Afghanistan is arguably the country that has been most affected by 9/11. Less than four weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the United States began a bombing campaign that toppled the fundamentalist Taliban regime. It attracted the attention of the world once again to a country that had been all but abandoned to its demons for more than a decade.
The Soviet invasion of 1979 had put Afghanistan on centre stage, as the two superpowers used the fiercely independent mountain state as a test of relative strength. The mighty Red Army battled local commanders, mujaheddin, generously backed by US dollars and weapons. In 1989 the Soviets withdrew in defeat, whereupon the mujaheddin, in a savage struggle to fill the power vacuum, used their military toys to tear the country apart. The civil wars of 1992-96 left the country in ruins and sent millions of Afghans into exile.
It is some measure of the horror of those years that when the black-turbaned Taliban took over, they were widely hailed as saviours, promising a return to Islamic values and a stable life. The Taliban brought, however, little but more misery in their blind determination to impose their fundamentalist way of life on a demoralized country. Public beatings and executions; forced prayer; extreme repression of women; the banning of music, film and representational art; the destruction of the 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamian: all of these made the Taliban international pariahs.
But when Osama bin Laden took refuge in the hills of Tora Bora after 9/11, he brought down upon Afghanistan and its government the wrath of the US. In short order, the American military drove the Taliban out and set about rebuilding the country.
Now, four years later, Afghanistan has been declared an overwhelming success. A US-backed Government has been installed, presidential and parliamentary elections have been held, and the economy is beginning to develop.
But it is too soon to be sanguine. The Taliban, far from disappearing, are mounting renewed attacks on the American occupiers and on Afghans who co-operate with them. Ethnic tension, fuelled by memories of civil war atrocities, has abated little.
Billions of dollars in aid have poured into Afghanistan over the past four years, but the results fall far short of expectations. Much of the capital is still without stable electricity or clean water. Most business is done from metal shipping containers fitted out as impromptu shops.
Photo: Fredrik Naumann / Panos Pictures
Corruption is endemic, with almost anything and anyone available for the right amount of baksheesh. Roads are uniformly bad, many even in Kabul still unpaved. In the regions, the situation is catastrophic. Millions of Afghans are cut off from even basic services because they are unable to reach population centres.
Meanwhile, the West devotes hundreds of millions of dollars to poppy eradication, to keep Afghanistan, which supplies close to 90 per cent of the world’s heroin, from becoming a fully fledged narco-state. While British and US forces claim that the land under cultivation has decreased by 40 per cent in some areas, favourable climatic conditions yielded a bumper crop in 2005, keeping the levels of production relatively stable. The anti-drug campaign has also alienated large swathes of the desperately poor population who depend on the poppy for survival.
Progress has been made, certainly, since the grim days of the Taliban. But the changes are too new, and the situation too unstable, to make long-term predictions. Desperate poverty, ethnic tension, and simmering resentment over foreign occupation make a dangerous brew.
The only thing keeping the lid on a potentially explosive situation is the presence of the US-led coalition forces. But they are also a mixed blessing, with perhaps isolated but widely publicized cases of torture, arbitrary search-and-seizure and cultural mockery causing increasing resentment among the population.
As the world’s commitment to Afghanistan begins to wane in the face of wars and natural disasters elsewhere, the situation could well deteriorate further.
|Leader||President Hamid Karzai.|
|Economy||GNI per capita $250 (Pakistan $470, United States $37,610).|
|Main exports||Officially fruits and nuts – Afghanistan is the world’s largest exporter of raisins – but illegal opium is by far the most lucrative export, generally trafficked via the Central Asian republics to Europe. In December 2003 opium was estimated to provide half the country’s GDP.|
|People||25.8 million. People per square kilometre 40 (UK 245).|
|Health||Infant mortality 165 per 1,000 live births (Pakistan 81, US 7). Healthcare is rudimentary at best, with Afghanistan recording some of the highest maternal and under-five mortality figures in the world.|
|Environment||Huge areas of land and buildings were devastated in the wars. Deforestation is a continuing problem.|
|Culture||Pashtun 44%, Tajik 25%, Hazara 10%, Uzbek 8%; others 13%.|
|Religion||99% Muslim, of which 74% are Sunni, 15% Shi’a, 10% others.Languages: Pashtu and Persion are the official languages but a great many others are spoken.|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||While Afghans live better now than under the Taliban, most barely scrape by. Warlords and drug barons construct huge ‘narco-villas’ in Kabul while most live below the poverty line.|
|Literacy||36%. Some 51% of men are literate but only 21% of women. Girls are now trickling back to school but less than half of all children receive any education.|
|Life expectancy||43 years (Pakistan 61, US 77). By far the lowest life expectancy in Asia.|
|Freedom||National elections were held in 2004 and 2005, but there was widespread fraud and intimidation, particularly in the latter, which returned a legislature set to be dominated by warlords.|
|Position of women||Women continue to struggle for even the most basic rights: forced marriage, domestic violence and suicide are all common.|
|Sexual minorities||Male homosexuality is a crime, punishable by death, while lesbianism is not acknowledged as a possibility. But male gay activity is still fairly common.|
|New Internationalist assessment||The Government cannot hold the country together; the Taliban are gaining ground in the south and east while warlords still hold sway in the north and west. Corruption is endemic. While most Afghans accept Hamid Karzai as an honourable man, he is seen as an American puppet, without the clout necessary to hold his unruly government in check. Ministries are dominated by officials making millions in the drugs trade – even the anti-narcotics ministry. Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali recently resigned in disgust over the Government's unwillingness to tacke corruption within its own ranks.|