On October 7, 2001, the international community, led by the US, stepped in to ‘liberate’ Afghanistan from the Taliban. Since then, billions of dollars have been spent on security and on rebuilding a country bombed out of the current century by 30 years of war. Yet, after five years of efforts, during which time the Taliban was ousted and the Karzai government installed, Afghanistan has hit its lowest point.
Security is spiralling out of control, poppy cultivation and the drug trade have hit a new high, governance remains confined to pockets of security and development has completely halted in some areas. For the first time, the international community is talking of the possibility of a ‘failed State’. The current year is being described as a critical period, one which will make or break the situation.
Milestones of progress are trotted out glibly by diplomats and politicians: children back in school, refugees returning to the country, the absence of the Taliban. The benchmarks of the Bonn process are also recounted as major accomplishments — a new Constitution, presidential elections and a new Parliament. Yet, despite the completion of the road- map, these efforts and institutions have not yielded the results hoped for.
Three years ago, the fact that the government’s authority extended only over Kabul was an object of mockery. But even that small oasis of comfort no longer exists. Bomb explosions are routine, there are frequent suicide attacks and kidnappings. Foreigners are considered a favourite target of anti-government insurgents and have been urged by their countries to curtail their movement. An increasing number of roads have been blocked off and there are new barbed wire fences and cement blocks outside offices and residences of foreigners. While glitzy malls and restaurants — some of which prohibit entry to Afghans — proclaim the advent of easy money in some sections, most of the country continues to lack the basics.
Nothing illustrates the unravelling of the Afghan effort better than the ongoing blame game. Whether it is the Afghan government, the diplomatic community or the international military forces, each has its favourite reason: lack of money, lack of security, corruption, an ineffectual President, the drug trade.
Yet, most of the anger among Afghans seems to stem not from resentment about lack of international aid and support, but from a perception of its misuse. The real question is not whether things have not improved for some people, but whether the reconstruction of the last five years could have been delivered better.
“Few expected the international community to fix all these problems in five years,” says Fariba Nawa, an Afghan American, in a critique of the reconstruction process that she did for CorpWatch, a US watchdog body. “But taxpayers do expect their aid money to be spent responsibly,” she adds. According to Senlis Council, a think-tank, “Afghans perceive that their government is accountable to international donors and not to the Afghans themselves.”
Focus on poverty relief and development could have created a solid foundation on which to rebuild Afghanistan, it says. Instead, $ 82.5 million was spent on military operations as opposed to $ 7.3 billion on development (since 2002). Even money spent on reconstruction has been “mismanaged, misused and wasted”, says Nawa, “International and national aid agencies have designed a system that in effect funnels money back to the wealthy donor countries without providing sustainable development in poor states.”
The effort is on having projects up and running rather than on the sustainability of projects or community engagement. An example was the pressure on deadlines before the presidential elections in both the US and Afghanistan. Since Afghanistan was to be presented as a success story, it was imperative to have achievements in numbers. But it is not just roads, school buildings and ill thought-out income generation projects that have paid the price for the short-sightedness. There has been little effort to build and strengthen the institutions of State.
The international community has reposed its faith on the instrument of the presidency alone, often strengthening it at the cost of other institutions. This was best illustrated during the parliamentary elections. A Brussels-based think tank, International Crisis Group, wrote: “The Single Non-Transferable Voting (SNTV) system used in the 2005 legislative election all but excluded political parties vital for the development of a robust democracy. Karzai has done all he can to marginalise these parties, leaving him isolated and dependent on unstable alliances in a fragmented body.”
Efforts on the security front have been equally myopic. Though billions have been spent on military expenditure, little has gone into rebuilding and stabilising institutions of security within the country — the police, the judiciary and the Afghan National Army.
Warlords, often with records of abuse of human rights to match the Taliban’s excesses, have been co-opted in the hope that they will deliver quick results against the war on terror, at the cost of stabilisation of the country.
The result is a slow unravelling of faith, bringing the country once again to a dangerous brink where it could pose a serious threat to the world.
Aunohita Mojumdar is a freelance journalist currently based in Kabul