A dire economic situation, tens of thousands of civilians killed, a corrupt political system. Nothing is going well in Afghanistan: Reinhard Erös weighs up the situation in the wake of the NATO decision to withdraw in four years
So NATO passed a new strategy in Lisbon last weekend. For the first time in its history, the largest military alliance of all times had to discuss an exit strategy – to finally put an end to its mission in Afghanistan.
Perhaps the withdrawal plan from Afghanistan might be better named "exodus" strategy. Exodus derives from the Greek exodos meaning departure from a country; exit, on the other hand, is from the Latin exitus – the medicinal term for death.
The withdrawal of the troops from the Hindu Kush is unlikely to spell the end of NATO, however, whereas the Soviet army's departure from Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s was the beginning of the end of worldwide communism.
Sealed in February 1989, the defeat of the then strongest military force in the world was cloaked in fine words by the gerontocrats in the Kremlin. They wanted to win the war in their formulations at least, even though victory was impossible in the Afghan valleys: "We have fulfilled the obligations of our socialist brotherhood, leaving behind a stable Afghanistan with a strong president and a powerful Afghan army and police force."
Devastating consequences of 1989
In actual fact, what they left behind in February 1989 was more than 1.5 dead and almost two million physically and mentally mutilated Afghans, more than six million refugees in the neighbouring countries, more than 15,000 fallen Soviets, 200,000 crippled veterans and an Afghanistan that descended into chaos not much later.
In 1994 the Taliban overran the country, putting a stop to the Soviet-induced anarchy but establishing a regime of terror such as Afghanistan had never seen before. The calm they brought was the peace of the grave. It was the germination of what we now so fear: worldwide Islamist terrorism.
No improvement despite billions in aid
When the NATO troops have pulled out of Afghanistan in four years' time – according to the Lisbon announcement – and handed the country back to the Afghans once again, we shall see whether this time a state remains that is capable of standing on its own two feet.
At the moment, unfortunately, that seems less than likely. After nine years of war and expenditure of over 700 billion dollars by the NATO states – admittedly mainly for their own troops – the Afghan regime is far from providing what one might expect of a government in any country: a stable state that gives its people security, at least modest prosperity and a future for the younger generation.
The country has topped the worldwide corruption ranking lists for years; life expectancy and quality of life, in contrast, are at the other end of the scale.
Afghanistan has 30 million inhabitants. Never in modern history has a country with such a small population received so much financial support in such a short period as Afghanistan, amounting to some 40 to 50 billion dollars.
And yet the majority of people in this country are still lacking the most elementary of things. Six out of ten Afghans still have no access to clinical medical care. Eight out of ten Afghans have no clean drinking water. Partly due to an exorbitant birth rate, fewer and fewer children are attending school. But why should they, one might add – the teaching quality is deteriorating further and further anyway.
Yet this poor education for the children and the miserable pay for the teachers are a fatal combination. The few Afghans with good academic training are recruited by foreign organisations, which can pay ten times as much as the Afghan state – 1,000 dollars a month rather than the measly 100 that teachers earn.
That means they can feed their families. But they are overqualified for the work they do: administration, translation, driving. A classic case of brain drain within the country itself.
To give another example: 10,000 kilometres of tarred roads have been built in the past few years. How nice. All the foreigners in Afghanistan have cars, and the NATO troops need roads too. But how many Afghans own motor vehicles? Less than 5 percent.
To make matters worse, opium and heroin production has multiplied fifteen-fold since the end of the Taliban regime. The profits not only fund the drug barons' luxury villas and investment funds in the Emirates; the Taliban and international terrorism also finance their activities through this dirty business. Yet even after nine years under NATO's wing, Afghanistan produces as good as nothing legal for export.
The threat from the helper
For centuries, the population managed to subsist on what was grown in their own country. Now, however, millions of Afghans rely on foreign food.
What is growing exponentially here is the number of fatalities among foreign soldiers. More than 2200 foreign soldiers have died in Afghanistan to date. If the deaths of NATO soldiers continue at the same rate as in the past two years up to the planned exit in 2014, there will have been 4500 fatalities.
The number of Afghan women, children and old people killed is in the tens of thousands. This figure too has risen dramatically from year to year. Last year, more Afghan children died at the hands of NATO troops than in rebel attacks; at times, it seems, the helper can be a greater threat than those it wants to protect the population from.
If we are to believe the 2009 annual report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the humanitarian situation is no better now than it was under the Taliban regime.
What remains? Not more than a vague hope: that the West and the Kabul government will turn the situation around over the next four years, that the deaths of so many will not have been in vain. In one sense only, NATO's involvement in Afghanistan was certainly not for nothing: it has cost huge amounts of money and destroyed thousands of lives.
© Süddeutsche Zeitung/Qantara.de 2010
Reinhard Erös is a former colonel in the German army medical corps. He and his wife Annette and their five children run the charity Kinderhilfe Afghanistan (Child Care Afghanistan), building village and high schools, orphanages, medical stations, computer training centres and vocational schools in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan since 1998 to provide humanitarian aid and promote reconstruction.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de