Time is running out for Afghanistan. The climate is visibly deteriorating and serious challenges that need quick responses lie ahead for the coalition forces attempting to stabilise the country. In the south, where the situation has always been volatile, the Taliban is now making progress, increasing its presence in a growing number of regions. Many central areas that were stable until early 2006 are now dangerous.
Even more worrying, on 29 May 2006, following a deadly car accident involving a United States military convoy, Kabul exploded in anger demonstrating the mocking title of "mayor of Kabul" given to Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, no longer applies even in the capital.
In July 2006 I travelled to Kabul and made a 600-kilometre journey to the central highlands of Bamiyan province; this follows a trip to the country in spring 2004 which I reported on openDemocracy (see "Afghanistan: no time to lose", April 2004), and another in 2005.
What strikes most in comparison with these previous visits is the pace of reconstruction, which has reached the remotest areas of the country. Kabul is a construction-site, with multi-floor shopping and banqueting centres being built, and two large, new, almost-completed mosques towering in different areas of the town. The western part of the capital, flattened during the civil war, is coming back to life.
The northern road to Charikar, in Parvan province, is brand-new, with plenty of stalls along the way selling a variety of goods. The surrounding countryside, until last year a wasteland scarred by bombshells (it was the frontline between Taliban and mujahideen), is now almost fully cultivated. Even in poor Bamiyan province there are signs of reconstruction.
Marco Niada is the London correspondent of the Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore.
Also by Marco Niada in openDemocracy:
"Farewell Agnelli" (February 2003)
"Parmalat: Italian capitalism goes sour" (December 2003)
"Afghanistan: no time to lose" (April 2004)
"Italy's tragic democracy"
"Is Silvio Berlusconi losing the plot?"
A squandered opportunity
But the material improvement hasn't brought stability. In Kabul there is now a feeling of insecurity among the foreign community, and a deep sense of unease can be also felt in government circles I had access to.
The criticism of Karzai is mounting. The president is accused of being weak: in the south he is giving way to local militias as a means to contain the Taliban by proxy. It is a dangerous game; many recall the story of Mohammad Najibullah, the pro-Soviet prime minister left in power by the Russians when they left Afghanistan in 1989, who then relied on the support of local militias until they joined forces with the mujahideen to topple him in 1992.
Karzai's move has also infuriated the international community that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to disarm the militias after the war. After the Kabul riots, Karzai failed to strengthen his position on law and order; on the contrary he appointed as head of the Kabul police Amanullah Gozar, a former commander known for his extortion and drug-trafficking activities (Karazai even called him "my brother").
Some criticise Karzai for spending too much time meeting power-brokers, some controversial, and surrounding himself with incompetent advisors; others say that he's not doing enough in the south where he should be trying to win the hearts and minds of the local population. A visit there is overdue especially as he is a member of the Pashtun ethnic majority of Kandahar, the town at the centre of the Taliban comeback.
But for all his limits, Karzai cannot be held accountable for every shortcoming. In fact it could be argued that he is obliged to compromise, as he lacks the means to affirm his power. Those means should become available in 2002-03 when, with the exception of the southeastern frontier area, Afghanistan was quite stable and the warlords, impressed by western military and economic might, were more inclined to give up power to the central state.
The opportunity was squandered because the Americans lost focus, throwing hundreds of billions of dollars down the Iraqi black hole, while their western coalition partners were hesitant and slow in filling the military and financial gaps. At that time, a small additional amount of money and an increase in the military presence on the ground could have stabilised a country that is much less developed than Iraq and has even less capacity to absorb investment.
True, too much money can be a destabilising factor fuelling corruption, increasing the gap between rich and poor and playing into the hands of the mullahs. But too little help was a huge mistake that helped fuel the illusion operating until around mid-2005 that Afghanistan was on the way to looking after itself.
A swift extra effort today is vital. Thousand of additional Nato troops are finally coming. But reconstruction is paramount: the May 2006 riots in Kabul happened because growing private wealth notwithstanding the majority of people in Kabul (a city of 4.5 million, more than double the number its facilities can cope with) are poor and lacking basic infrastructure such as running water and electricity. The anger openly shown for the first time against foreign institutions and organisations is worrying.
Sima Samar, chairman of the Independent Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, says: "People heard of billions of dollars of foreign aid and had growing expectations about an improvement of their conditions that hasn't come". This doesn't mean that the protesters were pro-Taliban. The great majority of people don't want the movement back. But the disappointment and frustration against Karzai and the foreign community is growing and must be addressed.
It's getting late
Too many opportunities have been wasted. Bamiyan province, run by Habiba Sorabi (the only woman governor of an Afghan province) is one of the most stable in the country. But Sorabi faces growing discontent and is frustrated: "We have peace and stability and we could have been a model for the reconstruction of the country. But we have no development, as money from the central government is coming slowly. We are still waiting for the construction of the road linking us to Kabul, which is essential to transport our agricultural products and to bring the tourists to the area of the Buddha valley".
The Italian government is funding construction work on a road in the province that cuts through the Oujak pass to Maidanshar, but it is now short of money to complete it. It is now seeking a partner to top up the funding, and the Chinese have recently secured a contract for part of the project. But the work was supposed to start in 2003 and be finished by now.
Meanwhile the southern end of the road, in Wardak province, is being targeted by the Taliban and becoming unsafe. In Bamiyan, Iranian influence is growing as the Iranians seek to exploit the frustration of the Shi'a Hazara population. Even in peaceful Bamiyan, time is running short. For Afghanistan as a whole, it is a make-or-break time.