Tuesday, April 12, 2005

# Posted 3:50 AM by Patrick Belton  

FROM OUR DASHING, LONG-LOST AFGHANISTAN CORRESPONDENT: 'We love you, Afghan correspondent' - a reader and real live teenage girl. I've been back in Afghanistan for the last five months -- deep in southern Afghanistan, actually, administering a mass employment program to keep the bottom from dropping out of the local farm economy when the poppy eradicators arrive. Due to the sensitivities of my job, I haven't been able to send regular updates, and I'm not going to enter into any great detail now. But here are some comments to accompany the few photos that I'm sending to Patrick. (and that he'll post up soon, he promises - ed.)

These months have introduced me to the Pashtun heartland of the country -- the irrigated desert and mountain areas that initially welcomed the Taliban with open arms, and are now divided on whether to welcome the new government of Karzai. It's a country where young women flinch from your eyes and young men swear they would die for you; where old men roll out their prayer rugs in a field of (religiously prohibited) opium poppy; where the warlords and local drug barons fence cautiously with the new powers of the Afghan National Army and the international occupying forces; where some farmers thrive on grand irrigation systems built by America in the fifties, and others lower themselves fifty meters into the earth, carving two-foot-wide tunnels by candlelight in order to get enough water for bare subsistence agriculture many kilometers away. Working here has been intense, and inspiring, and thought-provoking.

It's hard at times to pierce the superficial hospitality and get to what people really believe and feel about the new order. I've been working in districts that neighbor on Mullah Omar's hometown. During the mujahidin era, they produced fratricidal, drug-trafficking, arch-conservative commanders (one of whose sons is now a major provincial governor). During the Taliban era, they produced conscripts and recruits for the new movement -- first for the campaign to restore order to the Pashtun south, then to conquer the corrupt and fractious north (as it's seen down here). But now war-weariness and the desire for calm seems as prevalent here as anywhere. When I talk to villagers, they mention how glad they are that pseudo-official bands of armed men are no longer able to stop cars on the road or roam the countryside, extorting at will. The UN-led disarmament program has had a noticeable impact even in these areas. Guns still abound, crime is common, and the police in most places are barely-domesticated militias who (in the memorably awful words of a colleague) "haven't quite lost their habit of sitting around, smoking lots of hashish and raping little boys." But for all that, the power of the gunmen and the chaos of the war years have diminished greatly, and people believe they will continue to diminish.

This bears emphasis, in contrast to the unwarranted hysteria of some of the commentary I read on Afghanistan ("an electoral-narco-gulag-permanent-base dependency," passim). Many people still don't understand just how bad things were in Afghanistan, or how hard it is to find the traction to begin rebuilding a country from such a low base. Look at the stats on
where Afghanistan is now (poverty, infant mortality, kidnappings, repression of women, impunity for murderers), and of course it's appalling, of course it's a dependency -- four years ago it was a textbook failed state. Look at the trajectory of the place, and there's reason for much hope.

News reports claiming that the US has set up a network of secret and lawless prisons in Afghanistan are dreadful, if accurate. But these prisons do not impinge on the average Afghan, and my firm impression is that (as with the initial arrival of the Taliban) the great majority of people in this country would bear with considerably more human rights violations if they thought peace would result. The Bush administration's contempt for the Geneva Conventions should be a source of shame to Americans everywhere, but it does not endanger the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the prospect of permanent US bases in the country is greeted with tremendous relief by most Afghans I talk to, whose primary fear at the moment is that America "will abandon us again as they did in the 1990s." And the international military presence throughout the country is becoming ever more international, as US Provincial Reconstruction Teams retire and are replaced by Canadians, Italians, Brits. The securing and rebuilding of Afghanistan is not the simple act of American empire perceived by many critics.

The canard that Hamid Karzai is "only the mayor of Kabul" also grows less supportable by the month. The great majority of provincial governors, including many warlords and clients of warlords, have been replaced this year by Karzai's order. I have personally seen the anxiety in the eyes of governors and district heads at the prospect of the "mayor of Kabul" finding out that their poppy eradication efforts have been inadequate. I've seen the impact when the governor and two of his major local rivals are "DDRed" (the UN's disarmament program has become a common Afghan verb), losing power vis-a-vis the center. The most notorious major commanders, Ismael Khan, Mohammad Fahim, and Abdul Rashid Dostum, remain powerful men, but all are clearly following Karzai's lead, not vice versa. A mere year ago this outcome would have been considered wildly improbable.

Karzai's main electoral opponent from last year, Yunus Qanuni, has formed a "loyal opposition" party to contest the parliamentary elections. These will doubtless be messy and noisy, and probably attended by serious Taliban attempts at disruption -- the insurgents know how much credibility they lost when the presidential elections went off without a hitch. But given the continuing marginalization of the Pushtun insurgents, the steady trickle of Taliban commanders "coming in from the cold," and the non-violent tenor of political competition between factions over the last few months, I think the parliamentary elections are likely to be, on the whole, another small success.

Finally, on the issue of the narco-economy: it's cause for concern, but not panic. In five years, if the best efforts of the international donor community haven't provided real alternatives (crops and credit) to the opium economy, then it'll be time to make comparisons between Afghanistan and Colombia. For now, of course the farmers are planting poppy -- their land has been degraded, their roads and other infrastructure devastated. They need a crop that gets maximum profit per acre and doesn't perish en route from farm to market. They also need credit; a loan up front from poppy traders is a major incentive to get into the cultivation business. We can provide these things. I've found farmers to be generally interested if skeptical when presented with alternative crops, and very interested in alternative sources of income and credit to keep them out of the traffickers' debt in the first place.

Poppy cultivation is going to drop this year, though after last year's bumper crop, that's not saying much. The US and Afghan government eradication efforts have targeted the provinces that cultivated the most opium last year. In the two most populous of these provinces (southern Helmand and eastern Nangarhar) this has had a major impact. The governors and local authorities in Helmand and Nangarhar have reduced overt opium cultivation by at least 60% (though in remote valleys and inside walled compounds, large poppy fields persist). This will likely mean an increase in districts with weaker government control (Orozgan and Ghor in central-southern Afghanistan, Paktika, Khost, and Kunar in the east), but overall there will be less poppy cultivation this year. Can this be sustained next year without social unrest? That'll depend on the state of the Afghan economy, and whether people believe there are alternatives.

None of this is victory, and it's far too early for triumphalism. But enthusiasm, continued commitment, and some degree of optimism -- these are I think proper attitudes when considering the situation in Afghanistan.
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Counsel from elders seems to be a lost treasure. Lost are lessons learned that may contain pearls of wisdom that could have benefited the seeker. Having survived my share of hazardous crossings, I am pleased to be able to share a thought or two. The main lesson is to keep on learning. Read and seek out other points of view like visiting your blog. Finding what is ultimately important has lead me to appreciate actuality, efficiency and mindfulness. Helping others to see some of the forest through the trees is a rewarding benefit of age and maturity. happy thoughts
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