Afghanistan's agony

Published : Feb 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Soldiers of the Afghan National Army undergoing training, under French supervision at the Kabul Military Academy on January 13. - AHMAD MASOOD/REUTERS

Soldiers of the Afghan National Army undergoing training, under French supervision at the Kabul Military Academy on January 13. - AHMAD MASOOD/REUTERS

A year after a United States-supported regime was installed in Kabul, Afghanistan has made little progress in terms of economic development and law and order, with little of the promised aid materialising and warlords continuing to control much of the country.

IT has been more than a year since the Taliban regime was removed from Afghanistan by forces led by the United States. Although a regime under President Hamid Karzai has been installed and peace has generally prevailed in the past one year, the writ of the central government hardly runs beyond Kabul, the capital. A 5,000-strong international peace- keeping force, which has been assigned to guard Kabul, now plans to go out of the capital and help the beleaguered Karzai government extend its control to the rest of the country.

The two people who figure at the top of America's most wanted list - Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar are roaming free. In fact, Mullah Omar and Hizbul Mujahideen leader Gulbudin Hekmatyar announced in the first week of January the setting up of a joint military front against the government in Kabul and the U.S. forces operating in the country. Hekmatyar, who was forced out of Iran last year for calling for the overthrow of the Karzai regime, is in Afghanistan and is trying once again to re-emerge as a powerful force He was the most prominent Mujahideen leader in the Central Intelliegence Agency(CIA)-backed war against the Soviet-supported government in Kabul in the 1970s and 1980s.

Both Mullah Omar and Hekmatyar are Pashtuns. The Pashtuns, who have for long monopolised power in the country, feel sidelined under the present dispensation. Most of the important ministries are under the control of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, a key component of the present government. The assassination attempt on Karzai while on a visit to the Pashtun stronghold of Kandahar was an illustration of their anger. Karzai, a Pashtun who belongs to the same tribe as Zahir Shah, the exiled King, is now guarded by American mercenaries round the clock and rarely ventures out of the capital.

The rest of the country is controlled by warlords. The province of Herat in the west, on the border with Iran, is controlled by Ishmail Khan, one of the most influential politicians in the country. The veteran Hazara warlord is a close ally of Teheran. Although his stranglehold on the area is not appreciated by the U.S., there is precious little that it can do to curtail his power at this juncture.

In the north, General Rashid Dostum lords it over Mazhar-i-Sharif and surrounding areas. The Uzbek leader is backed by neighbouring Uzbekistan. The Northern Alliance, which had a key role in hastening the collapse of the Taliban regime, was bankrolled in the late 1990s by the combined efforts of Russia, Iran and India. It is no surprise that these countries continue to have considerable influence in Kabul, despite the Western military presence in Afghanistan. New Delhi's high-profile diplomacy in Afghanistan has ruffled feathers in Islamabad. Among other things, India has handed over to Kabul two Boeing 737 passenger jets, trained Afghan police officers and opened consulates in Herat, Mazhar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad. President Karzai has assured Islamabad that the widening Indian presence in Afghanistan is not aimed at undermining Pakistan's western borders and that they are only for trade and consular activities.

AS neighbouring countries continue to jostle for influence in Kabul, there are no significant changes in the harsh living conditions of the Afghan people. Violence, lawlessness, rape and killing are back, to the extent that some Afghans have started looking at the Taliban interregnum with nostalgia. Despite their primitive mindset, the Taliban at least ensured that people could travel fearlessly in the areas under its control.

In the first week of December 2002, the private militias of two warlords clashed near the air base of Shindand in western Afghanistan. American air power had to be used to drive away the forces of one of the warlords.

There are plans to raise a 70,000-strong Afghan National Army, which will be trained by the U.S. and France. It is expected to disarm the warlords and reunite the country. So far 3,000 soldiers have been trained. However, Mohammed Fahim, the influential Defence Minister and Northern Alliance leader, has announced his own plans to raise a 2,00,000-strong Afghan army. Russia has already pledged $100 million worth of military equipment towards this effort. Iran and India are also likely to chip in, given the close cooperation between the three countries in the region. Washington has signalled its unhappiness to Moscow for its continued support to leaders of the former Northern Alliance.

Afghanistan is littered with around seven million live landmines, and unexploded American munitions have added to the mess. Every day, more people, the majority of them children, are maimed or killed. Trigger-happy American soldiers, on at least two occasions last year, dropped thousand-pound bombs on innocent villagers. The 9,000-strong U.S. force, based in Kandahar and Bagram, was tasked with weeding out the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda along with the capture or elimination of Bin Laden and Mullah Omar. But they were yet to get accustomed to the harsh climate and bleak terrain of the country. This has adversely impacted on their anti-insurgency campaign, and the goal of "nation building", the original plan announced by Washington, has been abandoned. Many soldiers have started questioning the Bush administration's capability to rough it out in Afghanistan much longer.

U.S. officials have also alleged that most of the attacks on them by the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda are occurring in the border areas with Pakistan. Privately, they accuse influential sections in the Pakistani establishment of harbouring and helping anti-Karzai elements.

"The Agreement on Provisional arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions", as the December 2001 Bonn Agreement was called, has so far not delivered all that it promised. As per the recommendations of the Bonn Conference, a Constitution-drafting committee has started work in Kabul to replace the 1964 Constitution, which had been temporarily readopted after the fall of the Taliban. The 1964 Constitution had guaranteed equal rights for men and women, along with separation of power between the legislature, the judiciary and the executive. A new draft Constitution is to be presented to the Loya Jirga (grand council) by April this year. Already there are calls from leading warlords like Abdul Rasul Sayyaf that Afghanistan be designated an "Islamic Republic" and the supremacy of sharia be acknowledged. In the 1970s, Sayyaf was a favourite of the Saudis.

There are reports that interested players such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, India and Russia are once again active behind the scenes in Afghanistan, backing different factions. Afghanistan's neighbours had pledged in December 2002, while signing the Kabul Declaration, that they would never again get involved in the internal affairs of the country. The signatories to the Declaration were Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China. Russia, India and Saudi Arabia had sent observers.

The massive humanitarian aid promised to the Afghan people after the Taliban was overthrown has failed to materialise. The international community had pledged a sum of $2.4 billion at the January 2001 International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan in Tokyo. This has affected rehabilitation work, and most of the 650,000 Afghan refugees who have returned to Kabul after being promised rehabilitation have found themselves in dire straits. The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) says that in all around two million internal and external refugees have returned to Afghanistan. According to reports, not a single house has been constructed or repaired in Kabul. The returnees are staying in tents in freezing temperatures.

The good news, according to officials of the United Nations is that around three million children, including a million girls, have once again started attending school. But the "burqa" has again become compulsory in many areas outside the capital. Ethnic clashes in northern Afghanistan among Hazara, Uzbek and Tajik militias have on many occasions led to mass rape. In central Afghanistan, schools for girls have also come under attack.

The Afghan economy is showing little signs of recovery, though a new currency, the afghani, has been introduced. Some reconstruction work is, however, under way. The Salang tunnel, which links the north of the country to the south, is being repaired. Pakistan and Turkmenistan have signed an agreement to build a $3.2-billion gas pipeline through Afghanistan. An American company, Unocal, had announced in the mid-1990s that it had clinched a deal with the Turkmenistan government and the Taliban regime for building a pipeline that would eventually go all the way to India and Bangladesh, through Pakistan. If the pipeline project materialises in the next couple of years, it will provide a much-needed boost to the economies of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Until 1978, Afghanistan was actually self-sufficient in food production. Today, even with international help, a section of the population is in need of food aid. A significant percentage of the peasantry has shifted to opium cultivation. Opium cultivation, which is lucrative, has provided not only employment but also food security. Agreement to cultivate poppy is the only way a peasant and his family can avail themselves of rural credit and buy food and provisions for the long, freezing winter.

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