Last week, President Bush claimed that the "Taliban no longer is in existence." This inaccurate statement is just the latest in a continuing White House effort to paint a rosy picture of life in Afghanistan.
Far from the success story the Bush administration sells to the world, however, Afghanistan remains a country in crisis. As the Oct. 9 Afghan presidential election draws near, the country is in danger and disarray. Drug production is booming, Taliban attacks are increasing, al Qaeda’s capacity is growing, and warlords rule across the countryside. The Afghan people face danger and intimidation at the polls, hunger and chronic malnutrition at home, and a future that still holds uncertainty and fear for women.
While we all share the goal of a successful election and a safe and democratic future for Afghanistan, facing the facts is critical. Here is the reality on the ground:
- Taliban resurgent, attacks increasing. The Taliban have been making a steady comeback since the U.S.-led coalition removed their government from Afghanistan in 2001. The Afghan death toll attributed to the Taliban rose by 45 percent this year, and Taliban leaders have stepped up their attacks in the run up to the Oct. 9 presidential election. More than 40 election workers have been killed or wounded in the past four months, and President Hamid Karzai himself narrowly escaped a recent Taliban assassination bid.
- Evidence of renewed al Qaeda capacity. The Bush administration claims that it has destroyed al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Afghanistan. However, a video reportedly showing a new al Qaeda training camp operating in Afghanistan or near the Pakistan border surfaced several months ago. Senior members of al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, remain at large. Last month, Maj. Gen. Eric Olson stated, "[t]here are senior leaders of al [Qaeda] that are working through operatives in Afghanistan�??????They are involved in planning and in some cases directing attacks inside of Afghanistan."
- Afghanistan in danger of becoming "narco-state." U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad warned recently that ”[t]here is a potential for drugs overwhelming the institutions – a sort of a narco-state." Indeed, in a troubling new trend, the country appears to be moving rapidly from opium production to heroin processing, indicating the development of organized crime networks that could erode the security environment even further.
- Record opium production expected. Afghanistan’s opium production, which already accounts for 75 percent of the world supply, is expected to reach record high levels this year. The $2.3 billion industry helps finance terrorism and creates severe domestic instability, with funds empowering al Qaeda and the Taliban as well as Afghan warlords and militias.
- Warlords and militias wreak havoc. The U.S. strategy of cooperating with warlords continues to undermine security, democracy and the rule of law in Afghanistan. Warlords and armed militias rule vast areas of the country, preventing President Karzai from extending his authority outside of Kabul, and creating violence and instability. Karzai has called private militias the top threat facing Afghanistan. A new survey from the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium finds that "[Afghans] continue to be exposed to all manner of humiliation and abuse at the hands of gunmen. The rule of law is effectively non-existent throughout the country, and consequently, a culture of impunity dominates."
- Free and fair elections in jeopardy. The presidential election now scheduled for Oct. 9 has been delayed twice, and experts are concerned that rampant insecurity, Taliban violence, and voter intimidation may jeopardize its legitimacy. According to a new report from Human Rights Watch, "Voters in many rural areas have already been told by warlords and regional commanders how to vote and, given the general political repression and unfamiliarity with democratic processes, are likely to obey." A recent U.N. report warns that an increase in international security assistance is critical if the elections are to be free and fair. While President Karzai has called repeatedly for international help, NATO leaders pledged a meager 3,500 troops in response.
- Aid workers forced to withdraw. Indicating how precarious the security situation in Afghanistan has become, Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) – a fixture in the country through 24 years of warfare – was forced to pull out this summer due to increasing security concerns. Afghanistan is the first country the organization has pulled out of since its founding. The activities of MSF and other aid organizations are critical for Afghanistan, which does not have the capacity to deliver such services to its citizens.
- Afghans struggle with crippling food shortage. According to the U.N. World Food Programme, widespread crop failure means more than 21 percent of Afghans "will need food and non-food assistance in the coming year." About half of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition, and there is a high incidence of micronutrient deficiency diseases.
- Women continue to suffer. Despite rights guaranteed them in the new constitution, many women continue to face Taliban-like restrictions and violence. Discrimination against women by local authorities has been particularly harsh in some areas, and women attempting to exercise their rights have been subject to threats and intimidation. Advocacy groups point out that less than 3 percent of the funds Congress has approved for Afghanistan over the past three years were earmarked for women.
- Women and children’s health poor. According to a new UNICEF report, Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, as well as high under-five and infant mortality rates. Sixty percent of Afghan households do not have access to safe drinking water. Access to basic health services is very limited, especially for women, who "continued to be denied access to adequate medical facilities due to cultural barriers and basic lack of availability of resources," according to the State Department.