President Karzai was said to have felt publicly humiliated after he agreed to be questioned by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on 26th February, in front of TV cameras, contrary to normal practice for Heads of State. After a presentation which gave a particularly optimistic picture of the situation, he was discomforted by a challenge by a Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, that his role was to "somewhat be rather positive about what's going on for obvious reasons". He expressed the hope that President Karzai would be "speaking plainly and directly in private" and would "do so to the President of the United States". Putting further pressure on him to be more forthcoming, Senator Hagel added "And if you leave an impression that everything is going well and the problems and challenges are minimal but they are all manageable - and that may be pushing the boundaries a bit, if that's the case - the next time you come back, then your credibility will be in question. " It was unfortunate for Mr Karzai that the State Department's Coordinator for Afghanistan had described the situation in much bleaker terms at a hearing on 18th February but the fact that such disrepect was shown to Mr Karzai may be seen as a reflection of his heavy dependence on US support.
It is interesting to note, in this regard, that one of the indicators of success that both President Karzai and the US government used in their public statements was the large scale return of refugees from Pakistan and Iran. This is at variance with the findings of a report published by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit on 2nd February, entitled "Taking Refugees for a Ride? The Politics of Refugee Return to Afghanistan." This noted that the return of 1.5 million refugees from Pakistan and 261,000 from Iran had been a consequence of heavy pressure from both governments, including a significant level of police harassment. It also commented that media coverage of the Tokyo Conference had encouraged Afghans in both countries to assume that there would be a high level of reconstruction funding and that there would, therefore, be plenty of jobs to be had. The Iranian government had further reinforced this through a sustained media campaign, stating that it was now time for Afghans to return and that the UN would provide them with assistance on their return. AREU noted that "these 'encouraging messages' were not matched with the material and economic support required to maintain these new arrivals in the long term". The report concluded that pressure from the host countries had combined with adverse economic circumstances at the household level to encourage return and that those who had remained felt in a better position to withstand the daily harassment and hostility by virtue of their stronger economic position. AREU expressed the view that the aid community and the Afghan government had been premature in encouraging the return "to a country still in the grips of a devastating drought, political instability and weak government institutions unable to cope with the returnees". It commented that "instead of catering to the interests of refugees, the decision to facilitate the mass repatriation was driven by neighbouring countries, donor interests and political pressure to legitimise the new government."
However, the joint statement issued by the US and Afghan governments, following Karzai's visit, was certainly justified in claiming credit for the large scale relief programme undertaken over the winter of 2001-2, in response to the drought. It added that the US had now committed £133 million for a three year primary health care programme, $80 million to the rebuilding of the Kabul-Kandahar-Herat road, $60 million for education programmes, $15 million to restore irrigation systems and other essential services and $6 million to assist in the management of water systems.
The US Congress had to intervene to find these funds after the Bush administration, in an apparent oversight, had failed to request any money for Afghanistan in its latest budget. This episode reinforces a pattern existing since the Bonn Agreement in which US financial planning for Afghanistan has been very short term, ad hoc and erratic. This was manifested in the announcement by the US President, in the spring of 2002, that there would be a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan and subsequent evidence that no such budget had either been created or planned for. It was only when an assassination attempt was made on Hamid Karzai in September 2002 that substantial funding was allocated, for the rebuilding of part of the major highway system. This level of financial uncertainty cannot have helped Hamid Karzai feel reassured that the USA would not walk away from Afghanistan and may have been a factor in the heavy stress that he placed on this concern during his visit.
The European Commission, in contrast, has drawn up a Country Strategy Paper for Afghanistan for the 2003-2006 period, underpinned by a statement by Christopher Patten, Commissioner for External Relations in which he said "I am determined to ensure that the European Commission remains fully engaged in Afghanistan even if world attention shifts to other places of conflict and post-conflict rehabilitation."
This paper presents a very measured account of the achievements of the post- Bonn Agreement governments and of the risks to future success. It notes that the Afghan government has been effective in drawing up a National Development Framework and related budget, in taking on an important coordination role for humanitarian interventions and in taking on a more direct management role for health and education programmes. It, however, identifies key risks, including:
- The political situation remains unstable.
- Central Government's grip on the regions
is weak - there is a risk of fragmentation.
- The fragile internal security situation
continues to limit the impact of the aid programme outside Kabul.
- The weak institutional capacity of the
transitional Government undermines the effective use of aid flows.
- Unless the building blocks for stable
macro-economic framework are more rapidly put in place, there is a risk
of moving towards unstable budget deficits and high inflation.
- Weak agricultural prices, limited options for alternative income and lack of law and order in certain provinces are encouraging increased poppy production.
- Building the capacity of key government
ministries. The Commission is concerned that the government bureaucracy
should have access to a greater level of resources, both provided directly
and through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, to enable it to
provide basic services and cover the salaries of key personnel such as
teachers, nurses, doctors and police. It also seeks to support the
efforts of the government to increase its revenue base through customs
and other taxes from the regions and to increase the effectiveness of the
state bureaucracy through public administration reform.
- Rural development and food security.
The Commission recognises the need for rural households to supplement agricultural
income through alternative livelihoods strategies, including labour intensive
work programmes to construct feeder roads and strengthen the potable and
irrigation water infrastructure. Funding will also be provided to promote
women's active participation in the rural economy.
- Economic infrastructure. Over 90 million
euros has been allocated to infrastructure projects, foremost among which
is the reconstruction of the Kabul-Jalalabad-Torkham road, in cooperation
with the Swedish Government.
- Provision of a basic health care package aimed to help reduce infant and maternal mortality.
In an effort to present a more ethnically-balanced Defence Ministry, the Defence Minister, General Fahim, has replaced 16 Tajik generals by officers from the Pushtun, Uzbek and Hazara ethnic groups. The Uzbek leader, Rashid Dostam, has also been replaced as Deputy Defence Minister by Gul Zarak Zadran, a Pushtun.
The UN reported on 2nd February that a UN demining team had been beaten and robbed in Farah, in western Afghanistan, and that two employees of the World Food Programme had had their vehicle seized by armed gunmen as they were driving near Sheikabad, some 50 km south of Kabul.
Mercy Corps International, one of the largest and longest-established NGOs operating in southern Afghanistan, announced, on 19th February, that it had suspended operations in some parts of Afghanistan due to a deteriorating situation in the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan.
On 20th February, a bomb exploded in the office of IOM in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan.
On 28th February the UN advised that it had suspended its programmes in three districts of the southern province of Zabul and also in the Gosfandi district of Sar-i-Pul Province in the north, due to security concerns.
UNICEF has suffered from two major thefts during the month. The first, on 3rd February, resulted in, according to some reports, the loss of a considerable amount of cash from the main office in the centre of Kabul after armed men had broken into the compound. The second, on 21st February, involved the theft of equipment, valued at thousands of dollars, from a warehouse on the outskirts of Kabul. This had been preceded, a few days earlier, by an armed break-in to the offices of the French NGO, Solidarite, and the theft of cash.
The British Foreign Office states that the security situation in Afghanistan remains serious and the threat to Westerners high, arising from heightened tension in the region. It notes that there remains a specific terrorist threat against visible British institutions and organisations and against British nationals in Afghanistan. It adds that there is also a high security risk arising from recurrent outbreaks of fighting between different Afghan groups.
Among the indicators of heightened risks to Westerners is a statement issued on 8th February in the name of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and thus assumed to originate from remnants of the Taliban. The statement urged Afghans to take part in a jihad against US-led coalition forces based in Afghanistan. It also issued a warning to all Afghans loyal to the US and the Karzai government to dissociate themselves from their work or face the consequences. A similar warning was given to political and media organisations and NGOs.
Another indicator is the distribution, for the first time in Kabul, of pamphlets known as "night letters", warning foreign soldiers and their allies that they are targets or urging the population to rise up against them.
There is also an increased risk to western agencies arising out of US-led coalition offensives in Helmand. A delegation from the district of Baghran, where the assaults were concentrated, visited Hamid Karzai on 15th February to express their concerns over the reported deaths of 17 civilians over the previous week. A spokesman for the coalition denied that civilian deaths had occurred but General Dan McNeill, the head of US military operations, met with President Karzai to discuss the issue. President Karzai is reported to have warned General McNeill that the US military should tread with greater caution.
Germany and Holland formally took over responsibility for the International Security Assistance Force on 10th February from Turkey. However, both countries announced on 21st February that they might withdraw their troops from ISAF if tensions in Iraq sparked anti-Western sentiment which threatened their troops.
Japan hosted a conference on February 22nd to discuss strategies for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants (DDR). Pledges were made by international donors totalling £50.7m to support this process. A draft strategy is being prepared by a team of Afghan government and UN officials, arising out of the conference, and this will be publicly announced by Hamid Karzai on March 21st. Among the proposals is a programme to register former combatants, identify their skills and help them select options for reintegration into civilian society such as vocational training and land grants. Both Hamid Karzai and Lakhdar Brahimi laid stress, at the conference, on the difficult challenges that the DDR process would present.
The disarmament exercise being conducted by the Mazar Multi-Party Security Commission in Maymana in Faryab Province has not resumed since stalling on 18th January. Since then, there has been an increased presence of armed soldiers in and around Maymana from both the main factions. Clashes broke out on 22nd February when a delegation from the Interior Ministry arrived to replace the Governor of Faryab, who is aligned with Dostam. The Security Commission has also been called upon to deal with tensions in a village to the north of Mazar-i-Sharif, brought on by the repeated movements of armed personnel, and also in Sholgara district, to the south of Mazar.
The Afghan Minister for Petroleum and Mines, Juma Mohammad Mohammadi, held discussions with the Pakistan government towards the end of February on possible areas of cooperation. Among these was an offer by Pakistan to purify raw copper from Afghanistan's ample reserves and to also import iron from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Mr Mohammadi was killed when a small plane that he and other members of his delegation were travelling in within Pakistan crashed on 24th February. He is the third Minister to have been killed since the Bonn Agreement although, at this stage, there is no suggestion that the cause was anything other than pilot error in low visibility. His death will deprive the Afghan government of important expertise gained in a previous role at the World Bank and may slow down efforts to attract external investment for a proposed pipeline to transport gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan.
The Humanitarian Situation
Reports from humanitarian agencies suggest that the agricultural recovery process, following the three years of drought, is proceeding reasonably well in the north-western provinces, which were particularly badly hit. It appears that more farmers had retained seed for replanting than had been feared, thus reducing the need for externally organised seed programmes. Livestock numbers are also increasing at an encouraging rate. It is therefore possible for NGOs to focus again on long-term agricultural support programmes.
It is hoped that the heavy snowfall and rains which hit the country in mid February will alleviate the continuing effects of the drought in southern Afghanistan. However, as noted above, the difficult security environment in the south will mean that the area will not benefit from NGO-operated long-term agricultural programmes to the same extent as other areas.
In spite of the improved agricultural production situation, there remain substantial humanitarian needs. Thus, WFP reported that, from 20th to 26th February, it was providing food commodities to 847,880 people. 60% of the food distributed has been used for Food for Work and FOODAC projects in Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Faizabad. The percentages of other WFP programmes were as follows:
- Free food distribution to 40,300 beneficiaries
in Faizabad and Mazar-i-Sharif: 16%
- Food for Education: 9%
- Bakeries projects for urban vulnerable
populations in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar, currently benefiting
149,800 people: 8%
- Relief and Resettlement of IDPs and
- Supplementary feeding for 4,000 beneficiaries in Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Kandahar: 0.5%.
Although UNHCR has acknowledged in a number of statements that the economic and human rights situation is not conducive to refugee return, it has agreed to facilitate the return of a further 1.2 million refugees from Pakistan and Iran during 2003. It may be worth reminding ourselves of statements made by UNHCR in December 2002 which were quoted from in the BAAG Monthly Review of that month. In that issue, we stated:
"UNHCR expresses its concern about "the capacity of the war-torn country to absorb the sudden influx of millions of people" and notes that "substantive reconstruction aid for infrastructure repair and employment is still urgently needed if returns are to be sustainable". It concludes that "security and living conditions in Afghanistan are not yet sufficient to encourage all refugees to return at this time". It stresses that "repatriation programmes aim to facilitate those refugees returning on their own to begin rebuilding their lives under difficult conditions". UNHCR has called on host governments to recognise that "while for many Afghans the reasons for their exodus may have ceased to exist, there are still others who need continued international protection" and asks them "to provide support and ensure that returns are phased and coupled with development and reintegration support to increase the capacity in the communities of return".
Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, visited Mazar-i-Sharif on 28th February for discussions with Rashid Dostam of Junbesh, Atta Mohammed of Jamiat-i-Islami and Saradar Saeedi of Hisb-e-Wahdat on the continuing threat to Pushtuns in the north arising from their perceived association with the Taliban. Mr Lubbers has supported the establishment of a Return Commission, chaired by the Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, Enyatullah Nazari, to encourage the return of the many thousands of Pushtuns who fled to southern Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US-led military intervention of October 2001, in response to violence by the other ethnic groups. This displaced Pushtun population is presently housed in temporary camps at Spin Boldak and in a purpose-built camp at Zhare Dasht, to the west of Kandahar. The three northern leaders gave an undertaking that they would work together to improve security and end ethnic tensions in support of the efforts of the Return Commission. However, the indications are that the Pushtuns displaced to the south will be extremely cautious about returning and, although it is significant that these three leaders have been brought together to discuss the continuing threat to Pushtuns, they are likely to face difficulties controlling their own footsoldiers or ensuring that Uzbek, Turkoman or Tajik communities do not commit acts of violence against any Pushtuns who return.
Stated international perceptions of the situation in Afghanistan continue to vary wildly, with some taking the view that, considering the enormous obstacles, significant progress has been made since the Bonn Agreement while others place stress on the very enormity of these obstacles to present a picture of relatively little change. It is of concern that the large scale return of refugees from Pakistan and Iran is repeatedly used as an indicator of success when all the evidence points to a high level of duress combined with media-induced and ill-founded hopes of improved economic opportunities as key factors in the return.
The security situation in Afghanistan has shown a marked deterioration in the past month yet the international community is planning to support a further large scale return of refugees which will place even further strains on a highly fragile political, economic and security environment. This decline in security may be seen as an indication of a likely further decline in the event of a US-led military intervention in Iraq. We may, therefore, expect radical elements to exploit any increase in anti-western feeling and it is possible that the various power holders in Afghanistan will see an opportunity in reducing international attention on Afghanistan to strengthen their relative positions, both within a fragile government and outside it. The ability of the aid community to maintain its programmes in such an eventuality and therefore support returning refugees is therefore in question. If, as Germany and Holland are stating, they may withdraw their forces from ISAF if the US does intervene in Iraq, the ability of the Afghan government to provide the necessary stability for refugees to achieve a sustainable return will also be in question.
This report is published by the British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) Project, based at the Refugee Council, London. The Project is funded from a number of sources, including the UK Government's Department for International Development and individual British NGOs operating in Afghanistan. However, the views expressed are those of the BAAG Project and do not represent any official view of its funders.
For more information, please contact:
The Secretariat, BAAG at Refugee Council, 3 Bondway, London SW8 1SJ
Telephone: 00 44 20 7820 3098/7840 4400
Fax: 00 44 20 7820 3107 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org