In early April 2004, I undertook a visit to Kabul and the central highlands area of Afghanistan an 800-kilometre round trip by motor vehicle accompanying a mission of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
After a host of encounters, dialogues and impressions, I reached a clear conclusion. Afghanistan has a historic opportunity to stand on its own feet again after twenty-five disastrous years. But there is a real risk of the opportunity being missed. Nato must quickly honour its pledge to take responsibility for as much of the countrys territory as possible modestly increasing its forces where necessary and committing itself to work alongside the United Nations in the country for the next few years.
This comparatively modest effort would bring great rewards; failing to make it would be an unforgivable mistake.
The dangers are as clear as the opportunities. It is a long way before Afghanistan can become a modern state. The presently booming opium production offers another prospective scenario for Afghanistan: the emergence of a narco-state where a flood of money finances both warlords and remnants of al-Qaida and the former Taliban regime. The funds pledged by the international community in the last three years will then be lost to corruption or waste.
If that happens, a new Afghan crisis will arrive at the worst moment possible, when Iraq seems to be spiralling out of control. Yet it should be remembered that the Afghan war, a more clearly justified one than the Iraqi, cost only 10% of the latter; if the price to make a real difference is raised to 11% or 12% it will be truly worth it.
Indeed, Afghanistan is different from and in some ways more hopeful than Iraq. With the help of the coalition forces the Afghans liberated themselves from the Taliban, who were opposed by a large majority of the population. The Taliban were mainly Pashtun, the dominant and most powerful ethnic group of the country. To that extent the victory of the Northern Alliance, composed mainly by ethnic groups such as Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara, makes the pacification process difficult. But many influential ministers in the present administration of Hamid Karzai are Pashtun. The president himself is one, as is the former King Zahir Shah, now returned to an honorific position after thirty years of exile in Rome. A delicate process to reconcile the Pashtun population with the government is underway.
Moreover, the Karzai government retains the support of a considerable part of the population. The Loya Jirga, the council of elders representing Afghanistans various communities and leaders, has unanimously adopted a new constitution. No fanatical mullah championing war against the west seems to have much of a following. Rather, the population is exhausted by a quarter-century of civil war that went nowhere.
The people want a fresh start. The country has been destroyed; funds from the international community are badly needed. The attitude towards the foreigners is positive. Afghans recognise that the disaster that followed the Soviet occupation was also homemade.
The government, composed of representatives of almost all the most influential factions, pledged at the recent Berlin conference (31 March-1 April 2004) to demobilise at least 40% of the militia factions by the general elections in September 2004, and to disarm all of them by June 2005. The government also pledged to eradicate poppy cultivation within a decade and has started to act accordingly by using the army. It is a shy beginning but some goodwill is there.
The reconstruction process
Two and a half years after the end of the war, and over two years since the Tokyo conference (where a first package of international aid of $4.8 billion over five years was pledged), the wheel of the economy has visibly started to turn. The Berlin conference has now promised a further $8.1 billion over the three years to March 2007, of which $4.5 billion will arrive in the current fiscal year.
The sheer scale of this flow of money makes an assessment of its impact vital. Some areas of the economy, such as the construction sector in Kabul, are expanding strongly. In the northern suburbs of the capital, over the hills along the main route to the north, hundreds of small houses are being built or repaired. Many small private homes and shops are being refurbished all around the city. In the western suburbs, the ruins of the war are still evident but you get a lively impression of people committed to a fresh start. Activity is visible in the city centre also, with shopping centres under construction and hotels being refurbished.
The massive presence of international organisations and NGOs is pushing rental prices up dramatically in the very few decent residential areas. People working in the capital for foreign employers earn ten times more than civil servants ($30-40 per month). The most visible evidence of change, however, is the increase of motor traffic in Kabul. The traffic congestion is owed less to money from international aid than to private initiative fuelled by remittances of Afghans living in Pakistan, Iran and the Gulf countries. Even in the remote areas I visited the provinces of Kabul, Parwan, Bamiyan and Wardak you sense, and UN officials on the ground confirm, that money is entering into the local economy.
Some villages are under intense reconstruction, others are still flattened by past bombardments and abandoned, but at least some building is underway in most. The road between Kabul and Kandahar, the two biggest cities, is completed, and other sections of the main road route around the country should be finished by 2006 although the section between the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat presents steep problems.
There are, however, big structural obstacles to be overcome before economic take-off. Vikram Parekh, senior analyst on Afghanistan of the International Crisis Group, stresses that the lack of a middle class and of skilled manual labour may delay recovery. Most of the 3 million refugees who have returned to Afghanistan have settled in the large towns (there are 500,000 in Kabul alone), putting social services under severe stress. Many children were born in exile and families lost their rural skills there, while skilled labour in the construction sector remains abroad: an Afghani can earn three times more per day in Iran as in Afghanistan. In cities such as Kandahar, thousands of skilled workers and engineers have moved over the border from Pakistan. Indeed, to Parekhs dual absence a third can be added: there is no real working class in a country of warriors, shepherds, farmers and traders.
In such conditions, the finance minister, Ashraf Ghanis dream to transform Afghanistan into a services and communications economy a sort of Switzerland of Central Asia looks odd. But Ghani is a visionary, with a long experience at the World Bank and respect from the international community. He dispenses international aid, and he promotes transparency and accountability. It is a good start in a country where no central control is exerted on anything.
The basic industry Afghanistan possessed was extinguished by years of war, and very little craftsmanship capacity remains; many who made the best carpets and fabrics fled to Pakistan. Almost all industrial products are imported. But, alongside the big infrastructure projects that are needed, there is potential to start a light industry and services economy with craftsmanship and a better exploitation of the tourist attraction of one of the most enchanting countries of the world.
Also in openDemocracy, Maryam Maruf and Maggie Loescher interview an Afghan film director; see Siddiq Barmak: Osama and Afghan cinema (March 2004)
Water conservation, in a country full of water in winter and spring but dry during the summer, is essential (mineral water produced by Nestlé is imported from plants in Pakistan). Here, the agricultural sector is crucial: its decline during the years of war increased the temptations of poppy-growing. I witnessed the way that where there is rich and organised quality farming like Wardak provinces Behsud valley where you drive on a bumpy mountain road for over two hours between fields of apple, apricots and plum trees poppies are kept relatively at bay. The problem is that an industry to transform these crops into dry fruit or jam doesnt exist.
Security and stability
But even if economic reconstruction continues, Afghanistan needs political stability to give its people security. The extensive Nato forces in Kabul have demonstrated what is possible, but Nato has not yet fulfilled its promise to cover other areas of the country (apart from the relatively quiet Kunduz province). Manoel de Almeida e Silva, spokesman of the UN mission in Afghanistan (Unama), says: we feel very urgently that a decision must be reached before the elections. Disarmament has to happen very quickly.
I travelled in relatively stable areas on purpose: if the situation gets out of control there, where only a small additional effort is needed to reach normality, then it will be really regrettable. Filippo Grandi, head of the UNHCR mission in Afghanistan, puts it bluntly: if the situation in Afghanistan isnt quickly stabilised, there is a serious possibility of the emergency of a coalition between poppy growers, frustrated jihadis that fought all wars and are now unemployed and remnants of the Taliban. That will have very dangerous effects.
The UNHCR has dozens of offices around the country. The area I visited was mainly under the umbrella of its Bamiyan field office. The organisation plans soon to open a sub-office in Nili, which will become the capital of Daikundi, a new province of Hazarajat. The situation around Bamiyan itself is pretty quiet, but in the districts around Nili (Daikundi and Sharestan) things are more problematic as local warlords control poppy-growing.
To the north, in the district of Kahmard, power is wielded by Mullah Kabir, a warlord who plays a double game: keeping links both to pro-Taliban forces and to Mohammed Atta, the Mazar-e-Sharif commander of the Jamiat-e-Islami party, which is represented in government. Kabir has interests in coal-mining, but also extorts taxes from the people of the region and from illegal checkpoints a typical example from a fragmented country where the law is still in the hands of local commanders.
But there is a chance of improvement. The New Zealand army officer in charge of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) force of 130 people in Bamiyan, Group-Captain Gavin Howse, told me that a patrol of 20-30 soldiers sent for two-to-three weeks in a troubled area is usually enough to deter local commanders and create a climate of security. The New Zealanders are skilled operators and in Bamiyan they cooperated with USAID to rebuild the new university, which was inaugurated on 3 April. The PRTs, whose tasks combine peacekeeping and reconstruction initiatives, are working; but there are only twelve of them in Afghanistan and the Berlin conference decided to create only an additional five.
Vikram Parekh believes that to stabilise the region north of the Hindu Kush, three battalions (around 2.700 soldiers) may be enough. With hindsight, the presence of a stronger contingent in Maymaneh, the capital of Faryab province defended by only six British soldiers in support of the pro-Kabul governor might have been enough to deter the recent invasion by the warlord Rashid Dostum.
According to the majority of the UN officials and military people on the ground, and some village chiefs we interviewed, local warlords are often much less threatening and organised than they appear. The menace of a serious confrontation with a well-equipped army often convinces them to back down. This was the case when the government sent a contingent of 1,500 special troops to Herat to defuse an uprising of the local boss Ismail Khan, who claims control of 30,000 heavily-armed militia.
But even if a recovering economy can absorb low-rank fighters, and middle-rank local commanders are deterred by a clever use of Nato forces, the larger political game must also be fixed. This, of course, depends on politics at the level of central government.
Some big warlords like Karim Khalili boss of the Hezb-e-Wahdat, the main political party of the Hazara ethnic group based around Bamiyan have acted sensibly by entering the government (Khalili is one of the four vice-presidents). The result is a further stabilisation of the Bamiyan area that allowed the rebuilding of its university in record time. Others, such as Ismail Khan in Herat, have remained semi-detached, testing their degree of independence from the government. Rashid Dostum is apparently playing both games.
The huge amounts of foreign aid give the government a real incentive to stick together. But there are centrifugal forces in action: this year the poppy crop may be 30% bigger than the record 3,600 tonnes of 2003 (around half the countrys GDP in value). This in turn strengthens the local warlords who can cooperate with the remnants of the Taliban in the south-east of the country.
The big warlords in Afghanistan, like Ismail Khan or Rashid Dostum, will continue in their policy of giving to the central government only part of the customs money generated by trade in (respectively) western and northern Afghanistan. In short, the tendency may be for Afghanistan to remain what it has always been: a tribal country with a very weak central state.
But the money now entering from abroad creates the opportunity to make a difference. The warlords have the chance of their life to become quasi-legitimate businessmen. That may not have exactly the same meaning as in advanced western democracies; but for Afghanistan it will be a big step forward.
A clever deployment of Nato forces could have a significant, positive effect. But Nato must act soon. In Afghanistan now, timing really is everything.