Afghan Optimism Hit by Violence

December 6th, 2006 - by admin

Nick Childs / BBC News & Kathy Gannon / AP & Graeme Smith / Globe and Mai – 2006-12-06 23:55:46

Afghan Optimism Hit by Violence
Nick Childs / BBC News

An opinion poll in Afghanistan suggests optimism about the country’s future has fallen significantly in the last year.
But the poll shows that a majority of Afghans still believe that the country is heading in the right direction.

However, there has been a slump in confidence in southern provinces, where Nato forces have been involved in heavy clashes with Taleban fighters.

The poll – for ABC news in the US and the BBC World Service – surveyed just over 1,000 adults across Afghanistan.

On the face of it, this survey appears to reveal a serious slump in confidence in Afghanistan in the past year.
The number of Afghans believing the country is heading in the right direction is down from 77% to 55%, those thinking security is better now than under the Taleban is down from 75% to 58%.

Those who are optimistic about their own future amount to 54%, down 13%.

The statistics are even gloomier in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the scene of intense fighting between Nato and Taleban forces.

Now, only four out of 10 people there think things are heading in the right direction, barely half the figure of a year ago. Eighty percent rate their security as poor.

These trends, if they continue, will be worrying to the authorities in Kabul, Washington and London.

On the other hand, they will surely be heartened that, in the circumstances, there are still positive majorities in the country, not least when comparisons are made with the time when the Taleban were in charge.

These include big majorities overall still backing the US-led invasion, the presence of foreign forces and the current Afghan government compared to the Taleban.
But nearly 80% of people are worried about government corruption.

Also troubling in terms of Western policy, more people than a year ago – 40% to 26% – now believe it is acceptable to cultivate opium poppies, with the figure rising to nearly 60% in poppy-growing areas.

Overall, this survey suggests limited support for the Taleban. But many more people than a year ago – 57% – see the Taleban as the main threat facing Afghanistan.

Post-Taliban Kabul Blossoms for the Rich
Kathy Gannon / Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (November 11, 2006) — Eight-year-old Sajjad’s kite struggles upward. It’s nothing grand — a plastic bag salvaged from a heap of garbage and fashioned into a diamond shape.

But it’s a symbol of change in Kabul, five years after the Afghan capital was freed from a Taliban regime that believed activities such as kite-flying would distract youngsters from studying the Islamic holy book, the Quran.

The US-led war and the Western-friendly government that followed eliminated that rule and a host of others. Girls have returned to school. Public beheadings and amputations as punishment for crimes came to an end.

The times have changed. But in Kabul today the question often asked is: How much and for whom?

Sajjad (he says he has no last name) lives in a neighborhood called Shirpur, a significant symbol of what has changed since US and British bombs drove the Taliban from the city on the night of Nov. 12-13, 2001.

Part of it has been demolished and its inhabitants evicted to make way for a “new Afghanistan” of palatial homes — scores of four- and five-story mansions boasting gold-painted marble columns and floor-to-ceiling windows flanking grand wooden doors.

The owners are the successors to the Taliban — movers and shakers who in 2003 used their new power to seize and clear the land. About 250 of Sajjad’s neighbors were tossed from their homes.

Miloon Kothari, the UN’s housing representative, complained and Afghan President Hamid Karzai promised to investigate, but nothing has come of it.

Now, in the waning days of October 2006, Sajjad runs past a half dozen goats and a cow feasting on rotting garbage to get his flimsy kite airborne. He lives with seven brothers and four sisters in a single-story house of dried mud, straw and pebbles. He wears cracked plastic sandals and a torn brown shirt with only three buttons remaining.

One of his neighbors, Aziz Mohammed, a potbellied man with a speckled beard, stands ankle deep in the mud he is using to winterize his home of 25 years.

Mohammed says he has been told that his and his neighbors’ houses will be flattened soon to make way for more mansions.

The owners of these mansions “are commanders, ministers. It makes me angry. These people use everything that isn’t theirs and they ruin the houses of the poor people to build their homes,” said Mohammed. “The Taliban were no good, they were just stupid people. But in this new life there is no job, nothing.”

The man who ordered the first homes razed in 2003 was Kabul Police Chief Abdul Bassir Salangi. He has two houses in the ostentatious subdivision. Salangi has since been appointed police chief of eastern Nangarhar province and could not be reached for comment.

The big question, said Najibullah Siddique, director of the Afghan charity Afghans for Tomorrow, is why the billions of dollars in foreign aid that has poured into Afghanistan isn’t making a difference. “Why doesn’t the government help the poor? Why do the government people and commanders build big mansions and poor people still live in bad conditions?”

Gul Haider, a commander of the Northern Alliance that swept into Kabul after the Taliban’s collapse, makes no apology for owning a mansion in Shirpur.

“This is the new Afghanistan. We are just beginning. All these houses are from the private pockets of Afghans and I hope one day that all of Afghanistan will be beautiful like Shirpur,” he said in an interview.

“We are praying for the poor people to have houses like us,” he said. “But everything belongs to God. God knows better who should be given property and who shouldn’t. God gave us this property and we built our houses. We are praying that God will look more favorably on the poor.”

In the months following the Taliban’s collapse there were signs of a business renaissance. Barbershops, beauty salons and music stores reopened. Afghan exiles returned to start businesses.

But many have since been driven out by runaway corruption, lawlessness and the violence perpetrated by a resurgent Taliban, highlighted by a string of recent suicide bombings in Kabul.

Post-2001 Afghanistan has an elected parliament but it is criticized for its inclusion of warlords, commanders and mujahedeen leaders.

Last May, an outspoken lawmaker, Malalai Joya, attacked the warlords and rebel commanders in the chamber for their role in the civil conflict that destroyed Kabul and killed 50,000 civilians when they were in power between 1992 and 1996, a period of anarchy that gave rise to the Taliban. The response from the floor was threats of rape and death.

A recent report by Womankind Worldwide, a British-based advocacy group, challenges the notion that Afghan women are better off now.

It said the scenes in 2001 of women throwing off their all-covering robes were misleading, and that except for a small elite in Kabul, women still have to cover their entire bodies.

It said up to 80 percent of all Afghan marriages are forced, 57 percent of girls are married off before age 16, some as young as 6, “and the number of women setting fire to themselves because they cannot bear their lives is rising dramatically.”

While girls are back at school, the program is far short of where it should be, says Siddique.

“Girls education is like a car,” he said. “During the Taliban there was no gas and the car didn’t work. Now we are putting in gas and it is running but it isn’t because of this government. Any government after the Taliban would have had girls education. But what guarantees do we have? Corruption in the government has delayed schools being built.”

Meanwhile, schools are being destroyed, some by the Taliban but as many by tribal feuds, village animosities, and anger at the government for perceived injustices and corrupt practices, he said.

Kabul traffic is a nightmare, a huge contrast from the Taliban era, when only bicycles, yellow taxis and Taliban pickup trucks were running. Luxury SUVs, many driven by the 2,000 employees of the UN and aid agencies, remind the desperately poor how they have been left behind.

Mohammed Habib, an out-of-work laborer, carried his 1-year-old son Mujtaba as he walked the streets begging for food. He said the infusion of foreign aid hasn’t changed his life.

“Money comes to help the poor people but the commanders and the government people take it,” he said. With the Taliban gone “we thought our future will be better, but every day we are poorer.”

Habib might not have noticed, but the culinary landscape of Kabul has changed.

In Taliban times, eating out meant roadside food stalls and rice and kebab restaurants. Now there are restaurants offering French, Italian, Lebanese, German, and Indian cuisine — but at prices out of the reach of most Afghans.

Alcohol, banned by the Taliban and still offensive to most Afghans, is served, although more discreetly now than in the first post-Taliban years. The government is cracking down by banning the sale of booze at the duty-free stores frequented by foreigners.

Visitors can spend up to $500 a night to stay in the new Landmark Suites hotel, which has a shopping mall and the country’s first escalator.

Afghans flocked to the complex and its glass-enclosed shops when it opened, though many couldn’t afford the prices.

Hajji Sadiqullah says he is two months behind on the monthly rent of $1,500 for his cosmetics and hair supplies store. “Another month like this and I will die,” he said.

In contrast to the Landmark Suites, the Allauddin Orphanage with its hundreds of poor children has a new coat of paint, a few computers, a ration of food from the government and electricity most of the day. But in winter heat still comes from wood stoves, one for each room where nine or more children sleep. And elsewhere in Kabul there is electricity for barely three hours on most days.

Corruption is so rampant that it can take a $50 bribe just to get the tax collector to register payment of your taxes.

On a street corner, a traffic policeman sidles up to a car window, palm out for money. On a small side street, five women in burqas hold out their babies to passing cars, begging food.

Habib, the laborer, looks at the new mansions in Shirpur and sees injustice.

“These people are very bad people. That money was for us and they took it,” he said. “The Taliban time was very bad and now it is very bad for the poor. Where is the difference?”

Amir Shah, an Associated Press correspondent in Kabul, contributed to this report.

Afghans To Use Herbicide on Nation’s Poppy Crop
Graeme Smith / Globe and Mail

TIRIN KOT, Afghanistan (November 28, 2006) — The United States has persuaded Afghanistan to spray herbicide on poppy fields in an effort to slow the country’s opium boom, according to a senior Western diplomat.

A security review will be conducted before the plan goes ahead, the diplomat said. But already rumours of chemical eradication are spreading in southern Afghanistan, where many say it would spark a revolt among farmers and put Canadian soldiers at risk.

Afghanistan has not previously tried chemical spraying, as President Hamid Karzai expressed deep misgivings about the effects of herbicides on villagers and legitimate crops.

But US politicians are now encouraging a more aggressive drug policy in Afghanistan, after estimates show this year’s opium crop was 59 per cent bigger than the previous year’s harvest.

“The assumption here is that this is being pushed by Congress,” the Western diplomat in Kabul said. “I suspect the US embassy here is not that excited. They know the drawbacks to eradication in general and spraying in particular.”

Those drawbacks are clear to southerners such as Haji Agha Lalai, a provincial council member in Kandahar, whose home district of Panjwai is a major source of opium and a battlefield where Canadian troops regularly fight Taliban insurgents.

“The people will be angry about this spraying, very unhappy,” Mr. Lalai said. “It will make the situation worse.”

Spokesmen for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics and the Counter Narcotics Police said the government hasn’t made any decision about spraying. Privately, one counternarcotics official in the south said he’s heard persistent talk of a chemical eradication program but he can’t get definite answers from his bosses in Kabul.

No spraying can happen until next year, the narcotics official added, because the poppies planted by farmers this fall won’t be vulnerable until their green shoots emerge from the ground in the spring.

In Kabul, a US official denied that any decision has been reached, but confirmed that Americans are talking with their Afghan counterparts about a possible spraying program “on a test basis.” The spraying would be conducted by ground vehicles, instead of aircraft, said the US official, adding that NATO and other countries would be consulted before any action.

“We cannot at this point even speculate when, or even if, that decision will be taken,” the official said.

The first major poppy-eradication program in Afghanistan was launched by the Taliban in 2000 as the regime imposed a harsh law that dramatically cut production, and raised the cash value of the Taliban’s own opium stockpile. Mr. Karzai launched his first eradication campaign in April, 2002, with less success. Provincial governors and district officials usually lead the efforts, which annually destroy a tiny fraction of the crop. The same local politicians are often accused of profiting from the drug trade.

Britain and the United States donate most of the money for eradication programs in Afghanistan, while the United Nations monitors the results. Canada does not participate in eradication, preferring to work on alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers.

A recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that Afghanistan’s opium crop had grown to 165,000 hectares this year, up from 104,000 last year. This pushed supply above demand by 30 per cent, the report said, although Afghanistan’s farmers still earned $750-million (US), making opium the largest sector in the economy.

Foreign advisers in Afghanistan are divided about how to handle the growing drug problem. Drug lords are seen as a source, or conduit, of the money that feeds the insurgency, and opium profits are believed to have corrupted Afghan officials at the highest levels. Still, some prominent analysts say they’re convinced that spraying is a mistake.

“News of this year’s record crop is likely to increase pressure from the US Congress for eradication, including aerial spraying,” Barnett Rubin, author of a recent report on Afghanistan for the US-based non-partisan research centre Council on Foreign Relations, said in testimony to a congressional committee.

“Such a program would be disastrously self-defeating,” Mr. Rubin said.

“If we want to succeed in Afghanistan, we have to help the rural poor, which is almost everyone, and isolate the leading traffickers and the corrupt officials who support them.”

One landowner from Sangisar, a village west of Kandahar city, said in an interview last week that his workers planted about 10 hectares of poppy on his land this season. Ever year, some districts are visited by Afghan eradication teams that use conventional slash-and-burn methods of destroying poppies, he said, but it’s not a serious effort: Any farmer with enough local influence, bribe money or connections in the provincial capital can avoid the authorities.

“If you destroy my poppy, I will not fight you,” the landowner said.

“I am a rich man. If somebody promised me the kingdom of America, I would not fight. But the farmers on my land would fight because they are poor.”

US contractors working in Afghanistan, such as DynCorp, have experience with spraying herbicides on drug crops. DynCorp aircraft reportedly spray herbicides on coca fields in Colombia, but a report by the international think tank Senlis Council suggests this wasn’t effective, damaged the environment and killed the crops that ordinary people need to survive.

“Evidence shows that aerial spraying directly led to an increase in social unrest, instability and violence,” says the Senlis report.