Afghan headaches

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Pyotr Goncharov) -It has become bad form not to lash out at NATO and the United States for their actions in Afghanistan.

Many analysts are convinced that NATO's affairs there could not get any worse, and that the U.S. is getting bogged down there like it is in Iraq; that the situation in Afghanistan is going from bad to worse; that NATO and the U.S. are repeating the Soviet Union's mistakes and are doomed to the same fate. However, I believe these assessments are not quite fair.

Needless to say, Afghanistan is going through troubled and sensitive times. The nation has been in the process of consolidation for the last five years, since the rout of the Taliban from Kabul. Today, the situation has reached a boiling point. On the one hand, the reformers want to build a modern democratic society in an Islamic framework that will be based on universal human values and will therefore be largely secular; on the other hand, the Taliban and their eternal opponents, the Mujahideen (war lords), would like to return Afghanistan to their own versions of the past.

Today, the balance has clearly tilted in favor of the reformers, and now the main goal is to keep this success going. During his meeting with Russian experts in Moscow in early February, Ambassador Christopher Alexander, deputy special representative of the United Nations secretary general for Afghanistan, outlined two obvious trends now underway. First, the Taliban has become markedly more active; second, the economy and social relations are getting better, and, most importantly, Afghan society is undergoing consolidation. There are some grounds for these conclusions.

In 2006, the Afghan economy grew by 10%-12%. I will disappoint the cynics right away: this growth has nothing to do with drug trafficking. It resulted from the intensive development of communications and construction, including road building, and trade.

Agriculture, the economy's backbone, is showing signs of hope. Before, it seemed to have been shattered beyond repair. For the first time in 10 to 15 years, Afghan peasants had a surplus of produce, meager as it was, for export to neighboring Pakistan and India.

Credit for this success goes to the financial support Kabul receives from donors around the world, first and foremost, the Afghan assistance package agreed upon in London in February 2006. Essentially, this is a five-year contract between Afghanistan and the world to revive the former's economy by providing $10.5 billion in aid.

Importantly, it provides support to the Afghan national solidarity program, whose primary objective is to invigorate government agencies at the grassroots level. Up to now they have been the weakest link in the process of Afghanistan's recovery.

Under the program, local authorities at the level of shuras (councils) of kishlaks (villages) and regions submit their development plans for consideration by the Afghan Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development and international sponsors. These plans provide for repairs of roads and bridges, construction of schools, paramedical centers, hospitals, and irrigation facilities. The international organizations earmark up to $50,000 to every recipient of aid, and monitor the spending. The ministry has received a total of $650 million. The program has already covered more than 17,000 of Afghanistan's 34,000 kishlaks. Indicatively, women are active on the local shuras, and not only in Kabul's suburbs, but also in eastern provinces, such as Paktia.

Consolidation is a painful process for the nation, because it is bound to run into a huge obstacle: the Pashtuns' historical dominance will run up against the growing role of national minorities, first and foremost, Tajiks, Hazara, and Uzbeks. These minorities were predominant in the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban, and now that they have come to power, they are reluctant to share it with Pashtuns. This problem is not unsolvable, but it requires time.

Afghans themselves believe that the government in Kabul has substantially enhanced security in the country's northern, western, and central provinces. A car ride from Herat to Kabul is a routine event now. The situation in all northern provinces is about the same, but it is much worse in the south and southwest, where the Taliban have become much more active.

Thus in 2006 more than 2,000 militants took part in hostilities on the Taliban's side. In effect, these were army operations. The number of terrorist attacks with explosives grew substantially, and there were 176 suicide bombings (in 2005, the relevant figure was no more than 100). The past year set a record in the number of victims - more than 4,000 dead, compared with about 1,000 in 2005.

In the early stages of its counterterrorist campaign, the U.S. considerably weakened the Taliban's influence in the south and southeast of Afghanistan. The latter started increasing their influence mostly in the Pashtun-inhabited south for both objective and subjective reasons. But one of the main factors in the Taliban's revival was the support it received from some quarters in Pakistan's political establishment and radical Islamic movements.

This question is very sensitive for Afghanistan. Many local experts believe that Britain and China, which have levers of influence on Islamabad, should increase their efforts to end this support.

Today, there are two foreign military structures in Afghanistan: American troops and NATO's International Security Assistance Force with a total strength of 43,000. But today Afghanistan needs not only - and maybe not so much - military aid, as political and economic assistance from the world community.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily coincide with those of the editorial board.

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