Can Afghanistan Be Rebuilt?

Can Afghanistan Be Rebuilt?

Theme: An international donor conference held in London has generated substantial new commitments of aid money for Afghanistan. The support comes amid a volatile security situation in the battered country and growing disillusionment among ordinary Afghans over the slowness of reconstruction. 

Summary: The two-day ‘London Conference’ that ended on 1 February was attended by representatives from some seventy countries who together pledged a total of US$10.5 billion to help Afghanistan fight poverty, improve security and crack down on the drug trade. The gathering also launched the ‘Afghanistan Compact’, a comprehensive five-year blueprint that commits the international community to help rebuild the country. The pledges come at a critical moment as the high levels of expectation after the overthrow of the Taliban have given way to popular frustration and cynicism because of the slow pace of reconstruction. Moreover, the overall security situation in Afghanistan has markedly deteriorated: 2005 was the deadliest year since the US invasion in 2001. Much of the violence is being perpetrated by Taliban insurgents who have reorganised their forces and are adopting terrorist tactics used in Iraq in order to undermine the Western-backed Afghan government. The rising bloodshed comes as US forces begin to transfer control of insurgent-heavy regions of Afghanistan to NATO peacekeepers that are neither trained nor equipped to defeat Taliban and other anti-government militias. The international mission to secure and rebuild Afghanistan has a long way to go. 


The London Conference
The London Conference, which was held on 31 January-1 February 2006 and was attended by representatives from almost 70 countries, raised US$10.5 billion in new aid money for Afghanistan. The London Conference was a follow-up to the 2001 Bonn Conference, which took place immediately after the US-led toppling of the Taliban regime and established a five-year plan for Afghanistan, including elections. The inauguration of Afghanistan’s National Assembly in December 2005 marked the symbolic end of the institution-creating process outlined in the Bonn Accords of December 2001. (Hamid Karzai was elected President in Afghanistan’s first direct elections in October 2004, and the Afghan parliamentary elections were held in September 2005.) Donor conferences on Afghanistan were also held in Berlin in 2004 and in Tokyo in 2002. 

The challenge now is to begin nation-building by making the new legislative and executive institutions work effectively. In this context, the London Conference launched the ‘Afghanistan Compact’, a wide-ranging plan that charts the country’s direction for the next five years, and also maps the role to be played by the international community. The document sets specific targets for bolstering security, enhancing governance, boosting economic and social development, strengthening the rule of law and improving human rights. More specifically, it sets timetables and deadlines for building a new army of 70,000 troops, linking 40% of villages with roads, improving education and providing alternative crops to opium poppies. 

The ‘Afghanistan Compact’ comes at an uncertain time for the country. On the one hand, billions of dollars in aid since 2001 has brought new hospitals, clinics and roads to Afghanistan. Over the past four years, 4 million Afghan refugees have repatriated from neighbouring countries. Some 5 million children have been vaccinated against measles and polio. More than 6,000 teachers have been trained and school enrolment has soared from less than 1 million four years ago to above 5 million today. Nearly 40% of the new students are girls who had earlier been barred by the Taliban from going to school. Electrical power plants have been repaired, dams have been rehabilitated and some 7,000 small-scale irrigation projects have been completed. Meanwhile, millions of Afghans (few of whom have an address or an identity card) were registered to vote in watershed national elections. 

On the other hand, the emerging Afghan state remains fragile at best. Despite successful elections to establish a president, parliament and local government, Karzai still exercises very little political control outside the Afghan capital of Kabul. At the same time, he is struggling to undercut the influence of local warlords, who effectively control the provinces and do not recognise the authority of the central government. Meanwhile, security across all parts of Afghanistan has deteriorated, the vexing drug trade has spiralled out of control and most Afghans remain mired in poverty. Much of the population lives in squalid dwellings without electricity or running water. Moreover, day-to-day life for women, even in Kabul, has not improved much, and there has been an increase in fatal attacks targeted at schools and teachers educating girls. 

Many Afghans perceive a wide gap between what has been promised and what has been achieved. And complaints abound that much of the aid money flowing into Afghanistan has been wasted. Indeed, Afghanistan remains a deeply troubled country. 

A Deteriorating Security Situation
Afghanistan is a dangerous place. Although it has been more than four
years since the fall of the Taliban regime, the overall security situation in Afghanistan is getting worse. Kabul has been racked by a surge in violent crime of all types that has shocked even war-hardened citizens who have been exposed to decades of civil strife. Meanwhile, a growing Islamist insurgency in the southern provinces has been accompanied by an unprecedented series of grisly suicide bombings carried out by Taliban militants and suspected al-Qaeda operatives. Afghanistan in 2005 was more dangerous for American troops per capita than was Iraq. Moreover, almost 1,600 people were killed in sectarian violence in the insurgent-infested southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Oruzgan and Zabol in 2005, making it the deadliest year since the US intervention began in 2001. 

The deteriorating security environment is undermining Afghanistan’s reconstruction effort. Although Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are present in almost every district, workers throughout the country face an ongoing threat of being kidnapped or killed. According to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Organisation, which advises aid agencies on security issues, it is unsafe to travel at night in 21 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. In fact, Afghanistan is more dangerous for humanitarian and non-governmental organisation staff than almost any other conflict or post-conflict country, surpassing even Angola, Liberia and Somalia in terms of risk, according to the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The lack of security has prompted some NGOs, including the Nobel Prize-winning medical relief group Médecins Sans Frontières, to pull out of Afghanistan completely. 

Mounting concern over the increasing violence has prompted the US State Department to warn American citizens not to travel to Afghanistan. The travel warning, dated January 2006, reads: ‘The ability of the Afghan authorities to maintain order and ensure the security of citizens and visitors is limited. Travel in all areas of Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, is unsafe due to military operations, landmines, banditry, armed rivalry among political and tribal groups, and the possibility of terrorist attacks, including using vehicular or other Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and kidnapping. The security environment remains volatile and unpredictable’. 

The spiralling lawlessness in the south is linked to the regrouping and rebounding of the Taliban, which are once again becoming the dominant force in the region. Menacing attacks by remnants of the ousted Taliban government have surged in recent months, as has the use of beheadings to terrorise local populations. Moreover, in a reversal of previous practice, Taliban militants are now cooperating with local gunmen who are protecting the opium trade. (While in power, the Taliban had banned cultivation of all types of illegal drugs in the entire country.) Indeed, in some southern provinces the Taliban have forged alliances with drug smugglers by providing protection for drug convoys and carrying out attacks to keep the government away. As if to underscore that the insurgency is being financed by the drug trade, Taliban militants in some areas have distributed leaflets ordering local farmers to grow poppy. 

The widening insurgency in the south has been accompanied by a bloody surge in suicide bombings, which previously were unseen during a quarter-century of warfare in Afghanistan. Since November 2005, there has been a spate of 15 suicide attacks in southern Afghanistan, with more than 70 people killed, including foreign peacekeepers, local police, a Canadian diplomat and American and Afghan soldiers. The suicide attacks, which have shown unusual levels of coordination and technological know-how, are a hallmark of al-Qaeda and a regular occurrence in Iraq. This leads many analysts to conclude that the Taliban are obtaining support from abroad in their effort to undermine the Western-backed Afghan government and re-impose a medieval political order. Afghan officials say the bombers are overwhelmingly foreigners, mainly Arabs and Pakistanis who enter the border from Pakistan. 

At the same time, there has been a notable increase in Islamic militant activity in the restive Pushtun tribal belt along the Pakistani border with Afghanistan, which would corroborate what has been an open secret for a long time: Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has resumed its active support for the Taliban. (Pakistan provided the Taliban with every conceivable form of military, political and financial support in the decade before the American invasion as a means to exert control over Afghanistan.) Although Pakistan has about 80,000 troops deployed along the Afghan frontier, it often turns a blind eye to cross-border activity by the Taliban and other insurgents. 

During a landmark one-on-one meeting on 15 February in Islamabad, Karzai presented Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf with extensive intelligence dossiers detailing how suicide bombers who attack targets in Afghanistan are being recruited, trained and equipped in Pakistan. But because Musharraf’s own hold on power is tenuous, he is unlikely to police the northern border unless under pressure from the United States. Thus it is not surprising that just days ahead of US President George W. Bush’s official visit to Islamabad on 3 March, Pakistani security forces backed by helicopter gunships struck a militant training camp in a tribal region near the Afghan border, killing or wounding 30 militants. 

The increased violence in Afghanistan is hardly coincidental. Terrorism experts note that roughly two-thirds of the suicide attacks against NATO soldiers in the country occurred during the last six months of 2005, at precisely the same time that European alliance members began debating a move into southern Afghanistan. They say that Taliban militants, after closely studying tactics used in Iraq, have stepped up the use of roadside bombs, hit-and-run operations and al-Qaeda-type suicide missions in a conscious strategy to weaken NATO’s resolve. 

Afghanistan is NATO’s first ever mission out of its Cold War-era area of operations. And it has been doing a good job in some parts of the country. NATO took over the Kabul-based International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in August 2003, and has since expanded into the Afghan countryside with so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT). (PRTs are small units of between 80 and 200 people in which the military and civilians work together to provide security for the reconstruction effort.) 

With troops from more than 30 countries, NATO and the ISAF have been responsible for the relatively stable northern and western sectors of Afghanistan, where they conduct peacekeeping patrols and take part in reconstruction. At the same time, the United States has continued with its separate but parallel Operation Enduring Freedom, a high-intensity counter-insurgency campaign against suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda strongholds in the hazardous eastern and southern provinces. 

But NATO allies have been under pressure from the United States to assume a greater share of the burden in the tougher parts of Afghanistan so that Washington can withdraw some of the 18,000 American troops currently in the country. Some risk-averse members of NATO, including France, Germany and Spain, have been reluctant to take on a combat role in Afghanistan for fear of putting their troops in jeopardy. More stalwart allies, however, are beginning to fall into line. In this context, in December 2005 NATO approved a revised operational plan for ISAF. Also known as the ‘Stage 3 Expansion’, NATO has agreed to expand its mission into the volatile southern part of Afghanistan, and to increase by 6,000 the number of ISAF troops in the country. Thus as NATO gradually assumes greater responsibility for both peace-keeping as well as for counter-terrorism operations, its force levels will rise from 9,000 troops at present to 27,000 when expansion is complete (although the United States will continue to supply most of these troops). 

As ISAF expands into Afghanistan’s lawless south, however, NATO troops can expect to face fierce resistance from drug lords and warlords, Taliban insurgents and cross-border al-Qaeda terrorists. The United Kingdom, which will lead a new NATO multinational brigade taking over from the Americans, is expected to handle most of the higher-intensity fighting. Indeed, the decision by Britain to deploy some 4,000 of its troops to Helmand province, the heart of both Taliban resistance and opium production, was intended to inspire other NATO countries to come up with more troops too. 

In a major boost for trans-Atlantic relations (not to mention European credibility), on 2 February the Netherlands Parliament voted to approve the deployment of up to 1,700 Dutch troops into the rugged Oruzgan province, one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous regions, where they will join forces from Britain, Canada, Denmark and the United States. The Dutch troops will provide airmen and crews for Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets assigned to help protect reconstruction teams. 

But some analysts wonder if NATO is really capable of assuming control over southern Afghanistan. Indeed, most NATO troops are neither trained nor equipped to counter serious resistance from insurgents and drug lords. Moreover, NATO effectiveness and interoperability is hampered by notoriously nettlesome ‘national caveats’ that strictly limit what the troops from each individual contributing nation can do. In a February 2006 briefing titled ‘Afghan Insurgency Still a Potent Force’, the USIP says that: ‘Although NATO has approved more “robust” rules of engagement for its troops in its expanded mission, the organisation still lacks the capacity and the will to aggressively root out insurgent forces. Moreover, NATO foreign ministers have resisted any major role in counter-insurgency activities, insisting instead on a peace-keeping posture focused on “stabilisation and security” assistance for the Afghan government.’ 

In any case, the imminent withdrawal of significant numbers of American troops from Afghanistan presents a potentially daunting challenge for NATO. It also provides Washington with a convenient tool to hammer reluctant allies into modernising European defence and transforming NATO. 

The ‘Afghanistan Compact’ says that international forces will promote security and stability in all regions of Afghanistan ‘through end-2010’. It says that by then, the Afghan National Army (ANA) should have an established force of about 70,000 fully trained troops. But the commander of ISAF, Italian General Mauro del Vecchio, says it will take at least another decade before the fledgling ANA has that many troops. ‘The ISAF operation, the ISAF mission, probably will remain here in Afghanistan for seven to 10 years’, Del Vecchio said in February 2006. These concerns have been echoed by Emma Bonino, a former European Commissioner and the European Union’s chief election observer in Afghanistan. ‘Europe will be involved in Afghanistan for many more years –not just two or three years. This has to be made clear to European public opinion. We have to be transparent about this’, she said recently. 

A Destabilising Drug Problem
The illegal opium trade poses an even greater threat to the stability of
Afghanistan than do the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Despite spending millions of dollars to tackle the menace, the narcotics trade has skyrocketed to the point where it now is one of the most difficult and intractable challenges facing the Afghan government. The drugs trade accounts for more than 50% of Afghanistan’s legal gross domestic product and constitutes virtually all of its recordable exports, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The Afghan president has even warned that Afghanistan is in danger of turning into a failed narco-mafia state. ‘Drugs in Afghanistan are undermining the very existence of the Afghan state’, Karzai told the Berlin Donor’s Conference in 2004. 

Poppy cultivation has spread to nearly every corner of Afghanistan. According to the November 2005 edition of the Afghanistan Opium Survey, an annual UN report, the amount of land cultivated with poppies was 104,000 hectares in 2005 (compared with 8,000 hectares in 2001) and poppies were prevalent in almost all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Moreover, favourable weather conditions and low rates of plant disease in 2005 resulted in a 22% increase in yield per hectare over 2004, and the outlook for 2006 is even more troubling. In 2005, Afghanistan’s share of opium production was roughly 87% of the world total, representing 4,500 tons of the plants from which opium and heroin are derived. Afghanistan also produces one-third of the world’s supply of cannabis, and is second only to the top producer, which is Morocco. 

Afghanistan’s illegal drug economy is the main engine of economic growth, accounting for an estimated US$2.7 billion or 52% of GDP in 2005, according to UNODC. Between 20% and 30% of the Afghan population is involved directly or indirectly in the drug trade, which helps supplement subsistence-level incomes derived from other agriculture-based pursuits. Many of the Afghans involved in poppy cultivation previously participated in alternative livelihood programmes, but were unhappy with the US$2-a-day short-term projects like clearing irrigation ditches. The average gross income per hectare from opium cultivation exceeds that of wheat (the main alternative crop) by as much as 25 times. It also provides wages that are up to five times higher than market wages for rural unskilled labour. In poppy growing regions, average daily wages in 2005 for wheat harvesting were about US$3, compared with almost US$7 for opium harvesting. For many Afghans, therefore, drugs constitute the difference between modest prosperity and destitution. 

In February 2006, the Afghan Counter-Narcotics Ministry announced a revised strategy to fight illegal drugs in Afghanistan. It said the main goal of the Afghanistan National Drugs Control Strategy (NDCS) would be to decrease the cultivation, production, trafficking and consumption of illicit drugs with a view to complete and sustainable elimination. Based on the mutually reinforcing approaches of interdiction, eradication and alternative livelihoods, the NDCS aims to reduce opium poppy cultivation by 70% in five years and totally eliminate it in 10 years. 

Most analysts, however, believe such ambitious goals will be frustrated by reality. This is because eradication alone will not solve Afghanistan’s drug problem. To beat opium for good, Afghanistan needs to build an economy that provides its citizens with an annual income of at least US$1,800 per year (which equals the household average yearly gross income from opium of opium-growing families). As a measure of the task ahead, non-poppy farmers on average earned only US$500 in 2005. 

A Precarious Economic Situation
Afghanistan today is completely dependent on aid. Foreign assistance represents more than 90% of the national budget. Although the government has adopted responsible fiscal policies and revenue is increasing, at current rates of growth it will still take a decade or more for domestic revenues to cover the public wage bill. Moreover, rising pressure to inflate wages in line with market comparators could negate any gains made in stabilising the country’s fiscal base. 

Meanwhile, Afghanistan remains entrenched in poverty. Although billions of dollars have been spent, Afghanistan is still one of the world’s least developed countries. According to the 2004 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report for Afghanistan titled ‘Security with a Human Face: Challenges and Responsibilities’, Afghanistan ranks 173rd out of 178 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index. For every 1,000 babies born in Afghanistan, 142 die before their first birthday. Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate is among the highest in the world: an Afghan woman dies in pregnancy every half hour. Overall life expectancy is just under 45 years. Three-quarters of adults are illiterate: an estimated 79% of women and girls in Afghanistan cannot read, and in rural areas the figure reaches above 90%. 

More than one-third of rural families lack enough food for at least part of the year. In the capital, nearly 70% of the population in Kabul is unemployed, and there is almost no job creation. The average salary of a government worker is US$40, while the overall median monthly income for Afghan wage-earners is around US$30. That is just about one dollar a day, and most wage-earners have 10 or more family members to support. 

While wage levels remain stagnant for ordinary Afghans (even skilled public employees like teachers and doctors earn less than US$40 a month), there is a growing sentiment that much of the aid money has benefited corrupt officials and a small group of elites. These suspicions are bolstered by an ostentatious construction boom in Afghan cities that reflects the growing economic pretensions of the Afghan nouveau riche. The homes of several senior politicians (who earn between US$50 to US$100 a month) resemble small palaces with marble corridors, manicured lawns and dozens of armed guards. Even in provincial towns, opulent homes stand in stark contrast to the poverty around them. 

Indeed, the corruption, nepotism and drugs culture at senior levels of the Afghan government is so endemic that foreign donors are mostly bypassing the central government in Kabul when it comes to dispensing aid money. According to a report issued on 23 January by the World Bank titled ‘Managing Public Finances for Development in Afghanistan’, the Afghan government currently handles less than a quarter of the funds. The other three-quarters of the billions of dollars in external aid to Afghanistan are handed directly to NGOs. 

This has led to the real or perceived notion among ordinary Afghans that the more than 3,000 NGOs operating in their country have been profiting excessively from the aid money earmarked for Afghanistan. Karzai has accused foreign donors of spending vast amounts of cash on exorbitant salaries, security guards and fortified accommodations for aid workers, while carrying out development plans without involving Afghan ministries. Too much money is being spent ‘on high salaries, on overhead charges, on luxury vehicles, on luxury houses and lots of other luxuries that Afghanistan cannot afford’, Karzai said recently. 

The World Bank has called on the international community to direct more of its aid directly through the Afghan government, saying it is critical to consolidate the administration’s authority and capacity. But the dilemma facing donors was summed up by the Kabul Weekly, an independent Afghan newspaper: ‘If aid is given to NGOs, huge amounts go into their own expenditures. If it’s given to the Afghan government, the poor bureaucracy and corruption waste it.’ 

A Fragile Political System
Escalating insurgent violence in Afghanistan has placed the fledgling government there in greater peril than at any time since the US-led invasion, according to Lieutenant-General Michael Maples, director of the US Defence Intelligence Agency. ‘We judge insurgents now represent a greater threat to the expansion of Afghan government authority than at any point since late 2001 and will be active this spring’, Maples told the US Senate Armed Services Committee on 28 February. 

Taliban militants, however, have failed in their pledge to disrupt Afghanistan’s transition to democracy. The country’s first-ever presidential elections were held in October 2004, and parliamentary elections took place in September 2005. Foreign election observers said that the elections were hugely successful and proceeded with relatively little political violence. Moreover, a large number of candidates from a variety of ethnic, social and political backgrounds offered the electorate a wide choice of options for parliament. 

One of the key factors in the success of the elections, however, was the non-interference of drug lords and warlords in the provinces. In this context, the United States and its allies held back from implementing a heavy-handed opium poppy eradication programme for fear that the warlords would disrupt the elections. This has prompted some Afghans to accuse NATO of actually helping to consolidate the drug lords. In fact, NATO has focused mostly on reconstruction rather than on attacking the drug trade for fear of antagonising the general population. Instead, the onus of battling Afghanistan’s drug lords has been put on the Afghan authorities.

But the drug trade may even be reaching into the Afghan cabinet. According to the Afghan Anti-Narcotics Ministry, some cabinet members are deeply implicated in the drugs trade and could be diverting foreign aid into trafficking. Such high-level criminality would help account for why ‘a lot of trafficking through different parts of the country’ was being conducted with apparent impunity, the ministry said on 4 February.

Moreover, despite provisions in the Electoral Law stating that no individual who was a ‘commander or member of an illegal armed group’ would be allowed to run for office, it is estimated that between 60% and 80% of the parliamentarians elected in September 2005 are associated with warlords or former Mujahideen, or have some connection with armed groups. But disqualifying them would have given armed candidates incentives to undermine provincial elections, which threatened their positions in local power structures. Thus the chance to get elected to parliament was a major incentive for armed candidates to support peaceful elections.

Karzai hopes that having warlords who are regional powerbrokers in parliament will exert a stabilising influence on the provinces, over which the central government has little control. But their presence in parliament will complicate Karzai’s ability to take tougher action against high-ranking government officials or elected leaders who are implicated in drug trafficking. If lawlessness prevails among those who will make Afghanistan’s laws, the country may never see the establishment of the rule of law. Without the accountability that derives from the rule of law, the notoriously divided Afghanistan will not be able to build the cooperative society it needs to achieve political stability. And without political stability Afghanistan risks becoming a permanent ward of the international community.

Historians point out that the name Afghan is the plural of ‘feghan’, an Arab word meaning tumult. Thus Afghanistan literally signifies the ‘istan’ or land of the quarrelsome. Maybe Afghanistan is simply living up to its name, but does the international community have the staying power to actually rebuild the country?

Conclusion: Afghanistan is still a failed state in many aspects, and the problems it faces are all interlinked. The deteriorating security situation is tied to an insurgency that is being financed by narcotics. But illegal drugs pose an even greater threat to the stability of Afghanistan than does the insurgency, which does not have much public support. Indeed, unless Afghanistan gets control of the drug problem, which is corrupting all aspects of society, most redevelopment efforts in the country could be wasted. The only sustainable means to curtail the cultivation of opium poppies, however, is legitimate employment, which in turn requires economic growth. But economic growth depends upon stability and at present, the Afghan government is totally dependent upon outside help for security and for finances. Although remarkable progress has been made, most analysts agree: current trends are extremely disturbing and the international community should expect to be in Afghanistan for a long time.

Soeren Kern
Senior Analyst, the US and Transatlantic Dialogue, Elcano Royal Institute