Four Years Into Afghan Campaign, Perils Abound

On the eve of the fourth anniversary of the launch of U.S. military operations against the Taliban regime, Afghanistan presents a mixed picture, according to experts here.

The relative stability of the government of President Hamid Karzai and last month’s successful voting for national and regional legislatures offer grounds for some satisfaction on the part of U.S. policymakers.

But independent analysts say the country remains overwhelmingly dependent on external aid and threatened by a host of problems, from a revived Taliban insurgency to an indigenous economy based largely on the illicit drug trade.

Training programs for the national army and the police have lagged far behind schedule, leaving vast swathes of the countryside under the control of local warlords, while the death toll for both civilians and U.S. troops killed by Taliban forces and those of their chief ally, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has mushroomed since last spring.

Indeed, 86 U.S. soldiers have been killed so far this year – compared to 55 killed between Oct. 7, 2001, when Washington began operations to oust the Taliban, and the end of 2002. More than 1,200 people were killed in just the first six months of this year, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).

"The war in Afghanistan is coming to a tempo that wasn’t expected," said Michael Scheuer, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official who led its efforts to track al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan from the late 1990s, and author of Imperial Hubris.

Others have noted that insurgent attacks have become increasingly sophisticated in the past year, amid evidence that radical Islamists who have fought U.S. forces in Iraq have brought equipment, expertise, and the knowledge they acquired there to Afghanistan.

Even the elections marked something of a disappointment to observers who had hoped for a turnout approaching the 70 percent of eligible voters who voted in last year’s presidential elections.

In the event, only about 53 percent of the electorate cast ballots this time. Those who received the most votes in the most secure parts of the country, such as Ramyan Bachardost in Kabul, ran populist campaigns in which they mainly attacked corruption and waste in international aid and reconstruction, according to New York University analyst Barnett Rubin.

Rubin, along with Scheuer and several other experts, spoke at a forum to assess Afghanistan’s progress sponsored by George Washington University and the Center for American Progress (CAP) here Wednesday.

Indeed, despite galloping growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) since the interim government headed by Karzai was set up as a result of the December 2001 Bonn Accord, and a huge boost in school enrollments, particularly for girls, the plight of most people in the countryside remains tenuous. Afghanistan still ranks among the half-dozen poorest countries in the world, and, according to a State Department report published in July, has the highest level of malnutrition in the world at 70 percent.

What economic activity is not linked to the international aid effort, according to the experts, is related to the drug trade which, along with along with corruption (also often linked to drugs), was cited by Karzai himself last month as the country’s biggest problem. The UN’s drug agency estimated earlier this year that the cultivation and trafficking of opium accounted for 60 percent of the economy, or over $2.8 billion in value.

In another report published last year, the State Department warned that Afghanistan was "on the verge of becoming a narcotics state," accounting for nearly 90 percent of the world’s opium production. While production fell declined slightly in 2005, according to a recent UN report, Afghanistan has in the past year moved into actual heroin production.

The degree to which the country depends so heavily on the drug trade has created a serious bind for the U.S. and other international donors, according to Rubin, who advised the UN leadership at the Bonn meetings.

"You can’t have a nation-building policy on the one hand and a policy to kill off a major sector of the economy on the other," he said, noting that poppy cultivation has now spread to all of Afghanistan’s provinces and "there is no sign of a comprehensive development strategy … to build an economy that is legal."

Amb. James Dobbins, a top analyst at the RAND Corporation who represented the U.S. at the 2001 Bonn talks, echoed that assessment. "I don’t see a near-term strategy" to substantially reduce the economy’s reliance on the drug trade, he said.

Any effort to eradicate poppies at this point will not only further impoverish the countryside, but also widen the growing disconnect between the government in Kabul and the rest of the country, according to Rubin. He noted that contributing to that disconnect and growing sense of alienation is a "big institutional gap" between local, grassroots groups, most of which are organized around the mosque, and the central government.

Indeed, the fact that the country’s Muslim clergy, which have a national network that can mobilize the populace in ways that the central and local governments cannot, still have not reached a consensus on the legitimacy of the government constitutes another serious vulnerability to the U.S.-backed regime, said Rubin.

Another problem is its incoherence, according to Nazif Sharani, an Afghan-born anthropologist at Indiana University, who noted that the country has really "ended up with three or four governments," including the UN office in Kabul, the U.S. embassy there, international nongovernmental organizations that administer most of the international aid, the Karzai government, "and now, the fifth, the parliament," which he described as a hodgepodge of conflicting ideologies and interests.

The U.S. and the rest of the international community, he said, had made a serious error in trying to build up the central government, particularly the army and police, to which nearly half the government’s budget is now devoted, at the expense of the local autonomy and empowerment.

"This government will continue not because it is supported by the people," Sharani said, "but because they fear the return of the Taliban."

Another major mistake made by the U.S. in particular was to divert "resources that could or should have been used in Afghanistan" to prepare for war in Iraq, according to Dobbins, who gave some credit to the administration for increasing its commitment to Afghanistan since then.

"We have about two times as many troops there now [nearly 20,000] as we did in the first year and are providing four times more assistance," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.