AFGHANISTAN AT THE CROSSROADS

Professor Geoffrey Wood, University of Bath, on 18 October 2002.

As a professional analyst of rural development, poverty and livelihood in South Asia, the speaker first visited Afghanistan in 1967. He has worked in Pakistan, but lately (April) revisited Afghanistan in order to review the post-war programme of the `Afghan Aid' agency, there since 1983. In the 1990s the agency attempted to move from relief to development, but after the Russian withdrawal at least five conflicting tribes (with differing versions of the Muslim religion) fought one another, from 1992 to 1996. When the Taleban forced the Northern Alliance to withdraw, the agency had to go with them, so that after 1998 they could only work in the extreme north-east province, until recently. Besieged and drought-ridden, that area was in fact then more distressed than elsewhere in Afghanistan.

Since 1979, food insecurity was accompanied by political uncertainties, as geo-political struggles for power were played out. As neighbouring countries competed for control, a network of Afghan commanders formed power coalitions of warlords, which became the de facto political structure. As money flowed in, to pay for support, inflation and the power structure brought great disparities of rich and poor. Most people are tied to agriculture, forestry, etc. and are dependent upon single crops and their personal animals, but because their food needs can only partially be met locally, relief has come from the US-based World Food Programme. Although food is scarce, poppies which are more easily grown, are still being grown and exploited as a source of opium.

Thus, many threats face the people. Apart from sieges and droughts, households face decline of land access as their local populations grow - because more children help to spread risks. As borders are closed, trade is inhibited. Roads once provided by competing cold-war benefactors were then destroyed, but are now being funded once more by both America and Russia, although their rebuilding is problematical. Local government is in the hands of warlords and if they are removed, their successors must rebuild both physical and social structures. Policies and provision for environmental management (of erosion and for irrigation, etc.) and for livestock, energy, drinking water, and many other essential needs are urgently required. Both physical and social infrastructures are lacking and local governors expect agencies to provide them.

Afghan Aid policy provides aid for `village' development, but those Afghan complexes are in fact clans organised hierarchically, unstable, distrustful of each other and internally very inequitable. Since wheat is provided rather than money, because its value is more stable, the only banking system is based on barter and both family support and mobility are hindered. It is also clear that here, as elsewhere in South Asia, too much aid too soon into weak structures fosters much corruption and exploitation, e.g. the rocketing levels of Kabul rents.

Since warfare over many years compelled the seclusion of women for their protection, a developing `Islamification' has greatly affected their situation, which will inhibit their contribution to reconstruction. As broken extended families have shrunk to mere nuclear relationships for bare survival, the elderly, sick and female members suffered in particular. Poverty and debt increased and exploitation became common. With little mobility possible, bonded labour and quasi-slavery is widespread. Although the Russians encouraged education, their successors did not and most educated people became expatriates. While women are now showing determination to survive and have a great spirit, are more mobile and are becoming involved in teaching, there is an urgent need for informal primary education, at least.

Professor Wood concluded by stressing that in the wake of ethnic disputes over the spoils of the Taleban defeat, peasants must give loyalty to commander networks, but they want security through the formation of a national army. This could foster investment in agriculture and skills developments, health and general education, etc.

Questioned on his views on the future for Afghanistan, the speaker emphasised the need for continued aid, despite the qualifications and problems involved. Afghans have suffered over many years from external interference, which has then been followed by withdrawal of help when it was most needed. While the Pashtun leaders need US support now, they fear that if they are seen as mere puppets, the remaining pro-Taleban Pashtuns and others in Pakistan will gain support. On the other hand, since pragmatism is essential for them the aid agencies have to compromise and collude, while the new state bodies cannot achieve control in order to provide cohesion. If suitable structures are to be built, a national army will be needed.

Nancy Catchpole