In Afghanistan, Mercy and Mayhem


December 14, 2003

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    Photo: Scott Heidler/Mercy Corps Photo:

A hellish predawn raid by truckloads of suspected Taliban gunmen took the life of a Mercy Corps veteran in Afghanistan in August. The violence didn't stop there. That wrenching episode was the second murder in a year, a horrible stretch for our relief workers.

The terrorism in Afghanistan continues, a daily fact of life, including: four kidnappings, gunfire sprayed at our vehicles, two cars burned, a bomb lobbed at one of our offices, and blown windows from a blast at the U.N. office across the street.

"We are on the brink of the worst I've ever seen," says Jim White, Mercy Corps' acting country director, who just returned to Portland from Afghanistan.

Now the eyes of the world are riveted on Iraq, judging the United States battle by battle. That microscope was once on Afghanistan. Now, two years after the first bombs were dropped, the world has forgotten this country -- and its lessons.

Security is the essential ingredient of nation-building, followed closely by investments. Without those ingredients we'll fail in Afghanistan -- and Iraq. But in the two years since the Taliban fell, we've dropped the ball on both counts in Afghanistan. Along with our international partners, we've squandered precious time and sorely tested the confidence of the Afghan people that we won't walk away from them -- again -- as we did a decade ago.

And, lately, errant bombs have killed 15 children as U.S. forces hunt down Islamic militants. But if the United States and the international community had created a broad net of security early on, these military actions might not be necessary and such tragic accidents wouldn't be happening.

Mercy Corps, with three offices in Afghanistan and 150 workers, is not the only agency under the gun. Aid workers are attacked about every two days all over the country. A total of 12 relief workers have been murdered there so far this year. For Afghan citizens the spiraling violence is even worse, a recurring nightmare.

Afghans are once again terrorized by "night letters" posted on mosques, warning them not to play music, allow girls to attend school or associate with aid workers who are risking their own lives to help the country rebuild. They tell us the threats are a chilling echo from the deadly Taliban years.

It's easy to see why Afghans are scared. First, consider the enormous security vacuum left when the Taliban regime was removed. That space was quickly filled by warlords and former mujahedeen soldiers supported by coalition forces, by Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who reinfiltrated from Pakistan and even by opium poppy growers -- all benefiting from a destabilized Afghanistan.

Without security after our quick military victory, we've left Afghanistan to unravel once again into a failed state and a haven for international terrorists and drug cartels. That's a prescription for disaster in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

"There are bombings, grenades and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) every day," Mercy Corps' White says of the weapons flung at aid workers. "People are getting killed -- and that's just the international community. Imagine the level of fear for the Afghans themselves." Devolving into chaos It's not as though the need for security caught us by surprise. For months, the current Afghan government, the United Nations and the aid community have urgently asked that the international peacekeeping force in the capital of Kabul be extended to the countryside. So far, that hasn't happened.

As a result, while there is progress in Kabul and some northern areas, huge swaths of the south and southeast are lawless, run by warlords and no longer accessible to relief agencies. Opium production is now 36 times higher than before the 2001 war. Many families tell us they're too afraid of reprisals to send their girls to schools or to register for the upcoming national elections.

In recent days, a group of aid agencies surveyed Afghans about their primary concerns. Security was at the top of the list. Without it, they say, there'll be no reconstruction, no democracy, no peace. Beyond security is another key ingredient -- money. The promised cash for rebuilding hasn't materialized. Last year President Bush announced a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan; other countries also pledged help. Yet, Afghanistan has received only a small portion of the $10.2 billion the World Bank estimates is necessary for the first five years. And the country got just a fraction of the aid-per-person compared to every other post-conflict rebuilding effort since Haiti, including Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo or East Timor.

To make matters worse, just as Afghanistan hit the skids last January and February, the United States was gearing up for war in Iraq, diverting our attention almost completely. That effectively ended the support Afghan leaders needed to pull their country together.

A window of hope If there's any good news in this situation, it's that we now have a fleeting window of opportunity to reverse the losses. Congress wisely diverted a small slice of supplemental funding for Iraq to Afghanistan -- $1.2 billion out of $87 billion. The money will be used to accelerate the training of Afghan police and army forces and to bolster reconstruction programs.

The U.N. recently voted to expand the International Security Assistance Force, now under NATO command, beyond Kabul. This security force or other forces must be sent to the most insecure areas immediately.

The timing is especially important. Work proceeds on finalizing the Afghan constitution and electing a permanent government. If not derailed by the rising violence, elections are set for June. The recent fatal attack by suspected Taliban militants against Afghan census workers shows how continued violence threatens the democratic process.

If reconstruction fails, Afghanistan could again be the incubator for the kind of forces that unleashed Sept. 11.

After 20 years of conflict, Afghans tell us they hunger for peace and progress. In the towns and villages where we work, we watched their hopes soar with the removal of the Taliban and the return of the world's attention.

Helping them climb out of prolonged conflict, a crippling five-year drought, rampant illiteracy and crushing poverty will take sustained commitment. It's as much in our interest as theirs.