InterAction Member Activity Report: Afghanistan

Situation Report
Originally published


Background Summary
Afghanistan remains mired in a prolonged humanitarian crisis as it begins to emerge from more than 20 years of war. A decade of Soviet occupation followed by civil strife and the repressive Taliban regime left the country more deeply impoverished and without a functioning government, adequate infrastructure or essential social services. The situation was compounded following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by the ensuing international military action. Many people sought refuge in neighboring countries, joining 3.7 million refugees that had already left Afghanistan in earlier years. Relief activities have prevented large-scale famine, and more than two million refugees have now returned home. A new Afghan government has been established and increased international access and aid commitments after the fall of the Taliban have raised the prospect of recovery. However, the government in Kabul is still struggling to restore order to the country, and widespread insecurity is hampering the efforts of aid organizations to provide assistance. Some of the major challenges facing humanitarian organizations are the issues of de- mining, facilitating the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and increasing output of agricultural products other than opium poppies. There is also the enormous task of holding free and fair elections, developing a sound financial and banking system, and rebuilding a fragile infrastructure.

Wars and invasions have played a large role in Afghanistan's history, starting with Alexander the Great and subsequent invasions by the Persians, Turks, and Mongols, among whom power vacillated for the next 11 centuries. In 642, the Arab invasion introduced Islam to the region. Afghanistan, as it is currently known, was formed in 1747 under the rule of Ahmad Shah Abdali of the Durrani Empire. In the 19th century, the expanding British and Russian empires clashed over Afghanistan, which resulted in three Anglo-Afghan wars in 70 years. It was only after the third war in 1919 that Afghans were able to declare independence and gain full control of their foreign affairs.

Mohammed Zahir Shah ascended the throne after the assassination of King Nadir Shah in 1933 and ruled over a relatively calm nation until 1973. In that year, a severe drought and an economic downturn set the conditions for a successful military coup led by Zahir's former Prime Minister, Sardar Mohammad Daoud. Five years of modest growth and stability were halted in 1978, when the Afghan Communist Party spearheaded a bloody coup that was followed by two decades of war and civil strife.

In 1979, the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in order to preserve the faltering and unpopular Communist government. At its peak, this prolonged conflict produced an outflow of 6 million Afghan refugees to Pakistan and Iran. Almost a decade after the invasion, in 1988, the Geneva Peace Accords were signed, bringing an end to the conflict. In 1989, the USSR fully removed all of its troops, leaving behind a country scarred by constant upheaval and with a ruined economy and infrastructure. For the next several years, stability remained elusive as power repeatedly changed hands, resulting in political chaos and warlordism.

In 1996, the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic militia, captured Kabul and eventually gained control of 90 percent of the country. Under Taliban rule, religious fundamentalism was state policy, human rights were abused, and development halted. New regulations on foreign aid programs imposed further obstacles for humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan.

In October 2001, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, US- led forces invaded Afghanistan in order to expunge the terrorist organization blamed for the attacks and oust its Taliban backers. Following the coalition's military victory, Afghan leaders met in Bonn in late 2001 and agreed on a plan for the creation of a new government. Hamid Karzai was inaugurated as the Chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA), and the following year he was elected President after a nationwide Loya Jirga. According to the Bonn Agreement, nationwide elections are to be held by June 2004.

According to the United Nations, Afghanistan is still near the bottom of human development indicator rankings and among the poorest states in the world. Basic infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, irrigation, canals, telecommunications, and electricity are lacking, damaged or inadequate in much of the country. Key institutions, such as the central bank, civil service, and the judicial system remain extremely weak. The majority of the population continues to suffer from insufficient nutrition, housing, clothing, and medical care.

Approximately 65 percent of the population in urban areas and 81 percent in rural areas do not have access to safe water. It has been reported that still only 25 percent of the urban population, and 12 percent in rural areas, have access to improved sanitation facilities. A mere 6 percent of the population has access to electricity.

Droughts, floods, and earthquakes have all added to the state of pernicious poverty that has plagued Afghanistan. From 1999 to 2002, Afghanistan suffered its worst drought in 30 years. The water shortage contributed to public health problems and lowered agricultural output.

Much of the population, including the landless rural poor, internally displaced persons (IDPs), returnees, as well as people living in chronically food insecure areas and regions affected by persistent drought, still depend on food assistance provided by the humanitarian community. Prior to the prolonged war and drought, Afghan households were able to produce about 86 percent of their food. Now they are only able to cover about 59 percent of their total food requirements. Chronic malnutrition affects over 50 percent of children under five.

The need for international involvement in Afghanistan is heightened by one of the largest United Nations-assisted refugee repatriation efforts in history. Afghan refugees, mostly located in Iran and Pakistan, make up the largest refugee population in the world. But in 2002 alone, over 1.7 million Afghan refugees returned. In addition, there are an estimated 400,000 IDPs in the country, many of them former refugees.

Another aspect of the current humanitarian situation is the lasting effect that years of Taliban rule have had on Afghan women. Prior to the Taliban takeover, many women were able to escape traditional restrictions on their activities. However, many of them missed years of employment and now need intensive training and support to help them rejoin the labor market.

Although more girls are now attending school, on average girls make up only 30 percent of the student population. Six out of ten school age girls are still not receiving basic education, and in some provinces, girls have a one- in-a-hundred chance of going to school.

Access to healthcare for women was severely restricted during the Taliban era, and at 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births the country is estimated to have the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Afghanistan also has the world's lowest child survival rate. Infant mortality is estimated at 165 per 1,000 live births and under-five mortality is as high as 257 per 1,000 live births. Life expectancy at birth in Afghanistan is 43 years, compared to 59 years for low- income countries worldwide.

Although NGOs have had a presence in Afghanistan for decades, aid organizations were able to enter the country in greater numbers after the Taliban regime was toppled. This momentum has been halted by the growing insecurity around the country. There is mounting concern that the Taliban is reorganizing, and that regional warlords will not relinquish power to the new government. The deteriorating security situation is a major deterrent for aid organizations as well as capital investment. NGOs have had to withdraw from the most dangerous parts of the country. Eighteen NGO workers were murdered in the fifteen months preceeding publication of this report.

The presence of millions of landmines scattered throughout the country represents another security threat. Afghanistan is one of the world's most heavily mined countries. Most of the landmines are on agricultural land, which provides three-quarters of the country's income, making food production dangerous and difficult. Many landmines were placed in the small canals that irrigate farmland so farmers can't use the water for fear of detonating an explosive. Landmines have been cited as one reason why farmers are increasingly growing opium poppies, which require less land and water. Opium poppies, which are processed into heroin, also yield approximately eight times more income per hectare than wheat with less water, less labor, and fewer inputs. As a result, Afghanistan is once again the world's largest opium producer, accounting for more than 75 percent of worldwide opium poppy production. As much as 50 percent of Afghanistan's GDP is estimated to come from this single source. The inability of the central government to discourage poppy production is one reflection of its weakness. The profitability of the narcotics industry demonstrates the failure of governments where the drugs find their market to curb domestic demand.

Report Summary

This report offers international agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the media and the public an overview of the humanitarian and development assistance being provided to the people of Afghanistan by InterAction member agencies.

Twenty-eight member organizations have reported on their current or planned relief and development operations in Afghanistan. The programs address a broad range of sectors, including: agriculture and food production; business development; disaster and emergency relief; economic development; education and training; food security; gender issues; health; human rights, peace and conflict resolution; infrastructure rehabilitation; refugee and IDP assistance; and water and sanitation. These activities take place in a number of locations throughout the country.

The agencies in this report have presented various objectives for their programs in Afghanistan. Many deal with addressing the immediate needs of the refugee/IDP population through the distribution of food and non-food supplies, provision of health care services and education. Some agencies focus on particularly vulnerable populations, such as women and children. Other common themes among program objectives include human rights, agriculture, infrastructure rehabilitation and small business development.

Many of the agencies in this report work with the support of, or in coordination with, local and international partners.

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