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AFGHAN HEADACHES
16/02/07
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Pyotr Goncharov)

It has become bad form not to lash out at NATO and the United States for
their actions in Afghanistan. Many analysts are convinced that NATO’s
affairs there could not get any worse, and that the U.S. is getting bogged
down there like it is in Iraq; that the situation in Afghanistan is going
from bad to worse; that NATO and the U.S. are repeating the Soviet Union’s
mistakes and are doomed to the same fate. However, I believe these
assessments are not quite fair.

Needless to say, Afghanistan is going through troubled and sensitive times.
The nation has been in the process of consolidation for the last five
years, since the rout of the Taliban from Kabul. Today, the situation has
reached a boiling point. On the one hand, the reformers want to build a
modern democratic society in an Islamic framework that will be based on
universal human values and will therefore be largely secular; on the other
hand, the Taliban and their eternal opponents, the Mujahideen (war lords),
would like to return Afghanistan to their own versions of the past.

Today, the balance has clearly tilted in favor of the reformers, and now
the main goal is to keep this success going. During his meeting with
Russian experts in Moscow in early February, Ambassador Christopher
Alexander, deputy special representative of the United Nations secretary
general for Afghanistan, outlined two obvious trends now underway. First,
the Taliban has become markedly more active; second, the economy and social
relations are getting better, and, most importantly, Afghan society is
undergoing consolidation. There are some grounds for these conclusions.

In 2006, the Afghan economy grew by 10%-12%. I will disappoint the cynics
right away: this growth has nothing to do with drug trafficking. It
resulted from the intensive development of communications and construction,
including road building, and trade.

Agriculture, the economy’s backbone, is showing signs of hope. Before, it
seemed to have been shattered beyond repair. For the first time in 10 to 15
years, Afghan peasants had a surplus of produce, meager as it was, for
export to neighboring Pakistan and India.

Credit for this success goes to the financial support Kabul receives from
donors around the world, first and foremost, the Afghan assistance package
agreed upon in London in February 2006. Essentially, this is a five-year
contract between Afghanistan and the world to revive the former’s economy
by providing $10.5 billion in aid.

Importantly, it provides support to the Afghan national solidarity program,
whose primary objective is to invigorate government agencies at the
grassroots level. Up to now they have been the weakest link in the process
of Afghanistan’s recovery.

Under the program, local authorities at the level of shuras (councils) of
kishlaks (villages) and regions submit their development plans for
consideration by the Afghan Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and
Development and international sponsors. These plans provide for repairs of
roads and bridges, construction of schools, paramedical centers, hospitals,
and irrigation facilities. The international organizations earmark up to
$50,000 to every recipient of aid, and monitor the spending. The ministry
has received a total of $650 million. The program has already covered more
than 17,000 of Afghanistan’s 34,000 kishlaks. Indicatively, women are
active on the local shuras, and not only in Kabul’s suburbs, but also in
eastern provinces, such as Paktia.

Consolidation is a painful process for the nation, because it is bound to
run into a huge obstacle: the Pashtuns’ historical dominance will run up
against the growing role of national minorities, first and foremost,
Tajiks, Hazara, and Uzbeks. These minorities were predominant in the
Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban, and now that they have come to
power, they are reluctant to share it with Pashtuns. This problem is not
unsolvable, but it requires time.

Afghans themselves believe that the government in Kabul has substantially
enhanced security in the country’s northern, western, and central
provinces. A car ride from Herat to Kabul is a routine event now. The
situation in all northern provinces is about the same, but it is much worse
in the south and southwest, where the Taliban have become much more
active.

Thus in 2006 more than 2,000 militants took part in hostilities on the
Taliban’s side. In effect, these were army operations. The number of
terrorist attacks with explosives grew substantially, and there were 176
suicide bombings (in 2005, the relevant figure was no more than 100). The
past year set a record in the number of victims – more than 4,000 dead,
compared with about 1,000 in 2005.

In the early stages of its counterterrorist campaign, the U.S. considerably
weakened the Taliban’s influence in the south and southeast of Afghanistan.
The latter started increasing their influence mostly in the
Pashtun-inhabited south for both objective and subjective reasons. But one
of the main factors in the Taliban’s revival was the support it received
from some quarters in Pakistan’s political establishment and radical
Islamic movements.

This question is very sensitive for Afghanistan. Many local experts believe
that Britain and China, which have levers of influence on Islamabad, should
increase their efforts to end this support.

Today, there are two foreign military structures in Afghanistan: American
troops and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force with a total
strength of 43,000. But today Afghanistan needs not only – and maybe not so
much – military aid, as political and economic assistance from the world
community.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily coincide with
those of the editorial board. -0-