Afghanistan: The forgotten country [Archives:2004/749/Reportage]

June 24 2004
An Afghan mother begging with her two children on the streets of Kabul (Yemen Times photo by Peter Willems)
An Afghan mother begging with her two children on the streets of Kabul (Yemen Times photo by Peter Willems)
A soldier in a warlords militia in a northern province of Afghanistan (Yemen Times photo by Peter Willems)
A soldier in a warlords militia in a northern province of Afghanistan (Yemen Times photo by Peter Willems)
By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

All eyes have been on Iraq since the US invasion a little over a year ago. World leaders, the media and people around the world have zeroed in on continued violence and instability and are now waiting to see the United States hand over sovereignty to the Iraqi people at the end of this month.
But Afghanistan, where the United States started its war on terror after the attacks on US soil on September 11, 2001, is full of violence, warring factions and drug-lords.
“The United States told us that Afghanistan would be a better country after they got rid of the Taliban, but very few things have improved,” said Mohammed Hadid, an engineer in Kabul, the capital. “The country is still very poor, it is now dangerous and nobody knows what is going to happen in the future.”
Many Afghans are concerned that the United States will repeat what it did when Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989. After supporting the Mujahedin with arms and money, the US government pulled its interests out of the war-torn country. With little assistance installing a new government and getting the country back on its feet, the Mujahedin turned on each other, which led to a bloody civil war.
Soon after the Taliban regime was overthrown in late 2001, the West promised to help rebuild Afghanistan. British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Afghan people, “This time we will not walk away from you.”
But Afghans are worried that the war in Iraq has taken attention away from Afghanistan and assistance to rebuild the country has not been enough. Analysts have criticized the Bush administration of diverting military and financial resources from Afghanistan to the war in Iraq. To rebuild the two countries, the United States has come up with $2.2 billion for Afghanistan while $18.6 billion is heading for Iraq. A large part of funding for Afghanistan will be for military projects and emergency relief, not long-term development.
Foreign aid has made improvements in education and health care: 25 million school textbooks have been distributed, 203 schools constructed or rebuilt and 140 health clinics rehabilitated. The 310-mile Kabul-Kandahar highway was also restored.
But most of the roads are in need of repair and the majority of the population is still without running water and electricity. The Afghan economy has barely moved forward, jobs are scarce and there has been very little foreign investment.
“The United States has contributed a lot in some areas, such as health care, but it has been slow,” said Lutfullah Mashal, Special Assistant to the Minister of Interior in Afghanistan. “I believe that it should have taken on more responsibility earlier and more consistently.”
Foreign assistance also includes providing security for the nation. In recent months, the US government has increased the number of troops stationed in Afghanistan from 11,000 to 20,000. Its objective is to destroy the remnants of the Taliban in the south and hunt down Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of Al-Qaeda, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), headed by NATO, is responsible for securing the rest of the nation. But up until now, ISAF, made up of only 6,500 troops, has remained in Kabul, leaving most of the country unprotected.
In the last few weeks, violence spread to provinces which had been peaceful since the Taliban regime was ousted. Terrorist attacks killed or seriously injured dozens of aid workers and civilians, including an assault on Chinese railway workers that left 11 dead.
According to Umer Daudzai, Chief of Staff of President Karzai's administration, Afghanistan will ask that more troops be sent at the NATO summit in Istanbul later this month. But nobody knows how NATO will respond. NATO member states have pledged to add more troops to help build security, but they have been reluctant to be fully committed.
In a state of lawlessness, over a dozen regional warlords, such as the Herat governor Ismail Khan and strongman Abdul Rashid Dostem in the north, have taken control of their fiefdoms. With the country now divided, President Hamid Karzai's power has been reduced and is limited to control only the capital.
The warring factions ruled by warlords are now fighting to gain more ground. Last Friday, a militia commander seized the capital of a northern province that left 18 people dead.
“The warlords do not obey the central government, do not want to implement the rule of law in their provinces and are not ready to follow important changes with the central government,” said Azizullah Lodin, President of General Administration against Bribery and Corruption. “Some of the terrorists probably come from the warlords to destabilize the country because they are afraid that programs implemented by the central government for the benefit of the country might hurt their positions and power.”
Since the end of the Taliban regime, opium production has skyrocketed. In 2003, over 80,000 hectares were used for poppy cultivation, and 75% of opium in the international market came from Afghanistan. The proceeds of the trade support warring factions ruled by warlords, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Afghanistan, once just an exporter of raw opium, is now capable to turn opium into heroin. The government has initiated a program to destroy poppy fields, but with organized crime entrenched and warlords holding on to their fiefdoms, fighting the drug business will be more difficult than expected. Mashal said that new attacks in the north may have also come from those involved in selling heroin because an unstable environment is ideal for a lucrative drug business.
“What we are concerned about are the complexities that come from the involvement of organized crime activities dealing with heroin,” said Alexandre Schmidt, Crime Prevention Expert at United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “It is a much more profitable product and more difficult to deal with.”
Up to now, the US government has not developed a plan to step in and help crackdown on the drug market in Afghanistan.
To try and improve security in the future, the government plans to double the size of its army this year, which currently has only 8,300 troops. The United States will train 10,000-12,000 each year to help create an Afghan army of 70,000 soldiers by 2011.
But with not enough help from NATO, some feel that when Afghanistan has a strong national army, it will be too late.
“By the time the government has the strength to face opposition, groups like the drug mafia and warlords may be so entrenched that it may take a long time to uproot them,” said an Afghan government official.
Last week President Bush declared that Afghanistan stands as a role model for Iraq trying to put its country back in order. He said that Afghanistan's progress has taken it “from the ashes of the decades of war and oppression.”
But the Bush administration has to pay more attention to Afghanistan to make it a role model while it is still dealing with the problems in Iraq.
As the Afghan official put it, “With instability on the rise, warlords fighting for power and the drug trade running wild, many are afraid that Afghanistan will slip into anarchy.”