Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Afghanistan in a downward spiral

The situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. In retrospect, the 2004 presidential election was the high point. In addition to the Taliban resurgence in the south, President Harmid Karzai faces other intractable problems such as lack of jobs. Some might say that the real problem is a lack of natural leaders.

Apr 18, 2007


By Haroun Mir

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

KABUL - Despite a successful presidential election in 2004 and parliamentary elections in 2005, the situation in Afghanistan has been worsening since then. The year 2006 was a bloody one in terms of casualties for both coalition and Afghan forces as well as for the civilian population.

In addition to long-lasting problems such as military conflict, narcotics and warlordism, the Afghan government is increasingly facing new dilemmas which emanate from people's dire social and economic conditions. People demand jobs, shelter and legitimate means to live a decent life. It is the prospect of political turmoil that poses the far greater danger for the stability of the country than military threats by the Taliban.

In fact, the Taliban and their allies have been able to improve their fighting capacity and propaganda capabilities, as well as to considerably extend their territory inside Afghanistan because they were able to improve their organizational structure, train a considerable number of new recruits and receive better supplies of arms and ammunition.

It will enable them to increase their attacks on NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and Afghan forces while terrorizing the civilian population with occasional, but ever more frequent, suicide bombings. This year, they will extend their control over major districts in the south and southwest of the country and improve their capacity to interrupt the main highways connecting Kabul to major cities in the south and west of the country.

Since NATO does not have enough soldiers on the ground to control the entire Afghan territory bordering Pakistan, its main task will be limited to defending major cities while the insurgents expand their control in small towns and isolated districts. NATO's sporadic military operations will only have limited, short-term impact.

NATO can temporarily dislodge the insurgent forces from their strongholds but it cannot police the area and requires Afghan forces to do the job. In most cases, since there are not enough Afghan security forces, the Taliban simply reemerge from their hideouts and take back control.

The US military contingent outside the NATO mission is not sufficient to pursue and engage small and highly mobile groups of insurgents in the rugged and difficult Afghan territory bordering Pakistan. Without of a significant increase in the number of NATO troops, nothing will change until the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police grow in strength and numbers.

It doesn't help that Afghanistan lacks strong pluralistic political parties, necessary elements for a healthy democracy. In the absence of any coherent political ideology or vision for the future of the country, political regroupings take place based on ethnic affiliations. Tensions over sharing power in the government among the various ethnic groups are growing rapidly, and political and intellectual debates in the Afghan free media focus on differences among them rather than their common interests.

Meanwhile, neighboring countries which are against the presence of NATO forces in Afghanistan are working to incite violent ethnic rifts as a means to undermine NATO's efforts. The worst scenario would be if ethnic differences become a motive for armed conflict in Afghanistan, as currently in Iraq. The country would sink once again into political chaos and misery.

Afghan politicians are unfamiliar with the notion of compromise and constructive political dialogue in order to overcome their political differences. Since Afghanistan is a very poor country, everyone struggles to have a share of government resources, which are the only financial resources available and are largely donated by the international community.

Until now there has not been a legitimate and genuine political opposition to President Harmid Karzai. In fact, those who oppose the president are for the most part his former political allies who had been his ministers at one time during the past five years.

Removed from their high-level government positions, they have turned into dedicated enemies who do everything possible to undermine Karzai's leadership.

For instance, the recent formation of the new political entity called the United National Front (UNF) seems to be a short-lived coalition of former Northern Alliance leaders and a few prominent former communist party members. This new group is not established on the basis of a common political platform or a vision for the future of the country. Instead, its formation is a tactical political move for some of its members to put pressure on Karzai in order to extract more advantages from him, such as key government positions. Sadly, they ignore the fact that if this regime falls prematurely the only alternative would be a comeback of the Taliban.

One of the major political issues in Afghanistan is the lack of natural leaders. While the whole south of the country has become leaderless due to the elimination of traditional Pashtun leaders during the past three decades of war, the north has also lost its only legitimate leader, the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, the former leader of Northern Alliance, who was killed in a suicide attack in September 2001 by al-Qaeda.

The biggest challenge in the near term is to find charismatic and sufficiently unifying leaders. The next Afghan presidential election is less than two years away. In fact, without strong pluralistic political parties or charismatic political leaders the country will face tremendous leadership challenges which will further intensify ethnic tensions.

The economic situation is deteriorating rapidly because of insecurity, lack of enforcement of property rights, administrative corruption, and most importantly people's pessimistic expectations. The meager private investment by a number of Afghan expatriates is seriously threatened by ever increasing kidnapping and ransoming of Afghan businessmen and their families. Instead, narcotics have once again become the main source income.

One of the crucial problems in Afghanistan is poverty. Only a small number of Afghans, who work for foreign companies, earn adequate wages. Those who are employed in public administration earn on average less than $50 a month. In addition, the massive return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran has created an extra economic burden on the country.

Kabul has become a big ghetto where very poor people build rudimentary shelters on the top of hills and mountains. The Afghan government does not have adequate financial resources and the capacity to respond to all legitimate demands of the returnees.

Also, unemployment has become a growing concern both for the people and the government. Every year hundreds of thousands of young boys and girls graduate from high schools and colleges and cannot find jobs. The Afghan administration does not have the capacity to hire more people, and jobs in the private sector don't exist.

Young graduates of high schools and colleges are just added every year to the growing number of unemployed. While a limited number of people live a relatively good life, the rest of population struggles to survive.

In addition, corruption is asphyxiating the very fragile Afghan administration. It has become widespread and evident to the point that even the president admits it but cannot prevent it. There are two reasons for corruption in Afghanistan. At the very low level, civil servants become corrupt because they cannot live with $40 or $50 monthly salaries.

In the higher echelon, easy money from narcotics corrupts administrators. For instance, drug traffickers are willing to pay huge amounts of money to corrupt political appointees to undermine the rule of law.

It is important to remember that all previous governments in Afghanistan have fallen not because of their military weaknesses but because of social, economic and governance issues. For instance, the communist regime was able to defend an encircled Kabul for almost four years after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989. The regime eventually fell in 1992 during a power struggle among different factions.

NATO is capable of containing the military threat of the Taliban, far from the center of power in Kabul, but in the event of political turmoil or popular revolt over lack of progress, like the riot of May 29, 2006, in Kabul, it can't prevent the unraveling of the Afghan government.

I wrote in June of last year for the International Affairs Forum: "The much publicized unfortunate road accident of May 29th of a US military vehicle wasn't the main cause for riots in Kabul. It became a pretext for those unemployed, disenchanted, and disillusioned young to show their anger toward the government and the region's most convenient boogey man, the United States.”

In fact, relative to last year, the socio-economic conditions for young Kabulis have gotten worse. They have become pessimistic about the prospect of a better future because the international community has failed to deliver what was initially promised for Afghanistan in terms of reconstruction and economic development.

The focus of NATO countries on military issues alone will not overshadow the threat of political turmoil arising from people's terrible economic conditions. Afghanistan needs more assistance from NATO countries to rebuild its civil society and to create economic means for its long-term political stability as a viable country.

Haroun Mir is a policy analyst for SIG & Partners Afghanistan. He served over five years as an aide to the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan's former defense minister.

(Copyright 2007 Haroun Mir.

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