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J. West | The Nation

J. West

Author Bios

J. West

John West, a former Reuters Middle East
bureau chief, heads the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting's Afghan journalist training project in
Kabul.<

Articles

News and Features

Several weeks on from the loya jirga national council, the
streets of Kabul have an extra bustle. Whereas in January the place was
deserted by 6 pm, now the curfew has been extended to midnight, and it
costs only $5 to buy the password that can allow your taxi to careen
through checkpoints into the early hours. The chaotic rhythms of Indian
music waft over jingling bicycles and tooting cars, while chai
khanas
, ubiquitous teahouses, are full--as are the growing number of
restaurants, frequented by the thousands of foreign aid workers and
other internationals. Increasing numbers of women cross through the
center of town, adorned with a light head scarf rather than the stifling
blue nylon burqa. Fresh life is palpable.

But not far below the surface, the loya jirga has changed little
in the country. The suave President Hamid Karzai ostensibly presides
with new legitimacy over a more representative administration. But
except for juggling one of the ethnic Tajik-run power ministers, the
so-called Panjshiri mafia of the old Northern Alliance mujahedeen
fighters remains firmly in control, not only at the top but among the
practical levers of control such as police chiefs, secret service heads
and army commanders.

Without his own power base, Karzai is seen by some as less a real chief
executive than a liberal opposition figure against his own
Cabinet--offering no apparent strategy for securing and unifying the
fractious country. "The only question," according to Paul Bergne, a
former British special envoy to Afghanistan, "is whether this is because
he has no interest, or simply a reasonable interest, in staying alive."
Especially with the exclusion from power of former King Zahir Shah, the
majority Pashtuns, concentrated in the south, where the Taliban emerged,
feel disfranchised and demoralized. Rubbing salt in the wound, pictures
of the martyred Ahmed Shah Massoud, the rebel leader killed by the
Taliban on September 9, adorn every checkpoint, office and street
corner, and even prayer mats on sale in the city markets.

Soon after the loya jirga, Vice President Haji Qadeer, an ethnic
Pashtun, was gunned down in front of his office by two assailants, who
escaped easily. The United States quickly agreed to provide American
soldiers to serve as bodyguards for a somewhat panicked
Karzai--doubtless a prudent security measure, but one viewed as shameful
by Afghans worried that their leader is Washington's puppet. Meanwhile,
public anger over continuing deaths of Afghan civilians at the hands of
US rocket fire--such as the 175 casualties at a wedding in the tense
southern province of Oruzgan--compelled even Karzai himself to complain.
Separate UN and US investigations into the incident have been launched,
amid speculation that the reports will never be released or that the
most damaging conclusions--including alleged American removal of
evidence--will be redacted. International troops are seen as essential
for keeping the local fighting at bay, but Pashtuns bitterly question
why the bulk of civilian casualties appear to be among Pashtun-majority
areas in the south.

The overwhelming majority of the country's 20 million-odd people are
still poor, ill and unemployed. Basic statistics confirm that the
country remains at the bottom ranking of many development indexes,
whether infant mortality, girls' enrollment in primary education (under
10 percent), annual deaths from diarrhea (85,000) or chronic
unemployment, which cannot even begin to be measured.

Afghan officials--facing growing pressure from their own
constituents--have been raising ever sharper alarms about the pace of
aid payments. According to the US special envoy, only around one-third
of the $1.8 billion in aid pledged for the year at an international
donors' conference in Tokyo has been released. Kabul earns tax revenues
of less than 15 percent of its $600 million annual budget. As a result,
most aid has been spent either on humanitarian needs or simply on the
daily costs of government. There have essentially been no major
reconstruction works that would pump funds into the economy and rebuild
the country's devastated infrastructure.

The first postwar administration in any society is inevitably
problematic. Without any conditions for democracy--too many guns and
recalcitrant warlords, no free press or civic institutions for
independent organizing, no functioning economy--establishing a
legitimate and representative administration is not easy. As the Bush
Administration insists, enormous changes have indeed taken place.
Whatever the problems, conditions are vastly improved from the
circumstances of only a few months ago--when the country was plagued by
severe persecution and increasing food shortages with seemingly no hope.
Indeed, some Afghans respond sharply to any probing questions about the
costs and benefits of the US intervention. "Those are questions for a
Western perspective," remarked a senior local editor. "For us, we are
glad the Taliban are gone."

Yet the risks of an unattended Afghanistan remain high. The transitional
administration faces an enormous challenge, aiming to pave the way for
truly democratic elections in 2004 while striving to balance conflicting
and often violent local interests, and struggling to sustain
international support. The core conflict, however, may be between
America's pursuit of Al Qaeda and Afghan democracy itself: The US
military directly supports many Afghan warlords as allies in its effort
to stamp out Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts. Continuing that policy will
have a devastating effect on efforts to establish democratic central
government and a meaningful civil society. This is especially true
considering that, despite US training efforts, the establishment of an
effective Afghan national army is years away, and Washington and other
Western governments repeatedly reject Afghan calls--recently joined by
Senators Joseph Biden, Richard Lugar and Barbara Boxer--to extend the
international security assistance force to major cities other than
Kabul.

As a result, the government's authority effectively ends at the
capital's edge. As a result, too, peace could be short-lived. As BBC
regional specialist Behrouz Afagh-Tebrizi notes, "There is a consensus
to avoid a return to war, but there has not been any change in political
culture. Unless the unresolved conflict between the warlords of the
1990s is transformed into a purely political struggle, it is not hard to
see Afghanistan descending back into violence."