses and shops as well as the construction of many new buildings in Afghan cities. This in turn is creating employment opportunities in urban areas.

The second threat to peace and stability has emerged from the continuous fight against 'insurgents,' such as the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda activists. Such combat inevitably involves local residents, destruction and humiliation of local communities. This creates hatred for the coalition and the government forces among the local people. Some warlords who had earlier been marginalised appear to be regrouping themselves ahead of the parliamentary election. They want political survival and are taking this opportunity to be ambivalent in their support for government efforts to quell and contain the numerous attacks being carried out by activists in the provinces of Urzgan, Zabul and Paktika. Apparently, tribal leaders in this region, had tried to come to some sort of an agreement with the government, but negotiations failed because some of their leaders were subjected to 'demeaning and destructive harassment.' Miyahara Nobutaka, a Japanese diplomat who has worked in Afghanistan, in his scholarly article on Afghanistan published in the 'Gaiko Forum' (Spring, 2005), has significantly observed that "local residents (in these regions) harbour bitter resentment of the brutality of the Taliban, but their hatred and anger at the violent and humiliating searches carried out by the coalition and government forces are just as deep."

I believe that sensitivity to local custom and mores are being forgotten more often than not. The central government and the coalition need to remember that many of these activists are relatives of local citizens and they extend their support to these activists not because they agree with what they are espousing but because they have come to them for shelter. Probably, a better method would be to create confidence-building measures and grant amnesty for less than significant offences. Another step might be to associate only Afghan soldiers (in such search and destroy missions) who hail from tribes of these troubled regions.

The Bonn process, until now has been reasonably successful but establishing sustainable pace through parliamentary elections will need greater caution. The elections will be successful only if the people's support for the peace process continues. The international community consequently have to be more careful and try to associate the local population more meaningfully in the areas of procedures, logistics and other arrangements.

The Afghan government should also be persuaded by the international coalition to take necessary measures, between now and the end of the year, to stimulate economic growth by investing in infrastructure, such as energy production, water systems and a better communication and transport grid. An efficient agricultural strategy should also be introduced and supported, if necessary through micro-credit financing (for poor rural areas), whereby farmers can be weaned away from cultivating poppy. In this regard, marketing arrangements should be improved so that alternate crops can easily reach the urban markets.

Another important exercise also needs to be undertaken. The Authorities should implement a community-based development approach that can facilitate the reintegration of soldiers and activists who are coming into the regular system of governance because of DDR. This will help them to find their own place and encourage reconciliation.

Lastly, NGOs functioning in Afghanistan should be encouraged to build more irrigation canals with the help of the local community. This will create jobs and provide water. The local people, in particular should also be associated with the decision making. Instead of orders and decisions coming from the top and Kabul, local project planning should be carried with the help of local community leaders. This will create trust and also ensure participation.

There are sufficient funds available for Afghanistan. US dollar 8.2 billion was pledged at the Berlin Conference. There is no reason why persistent threats to peace and stability cannot be countered.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador -- any response to>