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Afghan trauma

Soon, five years after the Taliban attack, the West is still failing the ravaged population.


In December 2005, I spent several hours daily in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, interviewing some of those who passed by. The hotel has experienced several tough times during Afghanistan's 23 years of war. In 1992, I used the hotel as a bunker for more than a month. First as the communist regime faltered and fell, then as the civil war spread in the city below me. Throughout much of the next decade, the hotel lacked both electricity and water, and you never met an Afghan woman in there.

When I was sitting on the couch in the hotel lobby in 2005, I had on my left a former Taliban commander with a beard down to life, and on my right a young and beautiful Afghan woman from Herat, who met the requirements to only with a loosely flung headscarf. They were both members of the new Afghan parliament elected

September 18, 2005. Last week they had received instructions from UN experts on what a parliament is and how to behave. The two-hour lunch breaks allowed MPs to meet more informally. While sitting and discussing with the woman, it was obvious that the former Taliban officer was still in shock that she was there at all.

The allocation of places on 19 December 2005 must have been an even greater shock. The parliament was then opened by President Hamid Karzai in the presence of US Vice President Dick Cheney, who arrived 20 minutes late. Male and female MPs were placed next to each other in alphabetical order – and no one complained about the location.

Parliament has proven that it is not a tightly controlled tool for neither Karzai nor the Americans. It embarked on its first assignment in March 2006 with a sincerity and professionalism one would expect from a far more experienced congregation. Afghanistan's new constitution gives Parliament the power to approve the president's government, and MPs did just that. They politely demanded that each of Karzai's 25 ministers showcase their qualifications, share what they had achieved and wanted to achieve, and then answer tough, quickly-fired questions from MPs. Even more remarkable was that for the first time the entire procedure was broadcast live on television and radio. A large part of the population followed. For a month, work ceased while feathered Afghans heard ministers who had previously been tribal leaders and warlords groping for words to explain themselves.

One cannot overstate the importance of such a free parliament and the first free elections Afghans have experienced since 1973. About 6,6 million Afghans cast their votes, and 41 percent of them were women. The women now hold 68 seats or 27 percent of the 249 seats in Wolesi Jirga, the lower house called "People's House", and one-sixth of the seats in Meshrano Jirga, the upper house or senate called "The House of the Elder." That gives a far greater proportion of female MPs than in any other Muslim country, or in many countries in the West, for that matter.

The elections ended the UN-led process that began in late November 2001, when UN Lakhdar Brahimi and Francesc Vendrell persuaded the Afghan factions to meet in Bonn to outline a "road map" for the future. Since then, the Afghans have debated and voted on a new constitution, conducted free elections of president and parliament and appointed local government in all 34 provinces of the country. To date, more than 60.000 military soldiers have been disarmed, five million children have been sent back to school and some health services are also provided outside Kabul.

Growth in Afghanistan's gross domestic product – not including the country's fast – growing opium production – has averaged 17 percent each year since 2002. This year, GDP growth is expected to reach 14 percent, and the government will fund 60 percent of its annual budget with its own funds instead of from western and other donors – although the funds for the entire budget for development and reconstruction still come from donor countries. Nevertheless, the total funds available to the state will only amount to 5,4 percent of non-drug-related GDP in 2006. It is "less than any country with data," according to Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin's latest report, Afghanistan's Uncertain Transition from Turmoil to Normalcy, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, in March 2006. Rubin also points out the ominous fact that the economic boom after the war is now coming to an end.

The last five years of trying to rebuild the Afghan state have depended on four actors. On the Afghan side we find Karzai and his ministers, the warlords and the hard-working human rights defenders. The international community has been led by the Secretary-General of the UN Special Representative in Afghanistan.

The most influential international representatives have been the Americans, led by the US ambassador and the US generals who have in turn led the coalition forces of 23.000 soldiers. Most of them are Americans hunting for members of Al Qaeda.

Initially, the United States refused help to maintain peace in Afghanistan. A recent participant in this activity in Afghanistan is NATO, which since August 2003 has led the International Security Force (ISAF) of 8000 men in Kabul. This year, NATO is sending 11.000 new soldiers to organize reconstruction teams in 23 of the country's 34 provinces. Next year, NATO will also take over command of US forces.

It is now five years since George W. Bush declared victory in Afghanistan, claiming that the terrorists were crushed. Since the end of 2001, the cold table of international military and development forces has been increasing. How is it that Afghanistan is again on the brink of collapse? The reason, in short, is the invasion of Iraq: Washington has not taken the reconstruction of the state of Afghanistan seriously, but instead embarked on a fruitless war in Iraq. For Afghanistan, the consequence has been too few Western troops, too little money and a lack of coherent strategy and sustained initiative from Western and Afghan leaders.

As a result, the Taliban movement is again on the offensive and has made one-third of the country unjust. Along with Al Qaeda, Taliban leaders are trying to establish new bases on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. They receive support from Afghanistan's revitalized opium industry, which has contributed to widespread corruption and lawlessness, especially in the south. The country's huge poppy crop is being turned into opium and then heroin for export, which now accounts for nearly 90 percent of the global market. The spring crop is expected to be larger than ever, and reports suggest that drug traffickers are increasingly forming alliances with Taliban fighters.

In February 2006, Karzai, the UN and a number of nations signed a five-year reconstruction program that re-establishes the world's commitments to Afghanistan, while Kabul, in return, pledges to rebuild the state.

The program may turn out to be too small, too late – even if it is fully implemented. Rubin points out that the Afghan government will have to deal with any failure to achieve the program's ambitious goals, while the same does not apply to the Western nations that helped finance them. We have seen the same pattern in Iraq and Sudan. The international community makes promises that are never fulfilled, only to give them back a few years later, in new packaging.

NATO's top commander, US General James Jones, likes to argue that Afghanistan's biggest problem is drugs, not the Taliban. But if one does not deal with the Taliban, one cannot overcome the drug problem.

I have been told that the US government has demanded that NATO become more active because the exiled Donald Rumsfeld is desperate to send some US troops home before the November congressional elections. About 3000 of the 23.000 U.S. soldiers now deployed to Afghanistan are scheduled to be sent home during the summer. An incipient US retreat amid the Taliban's aggressive return naturally makes Karzai and his government furious. It is especially disillusioning for millions of Afghans, who, unlike the Iraqis, still associate US military presence with security, international financial aid and reconstruction.

In Iraq, practically the entire population wants Americans to disappear, no matter how happy they are for Saddam Hussein's deposition. But the new Afghan government relies on the US leadership and ability to convince the rest of the world to support the reconstruction of the country. The United States must put money behind the promises and prove willing to continue the work, but do neither.

Since 2003, when the Taliban first began to rise again, they have gradually matured and developed with the help of Al Qaeda, which has reorganized and taught them to use more sophisticated tactics in their military operations. About 1500 Afghan security guards and civilians were killed by the Taliban last year, and 300 have already been killed this year. There have been 40 suicide bombings in the last nine months, compared to five in the last five years. 295 US soldiers and four CIA staff have been killed in Afghanistan since September 11, 2001 – 140 in enemy attacks.

Ann Jones arrived in Kabul in December 2002, about a year after the United States stopped bombing the country. She started working for a small but efficient non-governmental organization called Madar, which means mother. The organization was started a few years earlier to help women who had become widows as a result of the country's many conflicts. In the book Kabul in Winter: Life without Peace in Afghanistan, published by Metropolitan, Jones talks about her visits to degraded Afghan women in prison, and how she taught female teachers English – jobs that no one else wanted.

She writes insightfully about Washington's favor in connection with financial aid for development projects. The largest education contractor in Afghanistan is Creative Associates International, a Washington-based consulting firm that has close ties to both the Pentagon and the US State Department. In 2003, the company received a $ 60 million contract from the US agency for the International Development Agency to establish primary schools in Afghanistan. The Washington Post newspaper recently revealed that the project was a failure. Primary schools that cost $ 174.000 to build could have been built by Afghan companies for $ 20.000 or less.

In the book Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations, published by Viking, journalist David Relin tells the story of the famous mountain climber Greg Mortenson, who is even more fearless than Jones. Mortenson decided to build a school in the most remote corner of northern Pakistan, a place unknown to most Pakistanis.

It took him three difficult years to build the first primary school in Korphe, but over the next three months he had built three more schools. He immediately understood why so many experts have concluded that improving the lives of people in such areas depends on the girls attending school. To date, he has built 55 schools in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, with a total of 24.000 students.

Both Mortenson and Jones express a prayer that Americans take lessons from history, something the Bush administration has consistently refused to do. Bush visited Kabul for the first time on March 1, 2006, in just a few hours, noting that everything seemed to be going well. In his brighter moments, Afghanistan's former King Zahir Shah, now 92 years old, remembers the first US presidential visit to Kabul. President Dwight Eisenhower also came on a day visit. It happened on December 9, 1959, when the 45-year-old king ruled the country and was considered young. Shah recalls that he asked Eisenhower for more financial aid to the impoverished country, as well as diplomatic assistance to improve Afghanistan's increasingly poor relations with Pakistan and US presence to protect the country. His help was flimsy and incompetent. Some things never change. n

© 2006 The New York Review of Books

Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journ alist and writer. He is the author of the bestselling Taliban and the recently released Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. He is a contributor to the BBC and writes in a number of newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph and the International Herald Tribune.

Translated by Marit Bromark

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