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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Tuesday 18 January 2005

AFGHANISTAN: Review of 2004

ANKARA, 18 Jan 2005 (IRIN) - There was some progress in Afghanistan in 2004, the highlight being the presidential election on 9 October but a vicious circle of extreme poverty, warlordism, opium production and insecurity continued in most parts of the country. The poll passed off largely peacefully and marked an important milestone in the country's transition from decades of war and internal conflict to a stable, democratic country where human rights are respected.

The 7 December inauguration of Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's first elected president was a cause for national celebration, but serious questions remain as to whether a lasting peace with the country's Taliban and militant conservative factions can ever be forged.

The country continued to receive strong donor support but humanitarian aid and reconstruction work remained hampered by poor security, particularly in the south and east. Despite Washington's troop commitment to the country, observers said there were not enough of them and that their narrow "anti-Taliban, anti-terror" brief had not delivered the security the humanitarian and development community needed. The NATO-led multinational protection force remained largely confined to the capital.

Aid agencies had to operate in tougher security conditions in 2004 than previously with 23 humanitarian workers killed compared to 13 in 2003. The attacks forced them to lower their profiles in some provinces. This was highlighted when medical aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) pulled out of the country in late July because of the killing of five of its staff
and the risk of further attacks, ending 24 years in Afghanistan. The deaths led to calls for more government support for aid agencies which often work in isolated provinces. A Taliban spokesman said it carried out the attack, saying MSF staff were working for US interests.

Although refugee returns to Afghanistan remained high in the warmer months of the year, there was increasing frustration that even in urban areas, roads and buildings were still in ruins, power supplies irregular; medical facilities poor; school construction is lagging and there is not enough fresh drinking water. "It's a big, ongoing problem. There is not enough development and insecurity makes it hard to bring development," Jack Redden, a spokesman for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told IRIN.

More than 3.5 million Afghan refugees have returned home since the start of the voluntary repatriation programme in 2002. UNHCR believes just under 1 million Afghans now remain in Iran, and another million are still living in refugee camps in Pakistan. An unknown but substantial number are also living in cities across Pakistan.

In a statement following his inauguration, President Karzai named the elimination of poppy cultivation and drug trafficking and disarmament of armed militants as among the principal goals of his administration. Yet 2004 saw opium poppy being grown across record areas of Afghanistan, according to an annual United Nations survey. That is despite a major international effort, led by the United States and Britain, to try to tackle the problem.

The latest figures show production is booming. Some 1,300 sq km were used to grow poppies this year, an all time high. The government expressed concern but said it lacked the enormous resources needed to tackle the widespread problem. "It is undermining our good name in the international community and it's a threat to national security so its very, very serious. It's the same as international terrorism for the whole world and particularly for Afghanistan," Mirwais Yasini, head of Afghanistan's Counter Narcotics Directorate (CND), told IRIN.

In a country where opium production makes up a huge proportion of the economy the big drugs barons are getting away scot free. Revenue from opium is keeping the warlords - who hold sway over much of the country outside Kabul - in business. Along with their private militias, these regional strongmen help to keep the government's power weak, allowing them to tax and abuse the populations that live in the regions they control at will.

"When the government is able to solve the poppy issue then, inshallah, we will have many more private business opportunities and also there will be no need for having soldiers as Afghanistan will be peaceful and secure," southern warlord in Arghandab, Mohammad Azim, explained by way of justification for his involvement in the heroin trade.

But observers said the deadly trade and cultivation would continue to flourish for years to come until realistic job options existed for poor Afghans. "Afghanistan is a very poor country and particularly through the war the rural areas were very affected," Doris Buddenberg, head of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan (UNODC), said.

"They need cash for very simple goods and needs, school books for children, clothing, tea which is a staple here. Opium is the cash crop." Growing opium in Afghanistan is a low-risk occupation and selling it is rarely punished by the authorities.

In 2004, the disarmament process continued. Although more than 30,000 of an estimated 60,000 Afghan ex-combatants have already been assisted by the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme, Ministry of Defence officials said in December that there were still irregular armed groups that were not linked to known militia forces and
which operate privately.

"While the DDR is making significant achievements, this is the time to address all those who are armed illegally," Zahir Azimi, an MOD spokesman, told IRIN. Azimi said they were discussing with the UN and donor countries the raising of funds to identify and disarm what the MOD estimates at more than 100,000 illegally armed people.

The human rights picture in 2004 was very mixed. Dr Sima Samar, the head of the Afghan independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) pointed to many more girls can going to school and women's participation in the Loya Jirga [grand assembly which ratified the Afghan constitution] and the presidential elections as two of the highlights.

But the commission cautioned that very serious violations of human rights continued in the country. "People don't feel secure and there is no government system to defend the rights of the people. Lack of security fuels violations as local warlords are beyond the law and do whatever they want. Rights violations can take place as long as these powers remain in place," she said.

A five-year drought negatively affected food security and contributed to the further deterioration of living standards. The UN's World Food Programme told IRIN in September that the most vulnerable areas lay in southern, western and southeastern Afghanistan, including Nimroz, Kandahar, Paktika, Zabul, Kunar, Logar provinces and the northeastern Faryab area. WFP will
target these food insecure areas in the 12 drought-affected provinces where food assistance had a comparative advantage, in particular in areas where there was no winter/spring access to markets and where cash interventions were either not operational or were constrained by insecurity.

THE YEAR AHEAD

Regional observers say that the humanitarian situation will likely remain broadly the same in 2005, with ongoing donor support but with aid and reconstruction hostage to poor security. "Without new troop commitments from Washington and other powers, which do not look imminent, it will be very difficult to improve security and reduce the real problems of water, housing, medical care and work for the majority of Afghans," Sergei Andreyev, a research fellow with the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, told IRIN.

A continuing drought in the south will continue to keep many rural communities destitute, particularly in the run-up to the first harvests. International and local efforts to return internally displaced people (IDPs) to their place of origin will continue, although lack of infrastructure in rural areas will remain a key challenge for the government and aid agencies.

All the signs indicate that efforts to reduce the massive growth in the cultivation and trade in opium will have little impact. Observers point to the length of time counter-narcotics measures took to have an impact in countries like Pakistan and Thailand and suggest Afghanistan, with a far worse problem, will continue to be a leading world heroin producer in 2005 and beyond.

Although the presidential election was a success, prospects for Kabul to extend its authority to the provinces and take on the powerful warlords, growing richer on the proceeds of the lucrative opium trade, do not look hopeful.

[ENDS]



This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004



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