What assessment can we make of the international community/new Afghan government double act, four years after the US intervention against the Taliban rebels? More than $8.4bn has already been invested in the reconstruction of a country which has been bled dry by over 25 years of war. The recent legislative elections end the process of democratisation drawn up at the Bonn Conference of 2001.
With over 50% of the population voting, the Afghans have, for the first time since 1969, elected the 249 members of the Wolesi Jirga (Afghan parliament) and the 2,800 local councillors for the 34 provinces. The day was marked by the death of nine people, among them a parliamentary candidate and a French soldier, in separate attacks by the Taliban. After the presidential elections of 2004 in which the current president, Hamid Karzai, was elected, these elections represent new evidence of the country’s democratisation process.
However, the elections have been surrounded by controversy over the influence of the warlords, as more than half of the candidates have direct or indirect ties with the unlawful militants, which is in breach of a ban imposed by the Afghan electoral commission on any person having links with armed terrorist groups. Witnesses report that some warlords, hoping to join parliament, even went into polling stations to intimidate voters. Although in the past few years, the local leaders have set up a disarmament programme for the militants and made some cosmetic decisions, such as the controversial dismissal of Ismail Khan as governor of Herat, these local leaders do currently have a significant influence over the country.
Electoral processes and controversies notwithstanding, security continues to be Hamid Karzai’s main concern. Time is passing and the central Afghan state is still incapable of providing a minimum level of safety and stability for its citizens. Although there have been major advances in setting up the army (25,000 soldiers have already finished their training) and the national police, the government’s survival is still highly dependent on the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a peace-keeping force made up of soldiers from 36 countries. Without them, Hamid Karzai’s government would have great difficulties in controlling the areas further away from the capital against the frequent attacks by Taliban groups. Hijackings, assassinations, car bombings and armed attacks have increased, rather than decreased, over time. More than 1,000 people have already died this year, the worst figure since the beginning of 2001. President Karzai, in an interview with the BBC, described the necessity of reviewing the country’s anti-terrorism policy to bring it up to date. In view of this, the UN Security Council’s recent decision to prolong the ISAF mandate is understandable.
If we consider the various economic and human development indices, we can appreciate the sad reality of the country. Life expectancy is just 44.5 years in Afghanistan, 70% of people are on the poverty line, 48% are malnourished, 71% are illiterate and the infant mortality rate is shockingly high, at 115 per 1000 babies born. 3.5 million people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, a large number of anti-personal mines are scattered around the country, the opium trade accounts for 35% of the Afghan economy and the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) is just $186 (per capita). All of these factors demonstrate the level of human tragedy in Afghanistan. The Afghan government recognises the scale of the problem in its report on “Securing Afghanistan’s future”, which was presented before the audience at the Berlin summit in 2004. This data has been confirmed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in his frequent speeches to the Security Council, assessing the situation.
But the $8.4 billion invested by international donors has not been wasted. One million refugees have been able to return to Afghanistan from other countries this year, 4.3 million children (the highest figure in Afghan history) have gone to school in 2005, town centres have started to get back into their pre-war rhythms and the Afghan economy has increased by 7.2%, compared to last year’s GDP. Not to mention the effective collaboration between the multinational security forces and the Afghan administrative forces in managing the serious floods which affected many rural areas last spring. These are the first effective results from Hamid Karzai’s government.
To build on these advances and to face up to existing difficulties, “the international community must continue to support the reconstruction process until the Afghan institutions are completely set up and functioning,” Kofi Annan recently said. However many presidential and legislative elections are held, the Afghan democracy will have no future if the challenges of the country’s security, stability and development are not taken seriously. The international community, led by the European Union and the US, knows all too well the tragic consequences which resulted from the previous breakdown of the Afghan nation state. It is for this reason that the international conference on Afghanistan, which is to be held in London in January 2006, will be of major importance in the realisation of the new guidelines for Afghanistan’s future.