Afghanistan: Time of transition

The following article from YellowTimes.org and Power and Interest News Report (PINR) looks at the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, with respect to things like stability, continued lack of infrastructure, increasing opium trade, etc. You can see the original article at http://www.yellowtimes.org/article.php?sid=865.

Afghanistan: Time of Transition
YellowTimes.org
November 18, 2002

(PINR) -- Approximately one year after the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan for harboring and abetting those allegedly responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, it is difficult to say whether "terrorism" has been abated or Afghanistan is more stable.

Afghanistan is suffering from a variety of perennial problems: a weakened to incapacitated infrastructure, the complete lack of a viable banking network and legitimate currency, the limited authority of the central or appointed government, and the segregation of the country into semi-autonomous regions governed by warlords.

Perhaps more so than any other factor, the largely destroyed infrastructure of Afghanistan lends itself to constant instability. Without well-maintained roads and airports, vital goods cannot be efficiently circulated within the country while imports and exports are greatly hindered or reduced to nothing. Such weaknesses also affect the service and production sectors. Workers cannot easily travel in search of jobs and provide the populace with the services they require.

The United States Department of Energy estimates that "Afghanistan's power grid has been severely damaged by years of war, and only about 6 percent of its population currently has access to electricity." To add to the lack of infrastructure, Eurasianet.org reports that only "10 percent of Afghan roads are in good working condition."

In addition, international assistance is not forthcoming. Of the $4.5 billion ($1.8 billion earmarked for 2002) in aid pledged to the newly established government of Hamid Karzai in January 2002 by a coalition of donors such as the United States, Pakistan, and Japan, only about $600 million has found its way to the beleaguered country thus far.

Perhaps in response to the desperate economy, the opium trade is also flourishing again; the Taliban had banned all poppy growing and apparently enforced this law quite well. Following the Taliban's fall from power, poppy production is increasing once again at a rate Western countries find alarming. In fact, to stem the flow of the product to Europe, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has launched a special program offering reimbursement to farmers for curtailing poppy production. However, many farmers have reported not receiving their reimbursements even after complying with the agreement.

On positive economic notes, the long awaited reconstruction of an East-West road project began in early November 2002 linking the capital, Kabul, with Herat in the northwest of the country. It is hoped that this road will greatly open up the economy. In addition, India also pledged $100 million in aid in an effort to strengthen their neighbor and increase Afghanistan's capacity to crack down on militants who may eventually make their way into Kashmir.

Yet, Afghanistan's woes lie in its inherent lack of stability, which functions as a deterrent to economic prosperity. Twenty-five years of constant bloodshed including two major invasions and ubiquitous factionalism have created the current societal ills. The ethnic jigsaw puzzle, though less diverse than that of the Balkans or Caucasus, further fragments the country into bickering and skirmishing groups with disparate agendas and little real emphasis on a peaceful solution. Ethnic tension is even apparent in the central government itself where Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, is pitted against Tajik warlords from the north, former Northern Alliance commanders.

Such instability is the primary reason why many countries are reluctant to offer aid to Kabul. It is also the reason why private investment is low to non-existent. During the 90's, several oil companies tried striking deals with the unpredictable Taliban to no avail. UNOCAL of the U.S and Bridas of Argentina were the two biggest players who failed to seal natural gas and oil pipeline deals in Afghanistan. In the end, the country was too unstable and the Taliban were not willing to take the necessary steps to provide the security measures investors desired.

Today, the same problems exist without showing any sign of changing as the international community is already falling short on its aid obligations. This is seen as surprising to some due to Afghanistan's strategic location in the heart of a region that is quickly becoming one of the world's resource "hotspots".

Many feel that the current leadership is not doing enough to secure the country. President Hamid Karzai's rule is tenuous at best. As many have indicated, the Karzai administration ostensibly only rules Kabul while he and other cabinet members need bodyguards wherever they travel. Haji Qadir, an Afghan vice-president, was gunned down this past July and there has been more than one attempt on Karzai's life by Islamists linked to Al Qaeda and extremist groups within Pakistan.

Because of such threats, Karzai has made repeated appeals to the international community for both "peacekeeping troops" and financial aid. His calls seem to be falling on deaf ears as his country drifts off the radar screens and news broadcasts of most countries.

A stable Afghanistan, which could quite possibly be created with dedicated foreign assistance, would serve to open up further Central Asian resources to Western and Southeast Asian investors. Instability has caused a perpetual limbo in terms of foreign investment and economic development. But perhaps that is what some desire: just enough instability to prevent any significant power from taking control of this crucial resource pathway.

The United States' role is seen as vitally important, yet some analysts doubt whether Washington is sincere in its efforts. Much of the reason that Afghanistan was a haven for militants and extremists was due to the very instability and economic illegitimacy that's perpetuated to this day by reticent donors including the United States. Such critics wonder: If Washington fears another terror attack, why not make the reconstruction of Afghanistan its highest priority?

Furthermore, under such close scrutiny, the U.S. does not do itself a service by supporting figures like General Rashid Dostum who is hated by a wide swath of Central Asians and is notorious for his various methods of torture. While Dostum may have made a good bedfellow during the Afghanistan phase of the "war on terrorism", many see such support now as further evidence of Washington's reluctance to commit to a reconstructive path based on centralized government and observance of human rights.

Other countries intimately concerned with the fate of Afghanistan seem equally incapable of affecting meaningful change. Iran is in no hurry to see their neighbor to the east become Westernized and even less enthusiastic about a U.S. military presence there. Pakistan, guided by President General Pervez Musharraf, has become endeared to many Western countries since the "war on terrorism" began, much to the dismay of the Pakistani population, by its unbridled cooperation with the U.S.. Pakistan has also been utilized extensively be the U.S. military. Still, Pakistan's capacity to aid Afghanistan's resuscitation is largely a function of Washington's desire to do so.

But the formula for stability in Afghanistan has yet to be found. Whether this is due to the truly monumental task that this presents or because of the participating countries' lack of commitment remains to be seen.

Matthew Riemer drafted this report; Erich Marquardt, Issam Nashashibi contributed.

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  • Posted: Sunday, November 24, 2002

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