Afghanistan: Facing a Bitter End, or a Better Beginning?

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When will the bombing of Afghanistan stop and the rebuilding of this ravaged country begin? No one really knows.

Despite ostensibly being in control of Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military coalition is still facing pockets of resistance, adding credibility to opinions that this war of attrition is far from over. While U.S. warplanes continue their bombing sorties in remote areas of Afghanistan, a group of wounded but defiant Al-Qa’eda fighters is holed up in a Kandahar hospital, proving that pockets of armed opposition are still a significant part of the picture.

With Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar still beyond reach, and Al-Qa’eda and Taliban fighters yet to be totally vanquished, the U.S. is extending the duration of its presence in Afghanistan, with Canada eager to offer a helping hand. The arrival of regular U.S. army units in Afghanistan to relieve existing Marine troops, is the first major U.S. policy shift in the Afghanistan theatre since the beginning of the war.

The ongoing hunt for bin Laden and Omar will inevitably end, one way or another, and Afghanistan will enter upon a new era, hopefully a better one. But things could easily take a major turn for the worse — for the long-suffering Afghani people, that is.

Estimates of initial costs to improve the abysmal living conditions of about 22 million Afghanis have ranged from $10 billion to $30 billion, and that is only for the beginnings of restoration.

Who will foot the bill for repairing the enormous infrastructural damage to an already wounded country? Ironically, the U.S. claims it has already contributed its share by spending billions of dollars on the war. But without post-military American help, Canada, Japan, and the European Union will find it almost impossible to sponsor any substantial developmental programs on their own.

Even before the U.S. initiated the current bombing campaign against the Taliban, more than 400 Afghani children were dying every day from the effects of disease and malnutrition, and more than four million Afghanis suffered as refugees in neighboring countries. With the tragic distinction of having the world’s highest per capita concentration of anti-personnel landmines, Afghanistan is home to more than one million handicapped victims. All of these sad statistics have escalated since the onset of post Sept. 11 bombing raids, and they do not include the thousands of civilians killed, or left widowed and orphaned, as a result of “collateral damage.”

Afghanistan’s interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, is a weak representative of the majority Pashtun tribe in a Tajik-dominated cabinet. The international community’s failure, so far, to pump needed billions of dollars’ worth of financial assistance into the country can only weaken his position even further.

Ambitious hopes for turning the Afghan economy around rest on plans to develop oil and natural gas pipelines from the vast Central Asian and Caspian Sea energy reserves and have them pass through Afghan territory on the way to Pakistan’s Arabian Sea ports. Hopes are also being built on Afghanistan’s relative proximity to the emerging markets of Asia, especially those of India and China. But even the most optimistic are predicting only long-range benefits.

For the short term, Afghanistan needs massive foreign aid in grants and investment, not loans that it has no way of repaying. Interestingly, Afghanistan is currently the world’s only country whose government is debt-free, and knowledgeable Afghanis would like to keep it that way. Turning Afghanistan into another Argentina, for example, would be a fatal legacy for Mr. Karzai’s tenuous leadership.

Apart from the difficulties of achieving genuine peace and security without the immediate stabilizing help of international economic aid, Afghanistan faces additional dangers if it gives in to growing pressure to mould itself in the image of Western democracy, regardless of local cultural traditions.

It would be disastrous, for example, if Karzai’s government were suddenly to force women out of their body-covering burqas, make men shave off their beards, allow the drinking of alcohol, adopt Western penal codes, outlaw Islamic political parties, close religious schools, or indiscriminately open the airwaves to foreign TV stations.

In short, it can only spell big trouble for Afghanistan if the West persuades or forces prime minister Karzai into policies diametrically opposite to those espoused by the deposed Taliban regime. In 1928, for example, Afghani King Amnullah Khan tried to follow in the footsteps of Turkey’s Attaturk and launched what Afghanis perceived as an anti- Islam campaign. A popular uprising resulted, in which Khan was killed. The same fate could befall current policymakers who choose to ignore Afghanistan’s history.

With or without the Taliban influence, the Afghani are a deeply spiritual and religiously conservative people. They are also too proudly independent to give up their right to bear arms and individually defend their freedoms — not dissimilar to many Americans who would also fight to the death to protect their right to bear arms.

An international conference on Afghanistan’s future will take place in Tokyo this month. It remains to be seen what the new year will bring for Afghanistan after more than two decades of war and devastation.

Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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