Miles to go

As they inaugurate their first elected president, Afghans say their lives have improved a bit. But the booming opium trade presents a serious threat.

Published December 7, 2004 3:39PM (EST)

The first act of America's war on terrorism in 2001 was a blockbuster victory. As the World Trade Center's twin towers still smoldered, U.S. bombers and Afghan rebels drove the Taliban from power. Afghans emerged from the rubble to hear enthusiastic pledges of a phoenixlike resurrection for their wrecked country. Children would go to school, parents would have jobs, peace would prevail. But this second act, now drawing to a close three years later, has had no Hollywood ending.

Warlords control entire provinces, bankrolled by a drug-trade boom that has spread like a rash. Police, army and government institutions are being built, but too slowly. Insecurity is rife; so is poverty. Taliban leader Mullah Omar has not been caught; neither has Osama bin Laden. Yet most Afghans say life is demonstrably better -- which says more about their wretched living conditions before 2001 than the success of reconstruction since.

Still, international aid has accelerated, millions of refugees have returned home, and the proud success of the October election sent a clear signal to the gunmen that Afghans want democracy. As one analyst said, Afghans did not vote for Hamid Karzai, they voted for change. His task from today is to deliver a brighter third act.

The peaceful presidential election promised an end to the ragged Taliban insurgency. Their troops were demoralized and their leaders divided by the failure to scuttle the poll, said U.S. generals who offered them an amnesty. But a core of hard-line fighters are still roaming the lawless south, mounting hit-and-run attacks on U.S. troops. Even scattered and hunted, they remain a tenacious and dangerous enemy and continue to stall reconstruction.

The warlords pose a more insidious problem. "Local leaders" backed by small personal armies are involved in drug running, extortion and thievery. Yet the central government and the U.S. military still rely on them for security. Democracy is unattractive to the warlords, although President Karzai has brought some to heel, notably Ismail Khan. About 26,000 of an estimated 60,000 militant fighters have disarmed.

Expectations that Afghan women would fling their burkas to the wind after the Taliban's departure have been dashed, as have other hopes. Kabul and a handful of others cities have seen a slow widening of opportunities -- girls' education rates have crept upward, women are taking new jobs, and the younger generation is starting to reject the burka.

Impressively, women accounted for 50 percent of voters in some northern cities in the Oct. 9 election. But in many rural areas, little has changed. In conservative southern Pashtun areas, jealous families keep wives and daughters penned into high-walled compounds. In extreme cases, some women have not stepped outside for several years. Education rates remain dismally low; teachers in the few girls' schools receive death threats. Here too the election was a good yardstick of progress. In the arch-conservative Uruzgan province, just 2 percent of the voters were women.

The rocketing drug trade is a critical challenge for the incoming Karzai government. Having plummeted under the Taliban, poppy production has risen to dizzying new heights that threaten the entire reconstruction project. The export value of the opium will reach $2.8 billion this year, or 60 percent of Afghanistan's GDP, according to the U.N. Once confined to a handful of areas, opium is now cultivated in most provinces. A greater proportion of the harvest is being processed into heroin inside the country, boosting profits further. And the boom has spawned a new class of Colombian-style drug overlords. Some have powerful allies in the police, judiciary and government.

British-led efforts to persuade farmers to abandon opium have failed; now Britain is turning to counterterrorist-style operations against the drug barons that may involve British troops. However, Karzai is a vehement opponent of the aerial spraying of opium.

Afghanistan has some of the world's worst health indicators. Dire infant mortality, maternal mortality and life expectancy rates mean Afghans are more likely to get sick and die young than anyone else. Hospitals lack even the most basic surgical equipment, and patients have to bring their own drugs or pay to get treated. There is a chronic shortage of skilled doctors and nurses.

However, international reconstruction has had successes in other areas of social policy -- almost 5 million children are enrolled in school, the largest number in the history of the country.

Most Afghans scrape a living on a few pounds a day. Agriculture remains the economic mainstay; most workers are illiterate and have few skills. Industry is virtually nonexistent, although the government has plans to revitalize the mining industry.

Many educated Afghans have either emigrated or been employed by foreign aid agencies. A drought in the south of the country has further increased rural unemployment. Foreign exchange comes through foreign aid, the U.S.-led military operation and, increasingly, the opium trade.

By Declan Walsh

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