Times Online Afghan Special--Part 2

Messy, fragile, undemocratic — a new ideal for a new Afghanistan
In the second of six special reports, The Times considers what sort of regime the West can hope to leave behind

The election controversy presents Western backers with their greatest crisis in Afghanistan since 2001

Tom Coghlan

The queues snaked out of polling stations from dawn, in defiance of Taleban threats. In the central Bamiyan highlands, women in burkas struggled through knee-deep snow to vote.

Within a few days it was clear that Hamid Karzai, a candidate whose appeal reached, uniquely, across ethnic divisions, and who was a member of the majority Pashtun ethnicity, had been elected on a 70 per cent turnout with a clear mandate to rule.

That was 2004.

Fast-forward five years to last month’s presidential elections and the picture was very different. Disillusionment and the threat of Taleban attack combined to push overall voter turnout down to an estimated 30 per cent; much lower still in the south of the country. There were more than 450 attacks on election day.
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“The Taleban are patrolling the area. Nobody voted and nobody could vote,” said Haji Ahmad Shah Khan, a tribal elder in Helmand, speaking from the safety of his home.

Within days, however, Mr Karzai was again claiming victory with an overall majority. This time, though, his assertions were being countered by evidence of colossal, state-sponsored fraud on his behalf affecting 1.5 million of the five million votes cast.

The controversy presents Afghanistan’s Western backers with their greatest crisis in the country since 2001 and throws a spotlight across an increasingly murky political landscape that raises the question: what sort of state is the West hoping to see established here? What is possible? Even if the military can begin to reverse the spread of Taleban influence, what will fill the void?

The challenges to creating a viable Afghan state are huge. The Karzai Government is built on a highly centralised model, fragile to the point of being barely functional in many parts of the country — and wildly corrupt. Also, this is the fifth-poorest country on Earth.

Since Mr Karzai took the helm in 2004, Afghanistan has slumped from 117th to 172nd in the Transparency International index of corrupt states. There are 179 nations on the list. To compound the damage, the President’s brother and right-hand man in the south of the country, Ahmad Wali Karzai, is routinely named by Western officials as a central figure in the country’s drug economy.

The opium trade, worth almost $4 billion (£2.5 billion) and equivalent to a third of the economy, represents an unrivalled driver for corruption and a warping, hugely destructive influence on the country’s finances as a whole.

A year ago Western counter-narcotics officials estimated that border police commanders working key drug-smuggling routes could expect to earn as much as $400,000 in bribes to “go to sleep” for a single drug convoy. The salary for such officials is $800 a month. While the cost of living in Kabul for a family is at least $200, a basic government salary is between $50 and $60.

In the Afghan capital, nearly $20 billion in aid and concerted Western training efforts have produced some recent signs of improvements to local policing, and the provision of basic services. Western diplomats claim that the most recent Cabinet of President Karzai is the most capable to date.

However, one senior Western official estimates that the country can boast no more than 200 literate and capable bureaucrats; a stark contrast to the thousands trained by Saddam Hussain’s regime in Iraq.

Basic literacy rates in Afghanistan hover around the 30 per cent mark; in Helmand, around 5 per cent — a situation that will take at least a generation to remedy. The country is permanently beset by a brain drain as its limited talent pool seeks employment abroad. At the same time, a high birthrate is producing a population in which almost 70 per cent of Afghans are under the age of 25, with few employment opportunities.

The Government is able to deliver some basic services in the major cities but they are almost entirely absent in rural areas, where the majority of the highly conservative and tribal populace lives. In Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand, government departments are little more than the fiefdoms of whichever tribe or warlord has been able to wrest control of them, according to British officials.

Despite international efforts, the Government’s income from tax and duty last year was less than $900 million. That is a dramatic improvement on 2004, when revenues were $118 million, but Afghanistan will not be able to cover even its basic recurrent costs for many years, particularly if the West doubles the nominal size of the country’s security forces to a planned 400,000.

In many areas, particularly the insurgency-hit south of the country, a war economy is entrenched in which rival criminal networks compete for drug revenues, control of smuggling routes and the highways, extortion revenues and control of scarce natural resources. Many of these warlords and commanders are also government officials.

Western leaders such as Tony Blair focused initially on the extreme intolerance and human rights abuses of the Taleban, particularly in relation to women’s rights, as a justification for changing the very fabric of Afghan society.

These days, however, the international community has largely abandoned such high-flown ambitions. The social values of the Taleban are much closer to the majority of Afghans than many of the values that the West has sought to foster in the country.

Tribal elders across the south of the country routinely talk about “human rights” as evidence of a Western assault on Afghan cultural and Islamic values. Some analysts now ask if noble Western intentions are simply a recruiting sergeant for the insurgency. “Dreams of radically changing the population should be let go of,” admits one diplomat with more than a decade in the country.

Westerners who have worked in Afghanistan since before 2001 see a steady erosion of what were genuine Afghan hopes for a new beginning and a new government system after the US-led invasion. With uncertainty and instability growing, Afghans are in danger of falling back on the structures of the country’s civil war era: tribe and ethnicity. Some analysts now expect a potential tipping point — though not immediately — after which a civil war could again break out between the different ethnicities.

The conclusion is an obvious one. Even if things go well from here, the dream of a stable, democratic, tolerant and self-sustaining Afghanistan is not likely to be realised within a decade; probably not within three decades. Instead, the best that the international community can hope for is likely to be messy, fractious and austere. It may also be either a theocratic or autocratic state.

Certainly, if the West is going to continue to pursue the mission, it is going to require very considerable long-term financial support from the international community.


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