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Afghanistan: the aftermath of regime change: Iraqis worried about the future of their country cannot be encouraged by what they see in Afghanistan, America's first effort at nation-building in the Islamic world. Eighteen months after regime change, Afghanistan is still teetering on the edge of collapse. Giles Trendle reports from Kabul. (Current Affairs).

The destroyed ruin of the Russian cultural centre building in Kabul is home to some 140 families who have returned to Afghanistan from neighbouring countries since the overthrow of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001.

In the forecourt of the old Russian compound destroyed during Afghanistan's civil war, children jostle around a communal tap, the one source of potable water, to fill up plastic jerry-cans. A woman squats on what was once the stage of a small outdoor amphitheatre, cooking rice on a makeshift stove. A young girl looks on in quiet contemplation, sitting on one of the diving blocks by the empty Olympic-size swimming pool now littered with chunks of rubble.

Families such as those in the Russian cultural centre are no longer classified as refugees but as internally-displaced people (IDPs). They are back in their own country, but they are unable to return to their towns and villages due to the continued instability in some parts of the country.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 2m refugees returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran throughout the course of 2002, and that nearly 200,000 refugees have returned since January this year. Hundreds more are returning each day. Many find themselves returning to a country devastated by years of fighting, suffering a shortage of housing, jobs and food.

In a recently released report on the fate of the Afghan returnees, human rights group Amnesty International warned that the situation in Afghanistan is "not conducive to the promotion of voluntary repatriation of refugees." The report states that the return of refugees is being hindered by continued fighting and insufficient aid and reconstruction assistance from the international community. The inability of many refugees and IDPs to sustain their return is, according to Amnesty, exacerbating the situation.

"The return of refugees is not sustainable as there is neither safety nor dignity for the returnees," said the report's principal author, Pia Oberoi of Amnesty. "Repatriation should not be encouraged as large-scale returns will destabilise the country and lead on to more attempts to seek refuge in other countries."

Amnesty International has called on governments hosting Afghan refugees and asylum seekers--including European countries--not to promote repatriation of these refugees by means of penalties and coercive measures. The human rights group expressed its strong concern about the forced return by the UK authorities of 21 Afghan asylum seekers in April.


In the eyes of the world, the war in Afghanistan ended at the end of 2001 with the US overthrow of the Taliban regime. In reality, Afghanistan is not a country that can be described in any way as being in a 'post-conflict' situation.

Continued 'turf wars' break out between regional and local commanders of different factions. Fighting has been particularly frequent in and around the northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif between the forces of Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ustad Atta Mohammed.

The process of disarming such factions is being prevented by the activities of the US-led coalition forces, who are still paying large sums of money to warlords and regional commanders for cooperation in the hunt for Taliban and Al Qaeda fugitives.

The US has perpetuated the arbitrary rule of feuding warlords and local militia leaders who establish their own laws and exact their own taxes, taking the lion's share for themselves and their close supporters. For example in Kandahar, the former stronghold of the Taliban in the south, the US-sponsored warlord Gul Agha Shirzai presides as local governor, raking in taxes and duties, running local businesses and maintaining his own private militia.

Taliban Resurgent

In parallel to the popular frustration and resentment is the re-emergence of the Taliban. Evidence for this comes in the form of an ever-increasing escalation in the guerrilla war being waged against government and foreign troops in Afghanistan.

There have been dozens of small hit-and-run attacks by suspected Taliban fighters in eastern and southern Afghanistan. In July, Afghan soldiers engaged with a force of about 100 Taliban fighters in a remote mountainous region near the Pakistan border. The battle proved inconclusive as the Taliban fighters melted away to fight another day.

Until recently the capital, Kabul, was considered an island of security in an otherwise unstable and volatile country. Not anymore. There have been an increasing number of attacks in the capital, and in July four German troops of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were killed by a suicide bomber driving a taxi filled with explosives.

In addition, there has been an increase in attacks targeted at non-government organisations (NGOs). Two aid workers have been murdered in the past few months resulting in the withdrawal of NGO and UN staff, in particular international staff, from aid projects in parts of the country. Two-thirds of the country is now considered unsafe for international aid agencies to conduct relief and monitoring exercises. Some UN agencies still work in the south, but they have had to request armed escorts in order to be able to travel with some measure of security.

Some aid workers blame the US army's Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs)--"aid workers in uniform" as they have been described by NGO's--which have been deployed in selected towns throughout Afghanistan to provide humanitarian assistance. The aid agencies say the PRTs blur the line between humanitarian workers and soldiers in the eyes of the local population, and so put their staff at risk.

The Taliban also appears to have gained an important new ally. Famed warlord Gulbbudin Hekmatyar has joined the resistance after returning from exile in Iran. In a recent video message he urged Afghans to rally together and drive all US and other foreign troops from the country. "I invite all Afghan factions to forget our differences and oust the foreign troops," he thundered, "Cut the hands of the foreign meddlers." The Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) party of Hekmatyar is a well-organised force and its participation is likely to add real muscle to the resistance.

One local Kabul resident, typical of the long-suffering civilian population that has lived through so much violence and volatility, is resigned to the eventual return of the Taliban to Kabul. "They will be back," he said.

One of the core problems facing Afghanistan is the increasing alienation of the country's Pashtun majority since the ousting of the mainly Pashtun Taliban regime. Power now lies in the hands of a mainly Tajik clique in the government led by powerful Vice President and Defence Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim.

Diplomats and analysts say Fahim's control over the defence ministry and intelligence agencies has to be reduced if the peace process is to advance. The Afghan national army, being put together at a painfully slow pace, is unlikely to be accepted around the country unless its command structures are more ethnically balanced.

On top of the ethnic inequity is the increasing resentment at the presence of foreign troops, particularly the Americans.

Last May several hundred Afghans marched through Kabul chanting "Death to Bush" and "Long Live Islam". It was the first demonstration explicitly against the US military occupation of the country. The march included university students, government workers and political activists demanding better security and economic reconstruction. Others called for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

The protest also revealed the deep hostility and resentment of broad layers of the population to the country's appalling social conditions and the broken promises of the US and its allies to alleviate the situation.

Donar aid

The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not only short on popular legitimacy. It has no money with which to pay the majority of its employees. In the Interior Ministry alone, 96,000 workers, most of them police and border guards, have not been paid for several months. Last year the government received only 16% of the $1.8bn in international aid--the rest was managed directly by donor countries and aid agencies.

Not everyone in Kabul is feeling the pinch. A small but lively restaurant scene has started for the thousands of expatriates who have flooded the city in the wake of the Taliban's fall. One such place is the Lai Thai restaurant in the Wazir Akbar Khan district, where foreign diplomats, aid workers and journalists eat at their leisure. The only Afghans in sight are the security guards and drivers waiting outside in the street. The clientele inside the restaurant, served by Thai waitresses in silk costumes, can expect to pay $20 per head for a meal with beer or wine--a small fortune for an Afghan family.

There are some valuable lessons in Afghanistan about the challenges of rebuilding a state after enforcing regime change. Afghanistan remains precarious and volatile, stuck in a limbo between war and peace. The US-led coalition forces appear to be defending a narrowly based regime against widespread hostility or opposition. Since the regime change at the end of 2001, the country appears to have dropped off the international agenda. Yet the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, remains at large and appears to be leading, from the shadows, a growing insurgency of hit-and-run attacks. Iraq-watchers take note.
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Author:Trendle, Giles
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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