Afghanistan, Five Years On

Afghanistan, Five Years On

Five years after the U.S.-led invasion, Afghanistan continues to face a number of problems aside from its battle with Taliban fighters and opium farmers.

October 5, 2006 5:02 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Five years after the United States mounted its campaign to topple Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership, news reports are dominated by the resurgent Taliban and reconstituted opium trade. Among the chief reasons for those two developments is the country’s backward economic state. “[I]t is so poor that we can’t even tell how poor it is," Barnett R. Rubin of New York University told the Carnegie Council in March. Reconstruction has been hobbled by security concerns and lack of funds. And the Afghan parliament continues to house Islamist warlords and drug kingpins, which experts say has only added to its dysfunction. Even the scattered progress Afghanistan has made on political, religious, and social freedoms is in danger of being rolled back. U.S. officials are concerned Afghanistan could relapse once again into a “failed state.”

What are the chief security concerns in Afghanistan?

The resurgence of the Taliban and return of poppy farmers in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar along Afghanistan’s southeastern frontier, experts say. Profits from a booming opium trade, estimated to be as much as 60 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP), have fueled Islamist insurgents in the border areas. Taliban rebels have killed more than 2,000 people over the past year in suicide bombings similar to those in Iraq; they have also sabotaged a number of reconstruction projects in the region.

The Afghan government accuses the Pakistani government, especially its intelligence service, of not doing enough to secure the border. Pakistan says it has deployed 80,000 troops along the border and has intercepted a number of high-ranking terrorists and Taliban members. NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)and the Afghan National Army provide the bulk of security on Afghanistan’s side of the border. NATO’s 21,000 troops—mostly based in the north, west, and south—are set to absorb about 12,000 U.S.-led coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan, which will make it the largest NATO military operation in the alliance’s history.

What are Afghanistan’s other main challenges?

  • Tackling corruption. A culture of corruption and nepotism, rooted in Afghanistan’s tribal politics, has taken hold in Kabul and in provincial governments. Much of it stems from weak administration, experts say. Bidding processes for procurement contracts, for example, are supposed to be transparent but government ministries often sidestep the process, writes Rubin in this April 2006 Council Special Report. Corruption also impedes the government’s ability to collect taxes. “Currently,” Rubin writes, “would-be taxpayers are discouraged by collectors, who suggest they pay bribes instead.” Corruption is not limited to Afghan officials but is also pervasive among international contractors and employees, says Kathy Gannon, an expert on Afghanistan who writes for the Associated Press.
  • Poor governance. Reforming parliament is paramount, according to a recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report. It recommends the National Assembly, which includes warlords and drug kingpins, incorporate more formalized political blocs to prevent Afghan President Hamid Karzai from becoming marginalized and overly reliant on unstable alliances of ethnic and tribal leaders. “The lack of such organized blocs has seen powerbrokers of past eras try to dominate proceedings,” according to the ICG report. “New moderate forces need to move quickly now to establish formal groups within the houses to ensure their voices are heard.” The problem is most pronounced in more rural parts of Afghanistan. Government revenues total just 5.4 percent of GDP, the least of any country with data, according to the International Monetary Fund. Worse, writes Rubin in the Council Special Report, “The ten poorest provinces receive the smallest budgetary allocations, leading to nonexistent government presence and rampant security problems.”

“[I]t is so poor that we can’t even tell how poor it is," says Barnett R. Rubin of New York University.

  • Economic and social development. Afghanistan’s non-narcotics economy has seen some improvements since 2001. Annual GDP growth has averaged roughly 17 percent. Rubin warns that a counternarcotics policy of eradication, or one focused on “alternative livelihoods,” could lead to a contraction of total GDP by 6 percent. Some 80 percent of rural Afghans live in poverty. Further, as Rubin told the Carnegie Council, Afghanistan remains “[a]long with Somalia…one of the two countries that do not produce good enough data to be included in the UN Development Program’s Human Development Report.
  • Advancing women’s rights. The slaying in September of womens’-rights advocate Safia Ama Jan by Taliban militants underscores the dangers such activists still face. “Afghan women face the highest rates of illiteracy and lowest standards of health in the world,” Rubin writes. Women, even in cities like Kabul, still primarily wear burqas (full veils). Sam Zafiri, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, attributes this to insecurity. Domestic abuse is also rampant. Efforts to enact existing laws that ban forced marriage or implement minimum age requirements for marriage have faced stiff resistance from Islamist factions of government. “Afghan women are still worse off than they were in the 1990s [before the Taliban seized power],” Zafiri says. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, deflected criticisms by women’s rights advocates by pointing to the many strides made, particularly in women’s participation in government. He says 35 percent of Afghanistan’s six million schoolchildren are girls and that out of 249 parliamentarians, sixty-eight are women. Still, he admits, “We should do a lot more.”
  • Restoring religious freedoms. Religious freedoms remain restricted in Afghanistan despite a constitution that grants Afghans the right to practice whatever faith they so choose. Christians continue to face harassment. Most notable was the case earlier this year in which Abdul Rahman, an Afghan Muslim, was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. The charges were later dropped but antagonisms continue. A recent rally organized by South Korean evangelical Christians was not allowed and their visit was cut short amid charges they were proselytizing.There are reports that the Afghan government has reconstituted its religious police—the so-called “vice and virtue department”—to enforce religious standards and styles of dress. Karzai dismisses accusations the religious police have been revived in Afghanistan. “It was simply an advice that we should preach morality, not enforce it with the stick or with the lash or the gun,” he told the CFR meeting September 21. One problem, experts say, is the incompatibility of constitutional provisions. For example, they allow for freedom of religion while at the same time upholding the so-called Hanafi school of sharia —a strict interpretation that mandates the death penalty for apostates.
  • Inadequate health services. Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates and ranks near the bottom of the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) human development index. Nearly one out of every four Afghan children dies before the age of five. International bodies like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have responded by providing health services to more than two million Afghans, funding the treatment of 700,000 cases of malaria, and vaccinating five million Afghan children against preventable diseases. Still, health spending comprises just 3 percent (PDF) of USAID’s budget for Afghanistan, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

How has poor security affected Afghan schools?

Since the start of 2005, there have been more than 200 attacks against teachers, students, and schools, according to a July 2006 Human Rights Watch report, the bulk of them in Afghanistan’s southern provinces. There is also a growing frequency of so-called “night letters,” threatening messages that target teachers and students. Such is the concern of Afghan officials that the Interior ministry recently sent a letter to educators warning that the Taliban are importing pens with special gas mechanisms to private language schools to “render people unconscious and [erase] their memories.” (CSMonitor). The lack of adequate schooling has forced some Afghan families to send their children to madrassas across the border in Pakistan.

Lynda Granfield says "Afghans have to take community ownership too, but it is not a concept they know [because] for the past thirty years they have been fighting.”

Another problem is a shortage of girls’ schools. “There aren’t enough female teachers for girls’ schools in Afghanistan,” Tom Koenigs, UN special representative for Afghanistan, tells Der Spiegel.

Karzai downplays the dire warnings about Afghanistan’s education system. “Schools get burned, but not every day,” he told the CFR meeting. “If they get burned every day, we will be out of schools in the whole country. In the past two years, maybe 150 schools were burned or damaged partially.”

What explains the slow pace of reconstruction in Afghanistan?

Some fault lead donor nations like the United States. A recent GAO report said U.S. officials continually fail to meet their reconstruction targets because of security issues, poor contractor performance, and rising opium production. The report also criticizes USAID, which “lack[s] a comprehensive strategy to direct its efforts.” Out of 286 schools it had intended to build by the end of 2004, it had completed only eight. Poor security remains perhaps the biggest challenge to distributing aid, Zafiri says. He blames former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who early on in 2003 refused to endorse provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs)—civilian-military development units predominant in rural areas—because they were seen as nation building, but later endorsed the projects. “The PRTs were insufficient and continue to be insufficient,” Zafiri says. Other humanitarian groups objected to the PRTs because they were seen as compromising the neutrality of aid groups.

Another problem, says Stephen Biddle, CFR senior defense fellow, is that aid workers are often resented by local Afghans. “They’re doing reconstruction to win hearts and minds but if the result is this flood of Western recon personnel driving SUVs and living in what look like luxurious accommodations, who end up being a separate society within a society, people resent that.” A third problem is the lack of money and personnel. Koenigs, in his Der Spiegel interview, says the West invested ten times more per capita in Kosovo, a funding shortfall that has resulted in unfinished reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

What progress has been made reconstructing Afghanistan?

Afghan and U.S. officials point to some positive trends. In addition to roads, hospitals, and schools, a nascent banking sector has been slowly built, with eight or more private banks now set up in Afghanistan, Amirzai Sangin, Afghanistan’s minister of communications, recently told a briefing at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He also points to Afghanistan’s growing telecom industry; more than 1.5 million Afghans now own phones (most of them mobile phones), a figure expected to double in the next three years. Lynda Granfield, a military liaison officer at the State Department, disputes blanket criticisms of the PRT programs, pointing to successes in Jalalabad province, where she commanded the local PRT, and in Nangarhar. She stressed that PRTs are not a cure-all for Afghanistan’s economic ailments and that “Afghans have to take community ownership too, but it is not a concept they know [because] for the past thirty years they have been fighting.”

The reconstruction of Afghanistan is based on the Afghanistan Compact, a five-year plan signed in January 2006 that succeeds the Bonn Agreement and focuses on security, rule of law, and development, while setting basic targets and timetables for international donors through 2010. 

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