War-weary struggling for stability

Olivia Ward
The Toronto Star

Afghanistan's decades-long trek through the mire of poverty and mayhem could be shortened by a push from the international community, which has pledged $10.5 billion (U.S.) in aid to move the war-devastated country further along the road to recovery.
The Dutch parliament's decision to send up to 1,400 troops to Afghanistan, joining some 2,200 Canadian forces, added to the positive momentum.
"This struggle for stability is not a choice," said Canadian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Harder, pointing out the readiness of Afghans and the international community to see the country through its perilous transition.
This week's two-day conference in London, representing nearly 70 nations and international bodies, gave an overwhelming vote of confidence to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in his bid for economic and political progress.
But in spite of declarations of success from Karzai and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, there was quiet concern behind the scenes that the pledges fell short of what is needed for such massive reconstruction plans, and that some of the money might not be delivered.
"After being forced to sacrifice so much in war, the Afghan people have willingly given even more to peace," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. "They expect a peace dividend. And they deserve it."
For the Afghan government, short of good news as a violent insurgency continues to escalate, there was reason for rejoicing. Its biggest bonus was gaining more control over the country's destiny, widely recognized as a step in the right direction.
The compact endorsed in London would allow the Afghan government to set its own agenda rather than relying on programs imposed by outsiders — the dozens of governments and international institutions, and hundreds of aid groups that poured into the country after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban in 2001.
If successful, the new plan would strengthen the authority of Karzai's government, which could create jobs, improve vital services and restore Afghans' confidence in the future.
Even in Kabul, which has seen the greatest progress since the fall of the Taliban, spirits of many Afghans are low, according to Emma Bonino, the European Union's chief election observer.
"Most of the city's inhabitants are without power, bar a few hours every second or third day," she wrote online in openDemocracy. "Although huge amounts of international money have been spent on civic infrastructure, material improvements have lagged behind, bringing scant relief to a largely dispirited population, who lack basic commodities and struggle daily with soaring prices."
Until now, the bulk of aid money has gone to non-governmental organizations over which Afghans have no control. And although huge strides have been made in rebuilding public works, medical services, educational facilities and the political system, experts say it is time to move to a new stage of development that will bring more immediate benefits to Afghanistan's people.
"The conference allows the government, in principle at least, to determine the state-building, growth and poverty-reduction agenda, rather than relying on a multiplicity of donor investment programs, many of which are poorly co-ordinated," says Peter Middlebrook, a specialist in post-conflict reconstruction.
But the difficulties facing Afghanistan, a state that tottered for decades under war and unstable governments before collapsing under the ultra-authoritarian rule of the Taliban, are of a magnitude seldom faced by a single government, or by the international community.
To some, the biggest problem to be tackled is the economy, to others it's out-of-control violence. Still others point out the root-and-branch effects of a fragmented political system that has put a central government and parliament in place but is influenced as much by warlords as politicians in Kabul.
One of the most pressing issues is Afghanistan's burgeoning opium economy, officially 37 per cent of the country's GNP, but in reality providing more than half of its annual earnings, according to analysts.
Without an infrastructure that would allow new industries to take hold, roads to transport goods and reliable water and electrical systems, there is little hope of replacing the lucrative poppy industry — which supplies nearly 90 per cent of the world's opium and heroin — with legitimate agriculture or of finding paying jobs for subsistence farmers.
Afghanistan's five-year plan for redevelopment tabled at the London conference promises to upgrade the country's main roads between Central and South Asia, to improve regional and Kabul airports, and to bring electricity to 65 per cent of urban and 25 per cent of rural homes by 2010.
It would also make a "substantial annual increase" in seizures of illegal drugs as well as in the arrest and prosecution of traffickers and corrupt officials.
But, says Parvina Nadjibulla, a board member of Women for Afghan Women in New York, the side effects of destroying poppy crops may be dire.
"More and more, there is an effort to convince farmers, by force or persuasion, to stop cultivating poppies. But they have to borrow money in order to grow their crops, and when the crops are finished, they still have debts to pay. Some revert to selling their daughters."
The new five-year plan would create functioning justice institutions by the end of 2010, including prisons with separate facilities for women and juveniles — a major feat that would require education and training of lawyers and judges as well as physical reconstruction.
Worsening security problems — including terrorism that caused some 1,600 deaths last year — must also be tackled. That depends on international and Afghan troops, the latter set to triple to 70,000.
In the past, experts say, aid money has hurt as well as helped Afghanistan. Donations built schools, hospitals, clinics and other urgently needed projects but provided no economic foundation for supporting them over the long term.
"The international community has recognized that the government of Afghanistan is in a position to take ownership and to come up with initiatives to lead the nation, and implement its own development strategy," said Wahidullah Shahrani, Afghanistan's deputy finance minister, after the London conference. "We are very satisfied with this outcome."