WORLD

DRUGS, DEALS, AND THE TALIBAN

In the face of rampant bombings, abductions, drug trafficking and corruption, Afghanistan is on track for its most violent year since the end of Taliban rule

JONATHON GATEHOUSE October 22 2007
WORLD

DRUGS, DEALS, AND THE TALIBAN

In the face of rampant bombings, abductions, drug trafficking and corruption, Afghanistan is on track for its most violent year since the end of Taliban rule

JONATHON GATEHOUSE October 22 2007

DRUGS, DEALS, AND THE TALIBAN

WORLD

In the face of rampant bombings, abductions, drug trafficking and corruption, Afghanistan is on track for its most violent year since the end of Taliban rule

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

The suicide bomber struck on the main road to Kabul’s airport last Saturday, setting off a blast so powerful that it tossed surrounding vehicles high into the air. His target, an armoured SUV ferrying Afghan police and their U.S. Army trainers, was left in flames on its side. Five Afghans and an American soldier died, and a dozen civilians were wounded. The attack, which came on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the U.S. invasion, was the third—and least devastating—bombing in the capital in little more than a week. On Sept. 29, 30 died when a man detonated himself aboard an Afghan army bus. On Oct. 2, a similar attack on a police bus killed 12. The Taliban’s current Ramadan offensive may not live up to its moniker, “Nasrat” (Victory), but it is throwing the crisis in Afghanistan into harsh relief. Despite a half-decade of NATO-led fighting against the stubborn insurgency and billions in development aid, the country is closer to a basket case than a beacon of democracy in the troubled Middle East.

So far this year, Afghanistan is on track for its most violent year since the end of Taliban rule. According to a report released by the United Nations Department of Safety and Security last week, there have been an average of 525 “security incidents”—bombings, attacks, assassinations, abductions—a month during the first half of 2007, up substantially from the 425-a-month average in 2006. A similar study by a European-funded NGO last month concluded that attacks are increasing at a rate of 20 to 25 per cent a month, not just in the restive south, but across the country, including Kabul. Drug trafficking is rampant, with Afghanistan now accounting for an astonishing 93 per cent of the world’s opium production. And the billions the poppy trade generates has thoroughly corrupted not just rank-and-file police, but the highest ranks of the military, judiciary, and government of President Hamid Karzai. (Ahmed Wali Karzai, the leader’s youngest brother and chairman of Kandahar’s provincial council, is widely believed to be among the country’s biggest traffickers. He denies the allegations.)

“Afghanistan is in danger of becoming a failed narco-state,” says Mark Schneider, senior vice-president of the International Crisis Group, a globe-spanning think tank that researches violent conflict. “The problem is that the country is being eaten from within.” Government successes—lower mortality rates for mothers and children, refurbished infrastructure, more than 670 schools with five million students enrolled (compared to just 900,000 under the Taliban)—are being over-

'AFGHANISTAN IS IN DANGER OF BECOMING A FAILED NARCO-STATE, EATEN FROM WITHIN'

shadowed by a galloping deterioration in security. Almost the entire south and east of the country are now classified as no-go “extreme risk” areas, and even immediately outside the capital the risk is now considered “high,” notes Schneider. Development and reconstruction work, which has never been as extensive or well-funded as donor countries might pretend, has ground to a halt. “The Afghan government and world community have to make some fundamental changes—and devote a lot more resources—if we’re going to succeed,” says Schneider.

The steepest challenge is the burgeoning drug trade, which funds not just the Taliban attacks, but has created a general climate of lawlessness throughout the country, with competing militias, police and government security forces all vying for a piece of the action. Poppies are now being cultivated on 193,000 hectares (477,000 acres) of land, a 17 per cent increase from 2006. “No other country in the world has ever had such a large amount of farmland used for illegal activity, besides China 100 years ago,” Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, told reporters in Kabul last month. The trade, conservatively valued at US$1 billion by the UN, has become the backbone of the Afghan economy, accounting for as much as 60 per cent of GDP according to other sources. And it employs some 3.3 million (mostly otherwise destitute) farmers, in a country of just 25 million people.

The Afghan government, still more myth than reality, has so far been unable— or unwilling—to confront the traffickers. The parliament is filled with politicians reputed to have ties to the trade. And although Karzai is expected to announce a new anti-corruption campaign within days, his past efforts have inspired little confidence in the international community. While approximately 250 charges were brought against various officials last year, successful prosecutions have been far rarer. The mayor of the western city of Herat, Muhammad RafiqMujaddedi, initially charged in 2006 with embezzling US$70 million, was recently handed a suspended sentence, after extensive string-pulling by his clan members and political patrons.

But Ali Ahmad Jalali, Afghanistan’s former minister of the interior, whose 2005 resignation was triggered, in part, by frustration over the government’s failure to purge officials linked to drugs, says corruption is the symptom, not the disease. “We need to create an environment where people have hope for the future,” says Jalali, now a professor at Washington’s National Defense University. He says the West shares much of the blame for Afghan-

istan’s current crisis. In the rush after 9/n to remove the Taliban from power, little thought was given to rebuilding the country. And the U.S. diversion to Iraq gave the Taliban the time and space it needed to regroup in its sanctuaries inside the Pakistani border. What has become clear, says the former minister, is that the solution to Afghanistan’s problems can no longer be simply a military one. “What is driving people to fight is not merely ideology, but the general instability and the complex pull of tribal and clan loyalties,” he says. The good news is that there is still little sympathy among ordinary Afghans for the Taliban or the drug-trafficking allies. “But people can’t risk challenging the insurgents on behalf of a government that can neither protect

them, nor offer basic services,” says Jalali.

The notion that talking is now preferable to fighting seems to be picking up speed. On Sept. 29, Karzai made a public plea to the Taliban leadership to enter into discussions about the country’s future, saying he is ready to give the militants a place in government if they lay down their arms. Although the pres-

ident raised eyebrows internationally by suggesting that he would even be willing to talk with the fugitive Mullah Mohammad Omar, al-Qaeda’s former patron, if he knew his whereabouts or phone number, the world community has been generally supportive of the idea of bringing the Taliban to the table. “They are not going away, any more than I suspect Hamas are going away from Palestine,” said British Foreign Minister Des Browne. In fact, the U.S. now seems more troubled by Karzai’s cordial relationship with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than past bogeymen.

Omar Samad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada, says his government has preconditions for the talks—Taliban linked to foreign terrorists are not welcome, and all must

agree to support the current constitution. The goal, says Samad, is to separate “diehards” from their less fanatical allies. “We need to bring as many elements under this peaceful tent as we can. Maybe some of them are dissatisfied with the weak government, or have had some type of injustice inflicted upon them, or have been recruited for money.”

Chris Alexander, Canada’s former ambassador to Afghanistan and now deputy special representative of the UN secretary general in Kabul, says there are hopeful signs. Over the past months, there has been a steady increase in contact with members of the Taliban who are looking for a way out of the conflict—a reflection, says Alexander, that the insurgents are now the principle victims of violence in the country. Outsiders, he argues, should keep in mind Afghanistan’s recent history—three decades of conflict and six different regimes—when looking for yardsticks. “There is relatively stubborn smallscale progress,” says Alexander. “And above all, an iron determination among Afghanis to overcome these problems.”

Others who know the country well say that, as happened in Iraq, the West is again in danger of losing sight of the larger picture. Moralistic lectures about the evils of corruption have little weight with impoverished Afghan police, who risk their lives for the equivalent of US$100 a month—when they get paid at all. (In an effort to bolster police in the south of the country, Canadian and U.S. forces last week began to directly distribute their salaries, cutting out corrupt officials in the Ministry of the Interior.) “We’ve got this moralistic Western viewpoint that suggests these people have a choice,” says Norine MacDonald, a former Vancouver lawyer who now heads the Senlis Council, an Afghan think tank that tracks counter-narcotics and development policy in the country. “The dash for cash is happening because it’s not clear who will prevail in the south. A lot of people feel that this is their only chance to secure their future.” MacDonald, who is one of the few NGO workers who still regularly travels throughout Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south, says laxly controlled foreign money for development has been just as much a corrupting influence as drug profits. “The NATO troops are doing a good job, but development and counter-narcotics policy are undermining them,” she says. And criticism, however well-founded, of the Afghan government misses the point. There are no other options. “Karzai is our only choice here,” says MacDonald. “We don’t have time to come up with another one.”

Canada’s current combat mission in Afghanistan is scheduled to end in February 2009. Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper again suggested that he isn’t in favour of leaving until the job is done, or a least a “viable situation” exists for the Afghan government. Six years in, that stability seems more elusive than ever. Canadians, it seems, are going to be faced with a choice. Leave a bad situation behind them, or stay in a troubled place for an awfully long time. M