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Tobias Ellwood MP: Is Afghanistan on course to implode?

Tobias_ellwood Tobias Ellwood, MP for Bournemouth East and a formerly of the Royal Green Jackets, offers a critical assessment of progress in Afghanistan.

Six years after the US-led invasion, Afghanistan has reached a tipping point. Optimism is being replaced with frustration and dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on key fronts, the Afghan Government is seen as inept and corrupt, NATO forces are unable to reduce the Taliban threat and poor co-ordination between international development organisations is hampering the progress of long term reconstruction and development.

Although there are many individual success stories, life for the average Afghan seems no more prosperous, no more optimistic in outlook and no less dangerous than five years ago. Unless the West urgently reviews and modifies its entire strategy there is every chance that the fragile truce which holds the five ethnic groups together will break down and the country will once again spiral into civil war.

The genesis of Afghanistan’s proposed new order can be traced back to the Bonn Agreement. Six years after its signing it is clear that the centralised model of Government that was created represses any tribal, ethnic, or cultural differences, rather than celebrating them. The reluctance to relinquish power from Kabul to the regions and the sheer scale of corruption in Government at all levels is fuelling growing resentment by former warlords who bought into the original peace plan. The pace of change is too slow for the local Afghan who is increasingly distanced from the Kabul-based class of (mostly Pashtun) political elite. Unemployment is rife, refugee camps and ghettos are starting to appear around the major cities and warlords, who united with Karsai in 2001, are getting impatient. There are signs that a number are starting to raise funds, collect arms and train militias in preparation for the worst.   

Attempting to improve security in Afghanistan has exposed fundamental weaknesses in NATO’s first venture into operations outside Europe. ISAF forces have divided into those whose governments are willing to fight and those that are not. For example, 3,100 German forces are not allowed to patrol at night and 1200 Turkish forces are not even allowed leave their barracks. This has placed an unfair burden on countries such as the US, Britain, the Netherlands and Canada who have consequently borne the brunt of the casualties. After suffering heavy casualties the Netherlands and Canada are now reviewing their entire military commitment to Afghanistan.

Establishing Afghan security forces has been painfully slow. The Afghan Army has yet to reach half its target size of 70,000. Units are now starting to take on more responsibilities, though 40% of a typical battalion is AWOL at any one time. The same cannot be said of the police. Poor salaries and loyalties to former warlords mean that unofficial checkpoints are increasingly commonplace, allowing patrols to supplement their incomes for rights of passage. Police corruption at all levels is rife which prevents even a basic level of law and order from being maintained. Kidnapping of rich Afghans in exchange for large sums of money is not uncommon. Even if improvements were made the legal infrastructure to support the police is in its infancy and in many rural areas the old girga system of reprisals against wrong-doers remains in place.

Pivotal to Afghanistan’s future is agriculture. Prior to the Russian invasion in 1979, it was one of the greenest countries in the region and a world leader in exporting a range of produce. Thanks to the Soviet destruction of the irrigation system, 92% of Afghanistan’s natural water now flows out of the country un-harnessed.

Improving irrigation must be prioritised if Afghanistan’s status as a leading agricultural producer is to be revived. Every province can point to half a dozen small scale dam constructions ($5m-$50m) which would open up potential farm land for produce other than poppies (which are mainly grown because the crop needs little water and there is a market, albeit illegal, to sell to). Linked to irrigation improvements must also be advances in a market infrastructure to ensure there is demand for goods. Until reliable transport links via road and railway connect Afghanistan to the Trans-Siberian network as well as to ports in the Indian Ocean the country will never be able to transport the scale of goods required to sustain a viable economy.

The principal arterial land route into the country is in the east. Every second vehicle travelling on the Islamabad road to Kabul is an 18-wheeled truck crawling its way through the Khyber Pass. The British built a railway in Pakistan (then India) towards the border. This now needs to be extended to the capital, Kabul, if trade links to international markets are to be fully explored.

Long term projects such as these could take as much as a decade to complete but six years from the end of the conflict, they are not even on the drawing board. Misdirection of international funds, lack of co-ordination of development and re-construction, the absence of a single leader to unite the works and the separate agendas of the ISAF, UN, EU, UsAid and Dfid (not to mention the myriad of NGOs) mean that few initiatives last longer than six months. This allows the project leader, whose tour of duty is also six months, to leave declaring his particular project a success. A $800,000 ‘park for women’ built in Lash Ka Ga is just one such example. Hardly a priority in the current climate, but ideal for the British support unit to hail as a ‘successful project’.

Time is running out. News that Paddy Ashdown, who successfully co-ordinated a similar challenge in Bosnia, has been asked to take up the role of senior representative for the UN, NATO and EU, comes late in the day but should be welcomed. His refusal to accept this critical post in July this year was due to a lack of support from the entire international community who must now bury their differences (and separate agendas) and unite around a new mission. This mission should include a long term economic plan for the country and a revision of the centralist model of government so as to recognise the ethnic and cultural differences that have prevented the country from truly uniting for centuries - and which could easily do so again. Achieving this mission may include talking to the Taliban.


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