The optimism of those involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan took a downward turn at about the same time aid workers started getting killed. Bettina Goislard, a 29-year-old French national working for the UN refugee agency, was murdered on November 16 as she drove through Ghazni. Two gunmen on a motorbike drove up beside her vehicle and shot her six times. Two months earlier, five Afghan staff of a Danish aid organization had been taken from their car and gunned down on the roadside.
At least 11 aid workers have been murdered in the past three months as part of a new strategy by opponents of President Karzai's government. The killings are a demonstration that much of the country is still ungovernable and they increase the suffering of the civilian population by disrupting the delivery of assistance.
They also show how misguided US policy on Afghanistan has become. The concentration on the "war on terror" and the attempt to defeat terrorist violence by military means have been a major cause of the current crisis and, paradoxically, helped create the conditions for the Taliban to rebuild support.
The Loya Jirga, or grand tribal assembly, due to be held today but postponed until the weekend, has been called to approve a constitution intended to steer the country to a stable, democratic future. It couldn't have come at a worse time. Last Wednesday two US soldiers were injured in a grenade attack in Kandahar. On Friday a UN worker was killed in an ambush on the road to Herat. On Saturday 20 people were badly injured by a bomb that devastated Kandahar, and a US air strike in Ghazni aimed at a former Taliban commander killed nine children.
What has gone so badly wrong? The Afghan transitional government, put in place after the Bonn peace accords in December 2001, was dominated by the US-backed Northern Alliance and, with the exception of Karzai, accords no positions of power to ethnic Pashtun, who provided the powerbase of the Taliban. After the fall of the Taliban, some 60,000 Pashtun fled the north in the face of revenge attacks by Uzbek and Tajik militias. The US continued to provide support to local warlords in its fight against the remnants of the Taliban in 2002, despite the fact that the new Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission was building up a massive caseload of complaints against the militias. It is hardly surprising that few Pashtun, or civilians from any group, feel they have a stake in the government.
Last Thursday, US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Afghanistan to meet two prominent warlords, Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammed, who have spent much of the past year fighting each other. He also had a photo call with the beleaguered Karzai, to whom he offered words of encouragement: "Those who have been defeated... would like to come back... but they will not have that opportunity." But in the absence of better security, legitimacy conferred by the US is a liability.
Even before the Taliban re-emerged, the authority of the transitional government did not extend much beyond the capital. In October the UN security council extended the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force, but it is yet to be deployed beyond Kabul. The country remains essentially lawless. Many government departments are headed by former commanders and once again Afghanistan is providing three-quarters of the world's opium crop.
The tragedy of Afghanistan's faltering reconstruction is that the Bonn accords, conducted under the auspices of the UN and supported by Afghanistan's neighbors as well as the major internal factions, gave the country a genuine political agreement on which to build. The draft constitution due to be debated this weekend is in many ways an inspiring document, pledging the country to a multi-ethnic future, entrenching the universal declaration of human rights, and providing protection for minority rights.
But its implementation remains a distant hope. Elections following approval of the constitution are due in June, but these are likely to be postponed, further damaging Karzai's credibility. The UN secretary-general has noted that the security required to enable eligible Afghans to participate fully in elections "does not really exist".
To provide that security and ensure that the billions of dollars pledged to Afghanistan are received will require a major international effort. The US, responsible for two out of three foreign troops in the country, cannot evade its responsibility, but it needs to discharge it according to the values it preaches. One of the big lessons from Afghanistan is that good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law are not optional when it comes to rebuilding a country, but an intrinsic part of reconstruction.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003