At the NATO summit in Istanbul the US and Britain squared up to France yet again. But this time the row was not over Iraq. They quarreled over which troops should be sent to a country that had already been liberated; a country where power has already been handed over. Amid the wrangling, one man cut a forlorn figure. Hamid Karzai, the Afghan leader appointed with a nod of approval from the West, cares little whether it is a NATO response force or reserve troops that fly in. He simply needs help. "I would like you to please hurry. Come sooner than September, please." September is when elections are due.
Tony Blair may have pledged that Afghanistan would not be abandoned, but after the Taliban was ousted, Washington and London's focus shifted east to Iraq. Meanwhile, the toll of dead and maimed is rising. The infrastructure is non-existent, opium production is rocketing, warlords control large swathes of the country, and the Taliban are back. Afghanistan is Unraveling piece by piece.
This is the most immediate need, for Afghanistan, and for Karzai. The Afghan elections have been postponed once already, from June, due to the endemic violence. A second cancellation may just finish off what is left of the Afghan president's credibility. According to international agencies, out of 10.5 million eligible to vote, only 1.6 million have been registered. (President Karzai maintains at least five million names are now on the electoral list.)
What is not disputed, however, is that the Islamists, the Taliban and the forces of their new ally Gulbuddin Hikmatayar, have systematically targeted United Nations workers organizing the elections, as well as international aid workers. Dozens have been murdered, and, as a result, the UN and the humanitarian agencies have withdrawn from several areas.
One of the largest agencies, National Solidarity Program (SDF), is pulling out of 72 areas in the country. Ihsanullah Dileri, the organization's head of coordination said in his Kabul office: "This is a very bad, very desperate situation. We had $60,000 to spend on each of those 72 areas, now this cannot be done. All these areas are badly deprived, with poor people lacking basic facilities. But I am afraid the security simply is not there for us to continue with our work. It is too dangerous."
Barbara Stapleton, of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), an umbrella body representing 90 national and international aid agencies, added: "We are very concerned about security and the deterioration of the situation. Impunity rules in the country. It's not just us, but the Afghan people at large who are exposed to these levels of insecurity."
Three years ago, Karzai was the toast of the West. Since then he has survived coups and assassination attempts. Some of his political allies did not. Vice-President Haji Abdul Qadir was shot dead in Kabul, and the civil aviation minister, Abdul Rahman, was beaten to death at the capital's airport.
It was intended that the body charged with keeping peace, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), would spread out of Kabul to the rest of the country three years ago. But its 6,500 members remain stuck in the capital. The roads from there have become a shooting gallery. The ISAF commander, the Canadian Major General Rick Hillier, asked for just 10 helicopters; not one has been delivered.
And it remains extremely dangerous in Kabul. After the fall of the Taliban, the streets were busy until the 10pm curfew. Now they are deserted by 8pm. Gunfire echoes at night. Just a few weeks ago, two aid workers, one of them Swiss, were stoned to death at Bagh Chilsthan, a garden just 15 minutes from the center of the city.
The capital has also seen an increasing number of bomb attacks. According to Western military commanders, Afghan fighters are emulating terrorist operations in Iraq, using similar types of explosive devices. There have also been a series of suicide bombings.
The government of Hamid Karzai was supposed to gain control of the country, and the key to this was the warlords, who ran virtually autonomous fiefdoms backed up by private armies. Attempts have been made to curb their powers by offering them positions in the interim government.
But temporary concessions were followed by setbacks. The failure of international forces to enforce the writ of the government outside Kabul has allowed the warlords to re-establish themselves. One, Abdul Rashid Dostum, armed with heavy weapons, occupied the province of Faryab last month.
Ismail Khan, the so-called Lion of Herathad, lost his son in fighting with Karzai-backed forces. But he remains in charge of a well-armed militia of 50,000, backed by Iranians, and the consensus is that he is biding his time to extract revenge.
Shirzai Khan remains in charge in Kandahar in the south, but he has lost control of large parts of his area to the Taliban.
Hamid Karzai has sought $27.5bn in international aid over seven years, and received just a fraction of this. The money for humanitarian programs, so far, has been $ 4.5bn. Out of that, much of the $2.2bn earmarked for 2004 has been diverted to military projects and emergency relief from long term development.
In the meantime, the military bill for the Pentagon is a staggering $50bn. While the ISAF cannot get even one helicopter, the US military is involved in operations in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Its mission is not primarily, however, security inside Afghanistan, but a hunt for Osama bin Laden.
The Karzai government has made a determined effort return children to school after the years of Taliban law which saw education reduced to ritual chanting from the Koran instructed by often semi-literate mullahs. The UN stresses that school attendance has doubled, with nearly two million enrolled.
But enduring poverty has meant many children are now drifting off to work to help support their impoverished families. No exact figures are available. UNICEF points out that a lack of a coherent social care system is pressurizing children to abandon schooling. A senior official said: "The reason that children work in the first place is an indication of the facts of economic life. There is no escaping from that fact."
Even before the last war ended, America's First Lady, Laura Bush, declared: "Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women".
A recent report by Amnesty International states: "Two years after the ending of the Taliban regime, the international community and the Afghan transitional administration, led by President Karzai, have proved unable to protect women. The risk of rape and sexual violence by members of armed factions and former combatants is still high. Forced marriages, and violence against women in the family, are widespread in many areas".
After the war, dozens of girls' schools reopened throughout the country. But the Islamist backlash has seen many of them closed down again. Families who still dare educate female children can pay a terrible price. Last month three young girls, aged eight to 10, were poisoned in eastern Afghanistan, apparently as a punishment for attending lessons. In the Pashtun belt, where Taliban influence is resurgent, the number of women on the electoral list is below 20 per cent.
Last week a bomb tore through a bus carrying female election workers on the outskirts of the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing two women, and injuring 11 others and two young children. A Taliban commander, Abdul Hakim Latif, warned: "We will continue this kind of attack to make sure the elections fail. We will not forgive any women who follow the US."
Afghanistan's health indicators continue to be among the worst in the world. Polio, scurvy, tuberculosis, endemic malnutrition and anemia remain "unacceptably high", according to the UN. Maternal mortality is " one of the highest in the world."
Fourteen per cent of all babies are likely to die before the age of five. Life expectancy is 46 years, compared to an average of 78 in western Europe. The rate of mothers dying in childbirth has improved in the capital Kabul, but it is still around 11 per cent in the outlying areas. More than 70 per cent of medical programs are implemented by aid organizations. In rural areas, the closest clinics can be up to a day's walk away. Dr Yon Fleerackers, of the World Health Organization's, said: "In some areas there is absolutely no basic health care available. We also face the problem that disease control will not have any success without education to go with it."
The years of war and neglect have left the Afghan economy at not much above subsistence level. Around 80 per cent of the workforce are engaged in agriculture, and 10 per cent each in services and rudimentary industry. The estimated per capita GDP is $190. Gross GDP for 2002-2003 was $4bn. By far the biggest export commodity is opium, followed by small amounts of fruits, nuts, mutton, sheepskin, and carpets and rugs. Exports for the year 2002-2003 were $100m and imports $2.3bn.
Fifty per cent of the Afghan Gross National Product comes from drugs. Poppy cultivation reached a new high last year. According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the area of cultivation has grown from 1,685 hectares in 2001 to 61,000 hectares in 2003. The country has the dubious distinction of accounting for 75 per cent of the world's output. A survey by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 69 per cent of last year's poppy farmers said they intended to increase production, and even 43 per cent of those not growing the narcotic said they will start doing so as the rewards are so great. Opium cultivation has spread from a handful of provinces to 28 out of 32.
Local commanders, many in areas controlled by President Karzai's allies, provide protection for the drug traffickers, tax their products, and help with transportation. Much of the money they make is used to purchase weapons.
The British government says it is taking the problem extremely seriously, and substantial amount of resources have been allocated for tackling it. Foreign Office minister Bill Rammall has paid several visits to Afghanistan and presented a 10 year plan for eradicating opium production.
The coming election, however, poses fresh problems for the anti-drug campaign. Some of Karzai's supporters believe that that eradicating an impoverished farmers crops, while offering him nothing in return, will make him much more likely to vote for the opposition.
In a number of regions, such as the Shomali Plain, east of Kabul, the Taliban and their Pakistani allies destroyed centuries-old irrigation systems as part of a scorched-earth policy against the Northern Alliance.
Attempts have been made to restore water and power. But systematic strikes by the Taliban on power lines and irrigation projects, and attacks on foreign engineers, have brought much of that to a halt. At present, only 9 per cent of the population have access to electricity. Safe drinking water is estimated to be restricted to 6 per cent. The World Bank has authorized a $40m loan for water projects. But while work can begin in the north and west, it is deemed to be too dangerous in the Pashtun belt of the south and east.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd