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Afghanistan's forgotten war

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The United Kingdom’s parliamentary select committee on foreign affairs published a report on “foreign policy aspects of the war on terror” on 29 July 2004. It covered a variety of issues – from Iraq and the Russian federation to Israel-Palestine and the role of international law – but its chapter on Afghanistan is especially significant, in that it was unusually scathing for a cross-party committee.

The report – published after parliament began its summer recess, and thus with no likelihood of its being debated for several months – expressed deep concerns about persistent insecurity, rampant warlordism and increases in opium production in Afghanistan; it warned of a real risk of chaos in the country.

Another significant development had occurred a day earlier: the decision of Medécins Sans Frontières (MSF) to withdraw its staff from Afghanistan, after twenty-four years of continuous operations by the French-based humanitarian NGO. In June, MSF lost five staff in an attack on a convoy and had subsequently been unable to get any reliable information about the circumstances of the attack. It had earlier suspended most of its work across the country and concentrated its non-Afghan staff in Kabul. In a statement, the organisation said: “Today’s context is rendering independent humanitarian aid for the Afghan people all but impossible”.

Meanwhile, there is endemic squabbling by Nato members over the provision of security assistance to the embattled country. But the clear evidence these developments provide of the difficulties in Afghanistan is not enough to gain the attention of international media, for which the insurgency in Iraq (and, lately, the crisis in Darfur) is taking precedence. Even when Afghanistan does receive a mention, it is usually in the context of opium production and its effect on the drug trade in the west.

Politics amidst insecurity

It is true that there have been a few signs of hope in Afghanistan in an otherwise intractable security environment. One positive development has been a recent surge in the registration of electors. Of a possible 9.5 million voters, 7.5 million may well have registered by the end of July, a greater proportion than had been expected.

The registration process in being undertaken against the odds and with enthusiasm in some parts of the country, but it is proceeding at a very much slower pace in many of the Pashtun areas in the south, especially around Kandahar. This is leading to fears that Pashtun people will be seriously underrepresented at the ballot box, and many of them may not therefore accept the results. The election itself has now been split into two components, for the presidency in October 2004 and for the legislature sometime in 2005. The postponement of the latter is a reflection of the continuing insecurity, a problem that has been particularly severe in recent weeks.

On 21 July, an attack in the southern province of Helmand killed eleven Afghans, one of them a former district police chief. Several other recent attacks have targeted officials concerned with voter registration. Moreover, United States forces have also been taking casualties. On 23 July, a car bomb exploded as a US military convoy passed near the southern city of Kandahar, injuring four US troops; on 29 July, a military trainer was killed (alongside two Afghan soldiers) in the central province of Ghor.

On 2 August, several Afghan government troops and a number of insurgents were killed in a protracted clash in Khost province near the Pakistan border. The following day, an Afghan aid official and his driver who were working for the German aid agency Malteser were killed when their vehicle was attacked between the towns of Gardez and Paktia, south of Kabul.

These incidents come at a time when unconfirmed reports indicate that the US has quietly increased the number of its troops in Afghanistan from around 10,000 a year ago to 20,000 now. In addition, there are several thousand combat and special forces troops from other countries.

American troops have engaged in numerous operations against Taliban and other militias, yet there is no sign of the insurgency being brought under control. The situation has been made worse by further “friendly fire” incidents when US strike aircraft have hit Afghan soldiers or civilians. In the latest example, eight Afghan soldiers were injured in a US operation on 25 July.

Meanwhile, in the run-up to the presidential election there are indications that President Hamid Karzai may face more opposition than expected. It had been expected that a candidate for vice-president would be the current first vice-president and defence minister, Mohammed Fahim, who maintains his own substantial private militia force drawn largely from the northern Panjshir valley. Under electoral rules, Fahim was required to resign his cabinet post but failed to do so; Karzai then dropped him from his “slate” for the election in place of Ahmed Zia Masood, brother of the assassinated resistance hero Ahmed Shah Masood (see Keith Richburg, “Karzai Replaces Top Deputy On Ticket”, Washington Post, 27 July 2004).

An immediate result was that education minister Yunus Qanooni – who had opposed Karazai’s move against Fahim – resigned his post to run against the president. Moreover, the high-profile foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, followed by Fahim himself, announced that they would support Qanooni in his bid for the presidency.

Much of this controversy is essentially about whether Karzai has the power to rein in some of the powerful political figures whose influence stems from the composition of the old Northern Alliance coalition that displaced the Taliban in November 2001 (Fahim, Qanooni and Abdullah are all from the ethnic Tajik group who compose around 20% of Afghanistan’s population).

In some respects, Karzai is becoming increasingly dependent on United States and Nato forces and on private security guards, and this may be creating a political space in which challenges to his authority can be articulated. At the same time, he retains significant support among Afghans and may well win convincingly in October.

Failures of commitment

Behind these current political machinations, however, lie deep-seated security problems rooted in the inability of those responsible to ensure a functioning police force or army capable of countering a combination of warlordism, a Taliban revival or straightforward criminality. It is in this respect that the wider international community is conspicuously failing in its supposed commitment to Afghanistan.

As early as February 2002, three months after the fall of the Taliban regime, highly-experienced United Nations officials such as Lakhdar Brahimi (then Kofi Annan’s representative in Afghanistan) were warning of the urgent need for up to 30,000 peacekeeping troops in the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) to help the transition to a stable society.

In the event, Isaf was established and conducted its operations with support from some Nato countries but little assistance from their partner the United States, which preferred to concentrate on its counter-insurgency operations in the south and south-east of the country. Isaf, currently with 6,500 troops, remains reasonably effective in and around Kabul, and a number of additional small military units known as Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) are working in various towns and cities.

In practice, however, the Nato contribution falls very far short of what Afghanistan needs. The Nato summit in Istanbul in late June heard a lot of rhetoric about the need to increase assistance, and London and Berlin especially show recent signs of recognising the scale of the problem, but delivery of aid is thus far wholly inadequate.

Nato’s current plan is to augment the current Isaf force with two new quick reaction units of about 1,000 troops each (see Keith Richburg, “NATO to Boost Force in Afghanistan for Election”, Washington Post, 17 July 2004). There will also be two further 1,000-person units held in reserve in Europe for transfer to Afghanistan if required. Yet if all the existing and proposed units were deployed in Afghanistan, Isaf would still total no more than about 10,000 troops, barely one-third of the minimum required to help guarantee improved short-term stability.

It is also the case that concentrating on Isaf makes it easy to forget the critical need for a much wider range of civil development assistance. Here, too, what western governments are actually delivering is only a small proportion of the magnanimous offers a number of them made in the past two years.

Overall, the result of this political vacillation is that Afghanistan is simply not getting the security and development assistance it desperately requires. In this respect, the recent UK parliamentary report joins an increasing number of voices calling for a full and effective commitment to Afghanistan. The termination of the Taliban regime was supposedly one of the highlights of President Bush’s “war on terror”. It is increasingly difficult to view the ensuing thirty-three months as a success.


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