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Something to build on?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 02 - 2003

A year after the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan's reconstruction, Negar Azimi reviews the political and socio-economic situation in the war-torn country
More than one year has passed since the December 2001 Bonn Conference brought together members of the international community and Afghan political groups to lay the foundations for Afghanistan's political, economic and social transformation. By any standard, this was to be an ambitious programme of reconciliation and reconstruction.
Bonn's landmark agreement would serve as a roadmap for reconstruction, with provisions for the creation of an independent government, a civil society infrastructure, an international peace- keeping presence and the institutionalisation of basic human rights. At first glance, the country's future seemed auspicious. At January 2002's Tokyo Conference, the international community pledged over $5 billion in aid. A multilateral Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) was established in May 2002, providing over $200 million to help finance the country's budget deficit. Agricultural production has increased by an estimated 82 per cent compared to 2001, and almost two million refugees have gone home. Three million children are in school -- one third of whom are female.
But things are not as simple as that. Employment is scarce, while less than 25 per cent of the population has access to safe water. An even smaller number of people can access basic sanitation and electricity. Of the $1.9 billion promised for reconstruction this year, only two thirds are available, with only one 10th having gone to the government itself. Two thirds of the total aid budget is spent on food and basic refugee needs -- perhaps not the kind of long term, sustainable reconstruction efforts that are needed in the business of nation building.
June's inaugural meeting of the Loya Jirga (grand council) reappointed a triumphant Hamid Karzai as president, though it was marked by fragility and rampant threats by factional leaders and regional interests -- perhaps an indication that any state structure will likely have to be further decentralised in order to survive.
Human rights abuses against Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country, are registered throughout Afghanistan as a means of retribution for the acts of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban -- particularly in the context of an ethnic Tajik-dominated government.
Guerrilla activity has and continues to be the rule of thumb, especially in the southeastern part of the country. Officials blame most terrorist acts on the Taliban and splinter groups, while others have accused the country's Tajik-dominated security apparatus, the National Security Directorate (NSD).
In early September, Karzai narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Kandahar. Last April, an assassination attempt on Mohamed Fahim, the powerful Tajik defence minister, brought cheers among some Pashtuns; his grip on the NSD is controversial, if not outright contentious in allegedly representing Tajik interests.
As late as this January, American and coalition forces battled a group of rebels aligned with former Afghan exile and mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Over 18 Afghans were killed in the heaviest fighting since March of last year, when some 2,000 American troops were first sent to Eastern Afghanistan. Hekmatyar and his followers are vehemently opposed to the military presence in Afghanistan and also to Karzai's government.
Hekmatyar's return to Afghanistan after an extended exile in Iran has proven a crucial rallying point in the consolidation of a number of Afghan guerrilla movements.
Meanwhile, internal political rivalries are ubiquitous as warlords continue to wrestle for control in various pockets of the country. In Khost province, Pasha Khan Zadran, a crucial US ally in last year's campaign, is struggling to gain a foothold over governor Hakim Taniwal.
A charismatic, illiterate tribal elder, Khan was originally appointed regional governor of Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces. When his constituency made it clear that he was not wanted, he was practically kicked out. He has not forgotten that he was robbed of the opportunity to assume a government position.
Following last June's Loya Jirga, Khan announced that he would not support Karzai, who he deemed a, "puppet for the Northern Alliance". US forces have since arrested a number of Khan's cronies to prevent them from threatening Taniwal and the central government. Without US support, his own power base seems to be rapidly diminishing.
Nevertheless, warlords such as Herat's Ismail Khan, Balkh's General Rashid Dostum and Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzi will be more difficult to push aside. These men sit on independent sources of income, often born of trafficking and informal tax and duty collections, that allow them to bankroll private armies and wage personal battles in their constituencies and the environs. Opium trafficking has also been useful as a means of generating personal fortune.
In the meantime, Karzai has tried to diminish the muscle of the warlords by issuing a decree that no person could serve as both a military leader and governor of the same province. According to Ahmed Rashid, a renowned expert on Afghanistan, Karzai has thrown out 29 warlords from his establishment in trying to unite a struggling central government.
But much of the guerrilla activity is brewing underground, and by extension, increasingly hard to pinpoint and, finally, halt. Recently, a group calling itself the "Secret Army of Muslim Mujahideen" has emerged outside of the country. Pamphlets circulating in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar in the Pashtun language -- called Shabnamey, or night letters -- have claimed responsibility for 50 raids on US forces and their allies in Afghanistan.
Make-shift mobile radio stations throughout the country regularly broadcast anti-American calls for Jihad. Anonymous pamphlets and audio cassettes also litter the area.
As late as 1 December, warlords clashed near the airbase of Shinband in Western Afghanistan, while an American B-52 dropped bombs after coalition troops came under fire -- the first time in months that American troops in Afghanistan had seen combat.
Just last week, on 8 February, unidentified gunmen killed five Afghans and kidnapped another 30. The victims were reportedly praying. Police and security officials announced that they suspected the Taliban may be behind both the attack and recent distributions of anti-US propaganda.
While the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has been extended for an additional year, its geographic reach is minimal. Indeed, outside of Kabul, where the ISAF is based, little progress has been made in protecting human rights and establishing even a minimal degree of security. The European Union as well as the US have already expressed their reluctance to expand the force, while a war in Iraq may further divert crucial resources and attention.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Human Rights Watch's John Sifton explained the import of the international force. "If the US turns its attention to Iraq, things could get very bad in Afghanistan. The international peace-keeping force in Kabul is actually very small, and has an insignificant nationwide influence. It is not likely, but it is possible that Afghanistan could have a civil war in the future."
As an alternative to expanding the ISAF, the US has proposed a redeployment of the coalition together with units of the new Afghan National Army via Joint Regional Teams (JRTs) in key regional centres. How or whether this will work continues to be a subject of controversy.
In the meantime, the international community is spearheading the creation of a national army and police force. The new Afghan National Army has only seven battalions, each composed of 500 men scattered across the country -- hardly enough to protect a country overridden by lawlessness and recurrent threats to peace. It is not surprising, thus, that Karzai remains reliant, to a large extent, on international coalition forces. But critics of the international presence argue that the coalition has not put nearly enough effort into demobilisation and demilitarisation, particularly as the US continues to arm a number of regional leaders such as Ismail Khan, a local governor in Western Afghanistan with a notoriously bad human rights record. According to Human Rights Watch, extortion, torture, as well as arbitrary and politically motivated arrests are the norm in Khan's neighbourhood. The powerful warlord has also rolled back any and all educational opportunities for women and girls.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Khan during a visit to Herat, reportedly referring to him as "an appealing person". Human Rights Watch's Sifton, the co-writer of a report documenting Khan's disastrous human rights record, explained the US's delicate position with regard to such local commanders.
"The military in Afghanistan is interested, first and foremost, with pursuing military goals, for instance, capturing or killing people who fought with the Taliban. Local warlords help them do this... the US military has little interest in holding warlords in Afghanistan accountable. The US State Department, by contrast, is more interested in the long-term stability of Afghanistan, and has been active in trying to strengthen the central government of President Karzai and trying to pressure warlords to give up power, or not commit abuses when in power. So the military is basically trying to fight with these guys, and be friends with them, while US foreign policy is to push them out."
In the end, says Sifton, military interests tend to win in a battle of competing and conflicting interests. "Unfortunately, the military is more powerful in Afghanistan, and their strategy holds. In the meantime, ordinary Afghans are paying the price by being subjected to the abuses of these local commanders."
Meanwhile, neighbouring countries and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are urging Afghans in the diaspora to repatriate. A UNHCR press release of 16 July 2002 clearly states that the UN agency is encouraging return, "following improvements in the situation in Afghanistan" -- a position that UNHCR's Peter Kessler confirmed to the Weekly last week.
Nevertheless, the European Commission-backed Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) published a report earlier this month asserting that the aid community and the Afghan government were premature in encouraging the return of nearly two million refugees in 2002. It urged instead that donors slow down repatriation rates by increasing support for refugee programmes in neighbouring countries in 2003.
In Taking Refugees for a Ride? The Politics of Refugee Return to Afghanistan, authors David Turton and Peter Marsden question the international donor-driven policy of facilitating return to a country in the midst of severe drought, political instability and virtually without a civil society. "Repatriating large numbers of refugees at this time is in the interest of neither the refugees nor Afghanistan," says Andrew Wilder, AREU's director. "We risk contributing to political destabilisation in Afghanistan by increasing the number of landless and unemployed Afghans fighting over scarce resources."
Close to four million refugees remain in Iran and Pakistan -- still the largest refugee population in the world.
And what of the prospect of free and fair elections? Barnet Rubin, director of studies and senior fellow at New York University's Centre on International Cooperation, is sceptical.
"Hardly a possibility. Again, as long as armed militias exercise power, it is not possible. The international community will have to take extra measures for security if it wants such elections. Of course there are even greater obstacles: lack of administration, no voter or population registration, etc. All of these are in the process of being addressed by various UN agencies with their Afghan counterparts, but it will take some time," he told the Weekly.
In the end, no one will argue against the fact that it will take time to get Afghanistan up and functioning again. But perhaps most important, a strong commitment by the international community, both political and financial, is crucial to the delicate balance that is holding Afghanistan together. Indeed, Afghanistan's peace remains a fragile one.

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