Afghanistan: The Year in Review
Afghanistan has emerged as perhaps the pivotal nation of Central Asia. Developments in Afghanistan could have a significant impact on regional stability. Journalist and author Ahmed Rashid takes a detailed look at events during the past year in the war-torn country, providing background that enhances understanding of ongoing trends.
The war in Afghanistan entered its 23rd year as the ruling Taliban militia, which is dominated by the majority Pashtun ethnic group and control 80 percent of the country, continued to try and wipe out the forces of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance (NA) commanded by Ahmed Shah Masud. The NA forces are made up of non-Pashtun minority ethnic groups such as Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras and a growing number of Pashtuns opposed to the Taliban. For the US and the West the continued sanctuary given by the Taliban to the Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden remained their principle contention with the Taliban.
There was fighting in northern Afghanistan in early March, but the Taliban failed to make headway against Masud's forces. The Taliban received a major blow to their prestige when two top NA leaders, who had spent three years in a Taliban jail, managed to escape on March 27. Ismail Khan, 65 years old, who had led the Mujheddin resistance against Soviet occupying forces in the 1980's and then fought the Taliban, escaped from Kandahar jail in southern Afghanistan. Abdul Zaher, whose father Haji Qadeer led the anti-Taliban resistance in the eastern city of Jalalabad until 1996, escaped with him. They both arrived in Iran a week later.
In April the Taliban issued several appeals to the international community to help victims of draught in three southern provinces and a locust plague in Baghlan province. The draught worsened over the summer, affecting the entire country, but the Taliban's refusal to announce a cease-fire discouraged international aid even as the World Food Program struggled to feed an extra 300,000 people. By July the UN had collected only US $86 million dollars or 36 percent of its annual 2000 humanitarian aid appeal of US $220 million. The international response for a UN appeal to combat the draught was even worse. After three months the UN had received only US $8 million out of US $67 million.
In June under pressure from Pakistan and the international community to close down terrorist camps for non-Afghans, the Taliban said they had closed down two camps near Kabul at Rishkor and Kargha and another near Khost where Arabs and Pakistanis were known to be based. However the foreign fighters from these camps were moved to the north while Bin Laden also moved to the north to escape a rumored US attack against his camp.
The Taliban launched their summer offensive against the NA on July 1. Before dawn thousands of Taliban troops and dozens of tanks attacked from five directions, trying to blast their way through NA positions just 30 miles north of Kabul. Taliban jets bombed villages killing at least 30 people as thousands of villagers fled before their advance. However they were repelled by Masud's forces. On July 9 the Taliban launched another attack against Masud's forces, but were again beaten back losing more than 400 fighters in the two attacks.
As fighting subsided around Kabul, the Taliban launched their long expected offensive in the northeast of the country on July 28, in a bid to cut Masud 's supply lines with Tajikistan. The attack was preceded by the arrest of a leading pro-Taliban commander Bashir Baghlani and hundreds of his fighters, who were suspected of wanting to change sides to Masud. The Taliban carried out intensive bombing of civilian targets and tens of thousands of refugees fled eastwards towards the Pakistan border, as the Taliban slowly made headway towards Taloquan, the headquaters of the NA.
Throughout the year there were growing signs of splits and dissent within the Taliban leadership, while the tribal Pashtuns demonstrated growing resentment against the strictures and corruption of Taliban rule and their lack of consideration for the economically hard pressed population. On January 13, the money market in Kabul was robbed by its Taliban guards who stole the equivalent of some US $200,000. The money market shut down in protest for several days as the 'Afghani' plummeted against the US dollar. On January 25, 400 tribal leaders from four eastern provinces - Paktiya, Khost, Paktika and Gardez - forced the Taliban to replace local Governors, as they protested the conscription drive by the Taliban and the sharp rise in taxes, which they complained were being sent to Kabul rather than being used for local relief. On January 27, over 2,000 people held an unprecedented anti-Taliban rally in Khost.
As the draught worsened, prices for foodstuffs rose by over 75 percent between January and July and the Afghani continued its slide from Afghanis 56,000 in February to Afghanis 75,000 on April 19, after which the money market was closed again. Smugglers and transporters blamed the Taliban for harboring Bin Laden, which had led to UN sanctions in November 1999 and the stoppage of flights bringing smuggled goods from Dubai. In late April the Taliban arrested the head of its air force General Akthar Mansuri and 10 other officials in Kandahar for helping Ismael Khan escape. At the same time there were clashes in Nangarhar province between the Taliban and local Pashtun tribes loyal to the NA.
Several opponents of the Taliban were shot dead in Peshawar and other Pakistani towns, allegedly by pro-Taliban Pakistani hit squads, creating enormous fear amongst the refugee population in Pakistan. The powerful pro-Taliban Governor of Kunduz, Arif Khan was shot dead while visiting Peshawar on April 4. There had been rumors he was about to defect to Masud.
On April 24 Maulvi Mohammed Siddiqullah, a retired Pashtun commander was also shot dead in Peshawar. On July 5 a prominent tribal elder who supported the peace initiative of former King Zahir Shah was shot dead in Kohat. In July Pakistani police arrested Abdul Qahir Shariati in Peshawar at the request of the Taliban, due to his anti-Taliban activities. Some 200 of his supporters were later arrested inside Afghanistan for attempting to stage what the Taliban termed a coup attempt.
Six bomb blasts in Kabul during July, including two aimed at the Pakistan Embassy were reported to have been placed by Taliban dissidents. Meanwhile, large numbers of Pashtun tribal leaders expressed support for the Zahir Shah peace initiative, which called for a traditional Loya Jirga or grand tribal council to end the war. The former King sent delegations around the world to gather support for his proposal which was backed by the UN and the US.
The Taliban's extremism and expanding support of Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist movements from neighboring countries increased international hostility towards the movement. In November 1999 the UN Security Council (UNSC) imposed limited sanctions on the Taliban and demanded the extradition of the wanted Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden. On December 19, 2000 the UN imposed far more stringent sanctions against the Taliban.
The Taliban play host to extremist groups from Central Asia, Iran, Kashmir, China and Pakistan. Thousands of Pakistani and Kashmiri Islamic militants fight for the Taliban. Pakistan continued to suffer from sectarian terrorism carried out by Sunni and Shia extremists while Sunni extremists were given sanctuary by the Taliban. The Taliban also give sanctuary to a plethora of Kashmiri groups including Harakat ul Mujheddin (HUM), who carried out the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in December 1999. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which in the summer of 1999 launched an abortive offensive against Uzbekistan's regime, have bases in Afghanistan's northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which is controlled by the Taliban.
The Taliban also give refuge to Sunni Iranian groups who are opposed to the Shia regime in Tehran, as well as to Uighur Islamic and separatist militants from the majority Muslim Chinese province of Xinjiang, who carry out terrorist attacks against Chinese security forces. Nearly 1500 Arabs from more than a dozen countries under the command of Bin Laden also fight for the Taliban and plan global terrorist attacks from Afghanistan.
All these groups are self-financing through the lucrative trade in opium. While the linkages between these extremist groups from across the region is growing, coordination amongst regional states and the international community to control them was not effective. Thus in 2000 international efforts by the US, Russia and the regional states to coordinate anti-terrorism measures were stepped up.
Russia's accusations against the Taliban increased dramatically after Kabul recognized the government of the breakaway Republic of Chechnya and allowed the Chechens to open an embassy in Kabul on January 16. During the next few weeks there were reports that 200 Taliban had left to fight in Chechnya while Chechen refugees, particularly young boys and the families of leading Chechen commanders began to arrive in Kabul and Kandahar. On March 12 Russia gave the first of several warnings to the Taliban that it would bomb alleged Chechen and Uzbek terrorist camps in northern Afghanistan.
At the end of May Russia declared that after a meeting between the Taliban, the Chechens and Bin Laden, a joint terrorist training camp had been set up in Mazar, in order to train Islamic dissidents from all over Central Asia. Russia threatened to bomb the camp while the Taliban countered that they would hold Uzbekistan and Tajikistan responsible for any pre-emptive Russian air strike. On May 26 US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Karl Inderfurth visited Moscow and issued a joint statement with his Russian counterpart condemning the Taliban. The US and Russia set up a bilateral consultative group on countering Taliban sponsored terrorism. In early June, as tensions with Uzbekistan intensified, the Taliban moved troops to Hairatan on the Afghan-Uzbekistan border.
In early May Juma Namangani, who led a 1,000-strong group of IMU Islamic dissidents from Uzbekistan and had been based in Tajikistan, arrived in Mazar to join up with Tahir Yuldeshev, who was already based in Mazar with a group of another 1000 Uzbek dissidents. The IMU which aimed to topple the regime of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov were given sanctuary by the Taliban and funded by Bin Laden. In early August a group of some 100 Uzbek fighters under Namangani's command entered southern Uzbekistan from Afghanistan and fighting broke out between them and Uzbek security forces.
There was growing coordination against the Taliban across the region. In early April Russia, China and three Central Asian Republics held a summit meeting of the Shanghai Five group in Dushanbe, Tajikistan where they strongly condemned the Taliban for supporting terrorism and set up an anti-terrorist center in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Chinese President Jiang Zemin said China would step up the fight to counter ''national separatism, international terrorism, and extremism'' emanating from Afghanistan.
In July Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxhuan visited Islamabad where he called publicly on Pakistan to do more to end the war in Afghanistan and he refused to meet with Taliban leaders. The Central Asian Republics were further infuriated when the Taliban began Russian language radio broadcasts from Herat to Central Asia and published inflammatory Islamic literature in six Central Asian languages.
Iran continued to support the NA with increased military aid and also attempted to reconcile differences within the NA. On March 15 Iran organized a meeting of two rival Afghan Uzbek leaders Generals Malik and Rashid Dostum in Meshad, after which they announced a new alliance against the Taliban. On Iran's initiative Masud met with his long time rival Dostum in Termez in Uzbekistan on March 22, but there was no conclusive agreement.
However Iran also attempted to improve relations with the Taliban. On January 20 an Iranian delegation arrived in Kabul for talks with the Taliban on reopening the Iranian embassy in the capital. Iran had ceased diplomatic relations with the Taliban after nine Iranian diplomats were murdered by the Taliban in 1998. However in late May, Iran closed its border with Afghanistan due to incursions by Afghan drug traffickers and Tehran said it would set up a barbed wire fence along the entire 725 kilometer border.
Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, but at the same time the military government demanded that the Taliban extradite Pakistani terrorists wanted for sectarian killings in Pakistan. Pakistan also held a series of talks with the Taliban to regulate the smuggling trade between the two countries. Pakistan became increasingly isolated in the region as all neighboring states criticized its support of the Taliban.
US efforts to force the Taliban to extradite Bin Laden and persuade Pakistan to cease support for the Taliban continued. On January 21, Karl Inderfurth arrived in Islamabad and met with Taliban diplomats who ruled out Bin Laden's expulsion. Inderfurth also publicly asked Pakistan to ban the Kashmiri HUM terrorist group. There were continuing attempts by Bin Laden's supporters to
attack US targets. On March 28 Jordan indicted 28 Arab followers of Bin Laden for planning terrorist attacks on US targets in Jordan during the millennium celebrations. In mid April the Abu Sayaf terrorist group in the southern Philippines, who claimed to have received US $3 million from Bin Laden, kidnapped 27 hostages from a Malaysian island resort including foreign tourists. On May 17 President Bill Clinton said that Bin Laden had planned several terrorist attacks against targets inside the US during the millennium celebrations and asked the US Congress for an increase in the administration's US $9 billion counter-terrorism budget.
On February 6 the Taliban came under renewed international scrutiny after distraught Afghan civilians hijacked a passenger plane on an internal flight from Kabul and flew it to London where they asked for asylum. The hijacking ended peacefully four days later. 73 passengers returned to Afghanistan, while 69 demanded asylum in Britain and 13 Afghans were charged with the hijacking.
Several attempts to bring the warring factions to the negotiating table failed to yield positive results. Francesc Vendrell, a Spanish diplomat was appointed as the new UN Secretary General's Special Representative to Afghanistan on January 18. He toured the regional capitals and Afghanistan but UN efforts failed to make headway. The UN humanitarian agencies faced continuing difficulties with the Taliban. At the end of March, UN agencies closed down their offices in Kandahar for two weeks after their offices were raided by the Taliban.
However on April 13 the Taliban dismissed thousands of civil servants in Kabul including all women workers, which created a new crisis with the UN. On July 10 the Taliban ordered all foreign non-governmental agencies (NGOs) in Kabul to sack their Afghan women employees. Mary MacMakin, an American 72 year old NGO worker was arrested and released four days later. The UN expressed dismay at the Taliban's restrictions.
In March the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) organized indirect talks between the Taliban and the NA in Jeddah with no outcome. The OIC held a second round on May 8 where at first both sides agreed to a cease-fire and an exchange of prisoners. The Taliban later denied it had agreed to a cease-fire and criticized the OIC for misrepresenting the outcome of the talks. The OIC initiative, which was backed by the UN, quickly collapsed. Japan also launched a peace initiative inviting both sides to Tokyo for talks in early March. The factions also held talks in Berne under a Swiss initiative.
However the second round of UN sanctions imposed on the Taliban specifically in December 2000 dramatically isolated the Kabul regime. The joint US-Russia proposal for additional sanctions passed with a 13 to 0 vote in the UN Security Council with only China and Malaysia abstaining. It is the first time that the two Cold War enemies have collaborated so closely on the issue of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. In the 1980's the US spent billions of dollars arming the Afghan Mujheddin to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The UN resolution gave the Taliban 30 days to close down all terrorist training camps and hand over Bin Laden and imposed an arms embargo on the Taliban, while allowing the anti-Taliban forces under Ahmad Shah Masud to continue receiving weapons supplies. The sanctions will hit Pakistan the hardest which is the main provider of military aid to the Taliban, while they will allow Russia, Iran, India and the Central Asian Republics to continue sending arms supplies to Masud. The sanctions reinforce an air embargo on the Taliban imposed last year, freezes Taliban assets overseas which are mainly banked in Pakistan and bans the import of the chemical acetic anhydride, which is used to convert opium into heroin.
The sanctions also demand the withdrawal of military advisers from Taliban controlled areas, restricts the travel of Taliban officials abroad and orders all countries to close down Taliban offices or reduce the number of staff. The sanctions will go into effect after one month and last for at least one year. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said the sanctions were ''not going to facilitate peace efforts, nor is it going to facilitate our humanitarian work.'' However the sanctions do not specify how the UN will monitor the arms embargo and other bans in the devastated country.
The continued deterioration and criminalization of Afghanistan's economy created growing international concern. Despite a severe draught, international diplomatic isolation and dwindling international humanitarian aid, the Afghan factions are able to sustain their war effort through drugs production, massive smuggling across the region and trafficking in arms and terrorism.
The drugs trade is a major economic resource base for the factions. Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium (which is refined into heroin), producing 4,500 tons of opium or 75 percent of world production in 1999. 97 percent of Afghan opium is grown in Taliban controlled areas. The sale of opium has created a vast trans-national network for the Taliban, which involves drugs dealers in Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran and most recently the Caucasus and Chechnya. The Taliban recognition of the government of the Chechen breakaway Republic was largely motivated by the desire to formalize drug smuggling links. These trans-national links also provide the means, the routes and the carriers to smuggle illicit arms for radical Islamic movements across the region. Drugs, arms and Islamic fundamentalism are now intimately linked with each other. Drugs production in 2000-2001 is expected to be less due to the draught.
According to the UN Drugs Control Programme the 1999 opium harvest was worth some US $183 million. Farmers pay 'ushr,' an Islamic agricultural tax, to local Taliban commanders and mullahs, which is almost wholly locally spent. But the Taliban also tax drug dealers, transporters and refining laboratories a separate tax of 20 percent which they term as 'zakat.' Traditionally zakat is a 2.5 percent wealth tax obligatory for all Muslims to pay towards charity and the destitute. The Taliban raise an estimated US $30-40 million through zakat which goes directly to the Taliban war chest.
The drugs and smuggling trade has virtually destroyed traditional agriculture and food production, which involves 80 percent of the population. Poppy growing has replaced wheat production in most areas and Afghanistan now has to import much of its food stuffs. This year's summer draught killed off some 80 percent of the livestock in southern Afghanistan and crippled remaining food production.
The destruction of traditional agriculture has also helped create forced urbanization, while the 20 year long war has created a vast floating internal refugee population. Some 3 million Afghan refugees still live in Iran and Pakistan and another 1 million in the West. Thus nearly a quarter of the country's total population of 20 million is outside the country. The 20-year war and the Taliban's primitive social policies have also led to an almost total brain drain from the country. There are virtually no educated Afghans left with even rudimentary technical skills.
However the largest source of income for the Taliban comes from the smuggling of consumer and other durable goods. In 1997 the World Bank estimated that the Afghan Transit Trade (ATT) between Afghanistan and Pakistan was worth US $2.5 billion. This is equivalent to half of Afghanistan estimated GDP and 15 percent of Pakistan's total trade. The smuggling of duty free goods has crippled industry, revenue collection and border controls and increased corruption multifold in all the neighboring states, while creating temporary food shortages and raising inflation in these countries.
This trade has now expanded to Dubai, Iran, the five Central Asian Republics and the Caucasus. The total smuggling trade across the region, including ATT, is estimated at between US $4.5 and US $5 billion dollars in 1999. Taliban taxes on this smuggling trade raise some US $70 million for the Taliban war budget. The Taliban claim to have established security on the roads is relevant because security has been a major factor in boosting smuggling.
The present Taliban war budget is estimated to be around US $100 million. Of that, 60-70 percent is derived from the revenues of the smuggling trade, some 30-40 percent from the drugs trade and about 5-10 percent from direct financial aid. Pakistan has been paying some US $10 million dollars a year for the salaries of Taliban administrators in Kabul, while until 1998 Saudi Arabia was also a major financial contributor.
Terrorist groups also help fund the Taliban. Bin Laden funds an Arab brigade which fights alongside the Taliban and helps fund Taliban offensives against the NA. Pakistan and recently Turkmenistan provide other indirect aid such as fuel, technical help in maintaining airports and aircraft, restoring electricity in major cities, road construction and other help to keep the Taliban war machine functional.
The NA have a war budget of an estimated US $60-70 million dollars. Some 50-60 percent of that is raised from the mining and sale of lapis lazuli and emeralds from the Panjshir Valley and Badakhshan in the north of the country. Masud has imposed ushr on mine owners and takes a zakat tax of an estimated 20 percent from gemstone dealers, both Afghan and foreigners. However in 1997 Masud established a monopoly control over all sales of gemstones and in 1999 signed an agreement with a Polish company, Inter Commerce, to market all Afghan gem stones. That deal could raise his income to US $200 million over the next few years. Another 20-30 percent of Masud's war budget is derived from the trade in opium to the Central Asian Republics. 20-30 percent of his war budget is derived from foreign aid, both financial and material from Russia, Iran, the Central Asian states and India.
This criminalized economy has enormously enhanced the political role of drugs smugglers, arms dealers, transporters and truckers - both Afghan and from across the region. They all have a vested and common interest in seeing the war continue, expanding the criminalized economy across an even wider region and providing the Taliban with continued financial and military support. Developmental work carried out by the Taliban is invariably aimed at enhancing the capacity for smuggling. Thus the Taliban's efforts to import satellite telephone systems to Kabul, rebuild shattered roads, set up petrol pumps and repair workshops for trucks, are all prompted by a desire to make the smuggling-drugs networks more efficient - rather than providing basic amenities to the population.
No faction has a consistent or accountable budget for public welfare and both sides depend almost entirely on UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other Western NGOs to provide food, water, medical facilities and any basic developmental work for the population.
This dependence on outside aid is also partly a legacy of the 1980s war with the Soviet Union, when both the communist government in Kabul and the Mujheddin parties based in Peshawar, Pakistan received billions of dollars in military aid, while the bulk of the population were dependent on western NGOs. However this year widespread international donor fatigue, the failure of peace initiatives, the Taliban's gender policy and other international commitments such as Yugoslavia, has dramatically reduced donor aid. Afghanistan now ranks 169 out of the 174 countries on the UN's Human Development Index. This year the draught, the war, the failure of the wheat crop and the lack of funds with UN agencies has further worsened the economic crisis for the population.
Any peace plan for Afghanistan will have to involve an international commitment to turn a criminalized drugs based economy back into a traditional agricultural economy. This will require considerable funds, but certainly far less than that committed to other war zones. It is estimated by UN agencies that if peace comes, Afghanistan could absorb no more than US $200-400 million over the first three years in humanitarian and reconstruction aid. However no international agency is carrying out research into how the massive task of turning around such a criminalized economy can take place.
Although there are at present numerous peace initiatives for Afghanistan, what is entirely lacking is a fund for reconstruction once peace comes. If the international community were to put together such a fund, which would be held over the warlords as a kind of bribe or inducement under the stipulation that it would only be disbursed after certain conditions were met, such as a cease-fire, inter-Afghan talks and a coalition government, such a fund could become a major incentive for the warlords to talk peace. Even more important, with such a fund in place, Afghanistan's civil society would have a lever with which it could pressurize the warlords to make peace. Cowered, exhausted and starved by years of war, traditional civil society has no platform under which it can reorganize itself and demonstrate an alternative to the war. None of the problems emanating from Afghanistan - terrorism, drugs, weapons proliferation and Islamic fundamentalism - can be tackled unless serious international attention is paid to not just the peace process, but also the criminalized economy.
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