Afghanistan: Whither Afghanistan?

Anne E Brodsky
In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had a gift for the women of Afghanistan.
What did your tax dollars bestow upon half the population of a country where the majority of people don't have access to electricity, fresh water, sanitation, nutrition or the most basic life-saving medications?
Twenty thousand battery operated, talking women's health books produced by Leapfrog, a "designer, developer and marketer of innovative, technology-based educational products and related proprietary content." A bargain at $62.50 a pop.

Listening to the administration, you might believe Afghanistan is a blooming democracy full of emancipated women and hopeful Olympic athletes. But while we send Afghans talking books, the real-life needs and underlying causes of the ongoing crises are being ignored, accelerating the situation in Afghanistan to the point of "implosion," to borrow language from a recent British Parliament report.

The American press rarely reports the precipice upon which Afghanistan is poised. President George W. Bush makes frequent reference to the humanitarian advances in Afghanistan, especially among women. He offers platitudes, and smiles cheerily for photo-ops with soccer-playing Afghan girls as if their fates are somehow representative. But in every segment of Afghan life, there is glaring evidence of the gap between Bush's rhetoric and reality. The thin veneer of liberation benefits those with power, money and guns, and unfortunately many of these people share the same ideology as the Taliban, albeit masked by their shaved faces, Western clothes, and facility with English rhetoric. In a telling moment of candor, Sebaghattullah Mujadiddi, the former, civil war-era president and chairman of the Constitutional Loya Jirga, told women in December 2003: "Do not try to put yourself on a level with men. Even God has not given you equal rights, under his decision two women are counted as one man."

Of the five million children who returned to school after the fall of the Taliban, only 34 percent are girls. Two to three thousand young women were removed from school in September 2003 when President Hamid Karzai upheld a 1970s law banning married "women" (no matter their age or whether the marriage was consensual) from attending school with unmarried "girls."

The peril of the situation is abundantly clear from observations and conversations with Afghans about post-Taliban life, where guns and money substitute for the rule of law; upcoming elections, rather than being celebrated as a sign of progress, are dreaded for the violence and fraud that is already accompanying them (see guns and money substitute for the rule of law); the United States has provided a $25 million loan to rebuild a five-star hotel, and warlords are using money from opium poppies and CIA payoffs for fighting the Taliban to build palatial private residences on stolen land, while teachers and government workers in Kabul can not afford the $100 per month rent for three rooms without water or electricity on their $30-a-month salaries.It is a country teetering dangerously on the edge of a steep precipice.

The Afghan people knew all along that the United States bombed Afghanistan for retaliation, not liberation. Many Afghan women asked me in December 2001, "If the United States was so committed to liberating us, where was your government for the past five years? Why did then Governor Bush invite Taliban officials to Texas? Why was the Clinton Administration trying to negotiate a pipeline while we were being beaten on the streets for showing our faces?" And now they ask: "Why did your government return the same criminals who destroyed our country in the civil war, and who were so brutal and repressive that the Taliban was welcomed in 1996 as liberating heroes?"

While 18,000 American and allied soldiers spend their time unsuccessfully searching for Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar - the missing weapons of mass destruction from the Afghan conflict - only 6,500 NATO peacekeepers are on the ground to protect a population estimated to be 25 million to 28 million.

This ratio of one peacekeeper per 4,000 Afghans is nothing like the 1:50 ratio that was maintained in Bosnia and Kosovo, and is laughable to a warlord and, until recently, provincial governor like Ismail Khan, whose personal army of 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers dwarfs the peacekeepers.

President Karzai's attempt to control him by removing him as governor and promoting him to Minster of Mines and Industry last week was rejected by Khan and sparked deadly attacks on U.N., U.S. and Afghan interests in Herat. With at least 1,000 civilians (including 600 aid and election workers) killed in the past year alone and rockets falling nightly on Kabul, it is clear to the populace that America is there to serve its own interests, with little concern for Afghan security, democracy or peace. Even President Karzai has admitted that the warlords, whom the United States has supported since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, pose a greater threat to the country than Taliban resurgents.

The depth of the problem is clear when a group like Doctors Without Borders, who stayed in Afghanistan throughout the Taliban period, recently pulled out of the country entirely, having been unable to obtain justice for the killings of five of their workers. They no longer believed their Afghan and foreign staff could be protected. The Bush Definition of an Election the election preparations, financed predominately by the United States and Britain at a cost of $100 million, are based on 24-year-old census data because, without disarmament, the country was not secure enough to take a new census. This calls into question the celebratory mood surrounding the United Nation's announcement that over 90 percent of "eligible" voters had been registered in advance of the thrice-postponed, October 9 presidential election (parliamentary elections are off until at least April).

That 90 percent figure is also questionable when one considers that nearly half of the country has been deemed at elevated risk by the United Nations, and much of these risky areas are entirely off limits to U.N. workers. Even more astonishing is the recent upward revision of these registration figures. Now the U.N. figures show that over 107 percent of eligible voters have been registered to vote. In response, President Karzai, a leading candidate, responded: "This does not bother me. This is an exercise in democracy. Let them exercise it twice."

This early whiff of voter fraud, and of a government and international community unable and unwilling to address it, coupled with targeted killings of at least 30 election workers and registered voters so far, and signs that this violence will continue to escalate as the elections draw closer, make it unlikely that election reality will match the rhetoric of a free and fair democratic process.

A Dangerous Game:

In 2003 Iraq received $26 billion in reconstruction aid while Afghanistan, larger and more populous and with a fraction of Iraq's wealth and infrastructure, received less than $1 billion. Meanwhile, the 2003 opium crop brought an estimated $2.3 billion, accounting for roughly 95 percent of the heroin sold on the streets of Europe. And the Bush administration admits that the 2004 crop is expected to be 50 percent to 100 percent higher than last year's. All of this illegitimate wealth only serves to further enrich criminal elements, from the warlords who control the countryside to suspected al Qaeda remnants rumored to be funding future operations with this uncontrolled wealth. Taken together it is an alarming picture of a country spiraling out of control. Meanwhile, the American political calendar ensures that we will hear predominately heartwarming stories of how children's toys better Afghan lives.

By playing leapfrog with Afghanistan, the Bush Administration jeopardizes the safety and health of poor Afghans who will suffer if their country once again becomes hostage to narco-terrorists, warlords and unlawful rulers. Humanitarian concerns aside, the policies also threaten to destabilize the country in ways that, as we've seen, lead to tragic consequences for the rest of the world, too. When your playmate is a country teetering on the edge of a chasm, leapfrog is the most dangerous game of all.

Anne E. Brodsky is associate professor of Psychology and Women's studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Since August 2001, she has spent six months in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and has interviewed more than 200 Afghan women, children and men about the risks to and resilience of Afghan women. The author of With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, Brodsky returned in July from her most recent trip to Afghanistan.