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Last Updated: 11/03/2005
Afghanistan Beyond Bonn: Keep the Champagne Corked
Alex Strick van Linschoten

Recent elections in Afghanistan went off without a hitch, but the country - currently with a development ranking of 172 out of 178 - is still very much in the woods. The crime rate is high and poppy cultivation is on the rise. Insurgency violence is growing as well, with 50 US soldiers killed in the first half of 2005, compared to 60 soldiers killed in the first three years following the 2001 invasion. Even as the newness of the Afghan mission fades, the international community should dig in: There've a long way to go yet.

It's not over. Reports that Afghanistan is at peace, articles on the "establishment of democracy" are everywhere in western media. However these claims, too often made by journalists 'in the field' just long enough to get the dateline for big events like the recent elections, must be read in the context of a continually emerging state of civil war.

The Bonn conference in December 2001 after the collapse of Taliban rule envisaged, "the establishment of a broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government", which has in theory taken place. The most important aim of that same conference, though, was the establishment of peace and security in the country. Yet the elements of war still exist, and only the presence of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) has prevented possible civil war. Democracy has arrived in Afghanistan only in name. The reality is much messier, particularly in the south and east.

Parliamentary and Provincial Elections

After the 2001 'coalition' bombing campaign, Bonn outlined the establishment of a national police force and army. An emergency loya jirga (grand council) formally confirmed Hamid Karzai as leader (June 2002) and a subsequent jirga gave the country a new constitution. Presidential elections last October made Karzai Afghanistan's first democratically-elected president.

The polls that took place on 18th September 2005 were the final stage of the Bonn Agreement, laying the foundations of an emerging democratic state, all the institutions of which Afghanistan now has. An estimated 12.5 million Afghans aged over 18 were eligible to vote in a dual-election - for the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People, or lower house of parliament) and for the 34 provincial councils (which, aside from a local administrative role, nominates candidates for the Meshrano Jirga (House of the Elders, or upper house of parliament).

Wolesi Jirga (House of the People): 249 seats/2815 nominated

Meshrano Jirga (House of the Elders): 1 representative from each provincial council (34 total) 1 representative from each district council (34 total) 34 Presidential appointees

The polls were postponed from last spring because there aren't census details reliable enough to estimate relative distributions of population. These would have been used to allocate the number of positions for each district. UN workers estimate a further 2-4 years work on this before accurate census details are available.

There were attacks on voters at registration points during the summer before the polls, but relatively little violence - certainly not the bloodbath some had predicted - during the election. Seven parliamentary candidates and six election workers were killed during the two-month campaign before the vote. Bombs were found, and some election centres (notably one in Kunar) were attacked by armed groups. An atmosphere of intimidation, too, was reported in rural areas.

The JEMB (Joint Electoral Management Body) coordinated sponsors who funded free airtime for election candidates (approximately 50 percent of which took up the offer of a two-minute radio or television spot) costing an estimated $600,000. About 45 candidates were excluded at the last minute, some for "links to illegal armed groups". This, however, didn't stop the inclusion of a former Taliban official responsible for the "promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice" and a woman spurred to contest the seat by the memory of being whipped by the same official's religious police in Kabul.

The biggest surprise of the election was the low turnout. Fifty-three percent (approximately 6.8 million) of those eligible voted, with Kabul sinking to a low of 32 percent. Compare this with previous votes: 90 percent of eligible voters turned out in the loya jirga representative election, and over 70 percent during the presidential elections.

Fears for security were undoubtedly one of the reasons for this unexpected drop. But why, then, was Kabul's rate so low, when the situation is wholly better than in southern and eastern provinces? The presence of warlords and human rights abusers on the candidate list was claimed as a reason not to vote by many. Karzai himself was prompted to respond to critics of these unwelcome participants, saying that voters must, through the democratic process, if they wish, exclude such persons through the vote. At the time of writing, at least two former Taliban officials have won seats in the Wolesi Jirga.

Possibly the most convincing reason for the low turnout, though, is a disillusionment with the political process stemming from an incredulity at the government's false promises. Rising corruption among government officials, the slow pace of reconstruction, and a poor grasp of the security situation are among these complaints. Funds from other countries were spent on the technical and logistical aspects of holding the loya jirgas, running elections, creating the mechanism for disarmament, and improving security. None of this has brought any great change to the lives of ordinary people.

Other contributing factors included the huge candidate list in Kabul (with some 400 candidates to choose from), a lack of understanding on the part of some of why they're going back to the polls so soon again, and the fact that public outreach and education before the election was sporadic at best. In rural areas, it often simply did not occur. Much of the country, we recall, has no experience with voting. The last time Afghanistan saw anything similar was 35 years ago.

The basic idea is simple. One person gets one vote, for the candidate deemed best suited to be elected. The implications of this are harder to grasp. For example, if lots of voters vote for one candidate (especially in areas with many voters like Kabul) then other candidates may get in on correspondingly low numbers of votes. Similarly with women: in provinces with few voters and few female candidates one vote may be enough to get someone into parliament, as 25 percent of candidates must be female. The party system is perhaps better, but Karzai is known to be against that, and there is a strong association of parties with war and armed groups.

Allegations of fraud have been common since the elections, with claims of family members miscounting in favour of their kin, as well as blank ballots being falsely doctored and added. It is largely this (the official complaints submitted to the election authorities) that is responsible for the delay in the release of official results - originally promised for October 22nd.

The real problem for Afghanistan probably lies in that there were 5763 candidates, which means that 5006 have not won a seat. Although the result of this is unlikely to be a return to internecine civil war, it is probable that between the time when results are announced and the time when the wolesi jirga sits in the temporary parliament building for its first session (unlikely to be soon) there will be an upsurge in violence throughout the country.

Beyond Elections: The rise in violence

Those in command of the 20,000 US soldiers in the country insist publicly that they are still fighting "remnants of the Taliban regime", a phrase the usage of which experience in Iraq by now ought to inform. The government is, however, in negotiations (initially secret, just as the current negotiations with the insurgency in Iraq are being conducted secretly, belying the claims that the problems are only with "remnants") with the Taliban, most visibly in Paktiya and Khost, with a hope to bringing them into the political process. The "Allegiance" programme was set up recently to allow insurgents who back Karzai publicly to return to their homes without arrest. The top fifty or so leaders are excluded from such amnesty.

The general pattern, though, is one of increased Taliban control. The governor of Zabul recently acknowledged that at least four districts of his province were under insurgent control by night. "Night letters" (leaflets which threaten those who support the government), such as were distributed during the Soviet occupation, are relatively common around the country. Travel after dark (even on the main roads like that between Kabul and Kandahar) is seen by most Afghans as foolish and asking for trouble, though more on account of banditry than due to threat of kidnapping (though this too has been reported).

Insurgency violence has increased in the south and east. Roughly 1,300 (largely resistance fighters) have been killed by this upsurge. Similar conclusions may be drawn from US casualty figures: around 50 troops were killed in the first half of 2005, whereas in the first three years since 2001 only 60 were killed.

A recent report (In the Balance, September 2005, CSIS) stated prominently that "crime is the chief security concern of Afghans - not the Taliban or Al-Qaeda". Indeed, fellow Afghan travellers repeatedly told me throughout winter and summer that they were more concerned by the threat of banditry. In Kandahar city, the lowest estimates suggest that 2 children are kidnapped per week, with the figure probably much higher as normally they go unreported. This worrying estimate was behind the March 2005 demand and consequent demonstrations for the resignation of Kandahar's then-governor.

The spectre of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is one that should be more unsettling to international observers, however, as well as Afghans themselves. BBC estimates of active insurgent forces are at 2000 Taliban and several hundred followers of the fundamentalist Hekmatyar in the East.

A policy of assassination seemed also to take shape over the summer. Members and scholars on the Ulema Council of Afghanistan were targeted, with two killed in Kandahar, one in Helmand and one in Paktiya. Recently, Mullah Maulvi Ahmed Khan was killed in Khost on 15th October. In separate incident, Ashraf Ramazan, an election candidate for Balkh who seems to have won 97 percent of the ballots, was gunned down with one of his bodyguards, and since his murder, the governor of the province has been accused of involvement in the murder. There have been demonstrations (primarily among his Hazara supporters) in Mazar-e Sharif as well as Kabul.

The alleged improvement in Afghan-Pakistani relations is a related development. Karzai recently returned from a visit to Pakistan, however there is a persistent sore-spot on account of allegations (from many sides, though most vociferously from leading Pakistani opposition politicians) that the government is supporting the destabilisation of southern Afghanistan. This takes the form of providing logistical and material support to jihadis in the border area of Waziristan (the tribal belt straddling the Afghan border) as well as by turning a blind eye to training camps within the country.

The Legacy of Iraq

Numerous reports indicate that part of the explanation for the upsurge in violence must include an account of support from Iraq's flourishing insurgency movement. Feared and denied in equal measure by US military officials, it has become clear that Afghans have received training and support from those involved in the resistance against American occupation in Iraq.

Claims of new weapons are hard to confirm. The Taliban claim that they possess ground-to-air missiles now, taking away America's advantage in the air. The downing of a Chinook helicopter in June, as well as that of a Spanish helicopter in August in Herat both suggest new tactics at the very least.

Indeed this has partly taken the form of suicide bombings, previously unknown in Afghanistan. A large bomb in Kandahar - killing 20 in a mosque attending a funeral service for a anti-Taliban cleric - was the first in a series of attacks. The Afghan government has claimed that Arabs were responsible for these attacks, though it must be stressed that it is difficult to confirm this, and they would undoubtedly prefer this interpretation. There have been credible reports, too, of an 'Arab contingent' in the south.

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) of the type seen in Iraq are increasingly common, and better coordinated. Kidnappings, too, are more widespread. Al-Qaeda forces are particularly strong in Kunar, where US forces have had massive losses. BBC reports detail distribution of videos of Iraqi beheadings of kidnappees, as well as instruction manuals for IEDs and suicide bombing of the type issued in Iraq.

Most recently, a Newsweek report detailed 'training courses' offered to Afghan commanders and located in Iraq. Participants describe new tactics and techniques and a renewed enthusiasm upon their return. Traveling through Iran, they are aided by Baluchi drug smugglers, and claim they were taken to Ramadi and Fallujah, as well as other desert training camps. One tactic that seems to have come this way from Iraq is the use of armour piercing 'television bombs' with precisely directed and focused ordnance used on tanks.

The South, The South...

These problems are largely confined to the south and east of the country, in the Pashtun ethnic belt. Issues concerning the Pashtuns ought to some degree be separated from a discussion of a resurgence of Taliban/Al-Qaeda attacks. The negative effects of the 1893 Durand treaty, responsible for the separation of huge swathes of fellow Pashtun groups, still resonate with many in the south, even if dreams of an independent Pashtunistan are less than likely to be realised.

Then as now, we may observe on the part of the occupiers a subordination of long-term considerations to narrow, perceived short-term strategic interests. In short, US ignorance of southern history and culture is jeopardising the whole effort down in the south.

In the 1970s, moderates who engaged in attempts to bridge the diplomatic border (such as Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the "Frontier Ghandi") were met with persecution and violence. As Vanni Cappelli points out, "there can be no understanding of the religious extremism that pervades large areas of northern Pakistan today without coming to terms with this brutal suppression of a popular democratic movement of the opposite character by a major Western nation and its clients" (The Alienated Frontier: Orbis vol 49 number 4, Fall 2005). For Afghan refugees during the Soviet occupation, education was filtered through a "jihadi prism", leading to the inevitable "radicalisation of the countryside".

Nowadays, alienation comes from the perceived US renegement on their promise to bring security - this in a culture that values verbal agreements very highly. This is coupled with widespread reports of abuses: torture and homicide in US jails, needless civilian deaths, forced detention of villages en masse, as well as household searches that offend tribal custom. As history shows with regard to the south, the force- based approach is clearly inefficient. Already, and actually for some time now, Pashtun friends in the south have been stressing to me that US forces are their "guests" (according to their traditions of malmastia) in the country, which will not, however, be tolerated as a permanent presence.

Problems are being stirred up by the Pakistani policy of encouraging Pashtun fundamentalism in order to prevent thoughts of autonomy for the Pashtuns. Further to this, there is strong resentment across the border at brutal Pakistani army campaigns since spring 2004. The US - who took responsibility for the suppression of "terrorists" in the south, and accordingly the search for Bin Laden - have given mixed signals in its hiring of 'agents' or proxies. Their funding of local warlords and strongmen simply prolongs conflict and runs against the disarmament policy simultaneously operating. As the International Crisis Group report in August 2003 in an article entitled entitled “The Problem of Pashtun Alienation,” "collaboration with local commanders has drawn the Coalition [sic] into their factional and personal rivalries, compromising its non-partisanship in disputes unrelated to the war on terrorism."


UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) recently stated that Afghanistan produces some 87 percent of the world's opium and heroin supply. There are inevitable and strong links between the drug industry and the insurgent groups detailed above. Many are already claiming that these links and the resultant high yield in product show that Afghanistan is not far from taking on the characteristics of a 'narco-state'.

A spokesperson for the UNODC said that last year Afghanistan was responsible for "the largest amount of heroin or of any drug that I think has ever been produced by any one country in any given year", and that it was responsible for more heroin than Columbia is producing cocaine. This is up from 31 percent in 1985, though production for 2005 dropped 2.4 percent despite a 20.6 percent reduction in land cultivated (on account of increased community work). Heavy rains caused the bumper crop. The drug trade still makes up around half of the country's GNP.

In the first big conference on the topic in February 2004, Counter Narcotics Directorate (CND - responsible for coordination of drug control) Director Mirwais Yasini further expanded on the link between drugs and terrorism, observing that, "terrorist activities thrive on exactly what narcotics provide: illegal money and political instability".

Government policy, as outlined at the conference, is such: in terms of law enforcement and judicial reform, there is work to be done on corruption, a need to increase enforcement officers, as well as the need to better equip not just drug teams, but police too. Provision for alternative livelihoods must include increased coordination between agencies, measures to improve security (as relapse into drug cultivation is more likely in an insecure state), as well as more efforts to better provide a real and sustainable agricultural alternative. Local demand reduction - addiction in the country is on the rise - needs wide awareness training, ideally the creation of a comprehensive treatment system, as well as better and increased coordination between the government, agencies and NGOs.

Implications of the continued problems include a reduction in agricultural output (especially of wheat), the spread of a culture of bribery and corruption, the increase of drug addiction within Afghanistan (a relatively recent phenomenon), the increased economic power of warlords, and the establishment of a situation more conducive to sheltering international criminals and insurgents.

Lack of coordination is a serious problem. The US Defence department announced a $257 million counter-narcotics campaign (rather than offering economic alternatives to farmers). It is worth noting that the eradication programme operating since 2002 may have created conditions for the 2004 boom (see below). Farmers became indebted, and thus easy targets for those who wish to exploit them. There was also a lower supply the year before leading to accordingly higher prices.

The UNODC report for November 2004 outlined how opium cultivation increased by a factor of 2/3 and spread to all 32 provinces; only bad weather prevented a bumper harvest. The counter-productive measures of US forces, no doubt drawing on experience of the drug war on their own southern borders and elsewhere, began as early as 2001, when they forged military alliances with powerful warlords and used their private armies to drive al Qaeda and the Taliban out of the country. Despite the strong stance and active policy of the US, British forces, however, have overall responsibility for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan.

Legalisation of opium and heroin has been proposed a number of times, gaining new legitimacy as a possible tactic through the publication of a report by the Senlis Council recently, a feasibility study on opium licensing in Afghanistan. They propose filling a gap in the world market by using opium to sell and manufacture morphine. Upon the report’s release, however, the Afghan government ruled out any possibility of such measures being taken. Needless to say, legalisation would be strongly opposed by the US and Britain.

Guantanamo...Abu Ghraib...Bagram...

One of the most prominent converging points of the opposition to US presence in the country is focused around allegations of prisoner abuse in Bagram detention facility. The main case under investigation concerns two men who died in December 2002 at Bagram. The New York Times obtained graphic details from a leaked 2,000-page report, chronicling the chaining to the ceiling by their wrists, as well as beatings on one of the prisoners' legs over 100 times in a 24-hour period.

The first claims surfaced in the Washington Times in December 2002. On 19 May 2004, the US announced a full review of all 20 facilities in the country in response to Human Rights Watch and New York Times reports. This was accompanied by an admission that at least eight prisoners have died in custody. This all takes place, we remember, against a backdrop of thoroughly-documented revelations regarding prisoner abuse and torture in both Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

Many Afghans feel anger and mistrust of the non-independent enquiry. American forces, especially in the south, act seemingly with impunity. Karzai, however, has taken a tougher stance with the Bush administration over this issue. The publication of the investigation is forthcoming. ICRC inspections of Bagram continue to this day, but they have been refused access to other smaller detention facilities.

Interestingly, recent demonstrations indicate a new, well-organised plan against Karzai's government, but especially against the US presence in Afghanistan, given the manner in which the demonstration flared into violence from initially peaceful demonstrations. These are also related to reports (subsequently confirmed, despite the retraction and step-down by the magazine) of the desecration of a Qur'an in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There are reports that Iran and Pakistan had spent large sums of money to support this instability.

Silent Killers

Roughly 100 Afghans are wounded or killed by explosive remnants of war (ERW - landmines, unexploded ordnance and the like) each month. Over 90 percent of the victims are male. And of these, roughly half are children. Dr Muhammad Haider Reza, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, recently stated that, "disabled victims from mines represent between 4 and 10 percent of the population". There are an estimated 5-6 million landmines still to be cleared. Suspected hazardous areas cover 716 square kilometers of the country.

The ICRC operates an important mine-victim monitoring programme, information for which comes from some 490 health centres across the country, which is compiled into a report shared with the other de-mining agencies (supplying 95 percent of the victim data to agencies such like UNMACA). In 2004, for example, the report states that 77 percent of victims for that year hadn't received any kind of mine awareness training. This highlights the need for focused targeting of risk communities and groups returning to the country after perhaps years of absence.

The Mine Action Programme for Afghanistan (MAPA) is the largest of its kind in the world. It is coordinated by United Nations Mine Action Centre (UNMACA), under which fall the 10 or so demining NGOs in the country. UNMACA also serves as the main repository for mine victim data (both current and historical).

In a worldwide context, Afghanistan is party to the Ottawa Convention of December 1997, thus obliging it to be clear of mines (either in the ground or stockpiled) by 2013 at the latest. During the recent progress survey at the Nairobi Summit in December 2004, there was hope in the discovery that countries that implemented the policies of the convention effectively in their country could sometimes even reduce casualties by up to two-thirds. Disappointingly, the US, China and Russia still remain absent.

Media and Other Developments

In Kabul, media has substantially grown in the years subsequent to the fall of the Taliban. More than 250 publications are now registered with the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture. There are also 42 radio stations and eight private television stations. Due to the high illiteracy rate (The Economist states that 57 percent of men and 86 percent of women above 15 are illiterate) radio is the main source of news for most Afghans. However, there are ominous rumblings from within the industry. An editor of a women's rights magazine, Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, was arrested and sentenced to 2 years in jail subject to appeal (due to allegedly blasphemous articles). At the same time, this illustrates the conflict within the judiciary over how Islam should be interpreted.

Women's rights, once trumpeted so strongly from all corners, have resumed their status as a low-level priority, despite the brave efforts of a number of organisations. Yakin Erturk, the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women recently visited Afghanistan and noted that incidences of domestic violence were very high, stating that, "forced marriages make it far more likely that women will be subjected to domestic violence, including sexual abuse". During the 18th September vote, 43 percent of the voters were women. 25 percent of the Wolesi Jirga's seats are reserved for women, and Bamiyan even has a female governor (of over a year now). All the same, there were threats and intimidation of both female election candidates as well as female voters.

Kabul has seen a nominal, but marked, improvement in its safety. Articles in the New York Times and London Telegraph in the travel supplements illustrate this fact. While Afghanistan still remains outside the mainstream tourism market, these articles show that the attitude towards travel to Afghanistan is changing; the rich and bored are encouraged to ‘take a risk’, and to come stay in one of Kabul’s luxury hotels. During the summer, the occasional backpacker could be found in Kabul, although by winter foreign travellers outside the capital are seldom encountered.

Afghanistan, Iraq...

To return to more important issues, Iraq threatens to draw international attention away from Afghanistan. The promises immediately following the 'coalition' victory in 2001 (Blair's promise that "this time we will not walk away from you") can now be recalled in a less than gracious light. By October 2004, the Afghan government issued figures that only $4.8 billion of the $10 billion committed has been disbursed. And to what end? The dangers in Iraq has meant that some organisations have returned to Afghanistan, although it is hard to avoid sensing that the 'boat has sailed'.

The same may be said of journalism issuing from Afghanistan. There are fewer reporters permanently based in Afghanistan, although this means that those left often produce better quality material, as they have time for more detailed investigative journalism.

It is important to hold Afghanistan up to the light of fierce scrutiny, as mistakes that are now beginning to glare all the more strongly are being repeated in Iraq, the second instance of America's post-9-11 military engagement with the world. The insensitivity shown and resultant backlash in the south, largely resulting from short-sighted corner-cutting measures, is biting America in the back, just when she is facing civil war and massive loss of control in Iraq. A cynic might comment that the elections provide the moral cover for abandonment. Yet to withdraw from Afghanistan now would simply reinforce the narcotics industry that dominates the country's economy, as well as give the south and east over to control by Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces. It is important, at the same time, to acknowledge that America's heavy-handed policies of bringing 'freedom' to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan is demonstrably failing.

Concluding remarks: 'There's no smoke without fire'

Condolezza Rice, on her recent trip to Afghanistan remarked that Afghanistan is inspiring the world with its "march toward democracy". Simultaneously, at every opportunity these days, Afghanistan's ministers state their hope that they will not be “deserted by the international community”. There are too many urgent priorities, they say, such as the establishment of security, reduction and eventual eradication of narcotics trafficking, as well as the repatriation of refugees.

A quick glance around the country confirms this. Even Kabul remains without electricity for more than half of each day, rubbish is left lying in the city centre to be picked over by goats, sheep and the poor, and most residents still get their water from public pumps. Roadworks seem the only visible sign of reconstruction, but they are neither finished nor extensive. Throughout the capital there are more often than not huge traffic jams, as well as a serious problem with large numbers of beggars (indicative of the blanket of poverty that still covers the country). In Kandahar, a "cultural extremism" pervades.

In terms of education, there are increased numbers of students, but the prominence of English language studies in the curriculum is of dubious value, and there is a chronic shortage of material and teachers throughout the country, not to mention the virtually non-existent provision for education in rural areas.

The development ranking of the country is 172nd out of 178 (UNDP report 2005): less than a fifth of households have access to safe drinking water; average life expectancy is in the mid fourties (compared to around 78 for developed countries); there is still massive infant mortality - prominently due to poor sanitation, though there is a lack of doctors too (estimates in 2003 were for an average of one doctor for every 15,000 citizens).

Despite nominal improvements, Afghanistan looks set to endure more instability and continued violence in the south and east, which will probably only start to really take off next spring. Furthermore, the ongoing consolidation of the illicit opium economy will lead to the establishment of a narco-state, not only to the detriment of the democratic process, but beyond repair in anything but a timescale of decades.

Alex Strick van Linschoten is currently researching a book on Qadiri Zikr ceremonies as found in Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya, while based in Damascus studying Arabic and Farsi. Email: