Less noticed or reported than the conflict that has blighted it for most of the past 40 years is Afghanistan’s gradual social and economic progress. Nicholas Nugent reports
Afghanistan is engaged in civil strife at two levels. The bloodier war is between the government and the Taliban, ousted from power 16 years ago but still a powerful and disruptive force. At least 160 people have been killed in bombings so far this year.
There are signs that at least some regional Taliban leaders are war weary and ready to give up the battle. Significantly there has been no formal response to President Ashraf Ghani’s February offer to recognise the Taliban as a political party in preparation for their participation in forthcoming elections. The absence of a turn down is interpreted positively, especially since the Taliban had themselves earlier proposed negotiations with the United States, suggesting a conciliatory mode.
Meanwhile, in a spontaneous peace movement by ordinary citizens, sit-ins have been staged in some of the more war-ridden regions, including southernHelmand and central Maidan Wardak provinces.
What makes the civil war harder to resolve is the non-violent but nonetheless intractable power battle raging within the so-called National Unity government led by President Ashraf Ghani, who is finding it hard to exert his authority over the Jamiat-I-Islami faction of his Chief Executive and de facto prime minister, Abdullah Abdullah. It is an uncomfortable alliance stitched together by the United States in the wake of the 2014 presidential election.
This power struggle was demonstrated by the difficulty encountered by PresidentGhaniin sacking the Jamiat governor of northern Balkh province, Atta Muhammad Nur, for allegedly enriching himself from cross-border trade. Nur denied the accusation though he did eventually stand down as governor. However, he remains a powerful force in the region and party.
Despite these parallel struggles, Afghans have cautious reason to celebrate that theirs is no longer the bloodiest war story around – and there are other reasons for optimism. Noteworthy has been the development of infrastructure and the numbers of Afghans who, as refugees from an earlier phase of war brought up abroad, are returning to help modernise the country.
Impressive advances have been made in enrolment in the country’s 17,500 schools, for example. When the academic year started in March, acting education minister Asadullah Hanif Balkhi announced that a record 9.2 million children now attend school, 39 per cent of them girls. This compares with one million –boys only – who were in school when the former Taliban government was overthrown by US led forces in 2001.
The charity Save the Children did put this achievement into perspective, however, by pointing out that as many as 3.7 million children remain unable to attend school for one reason or another, suggesting that the reform of education, especially for girls, still has some way to go.
Another area of achievement has been in road building. Afghanistan traditionally had relatively little paved roadway. Travel, even between major cities, is not always easy, though this is partly because of security concerns:by US government estimates the government controls just 56 per cent of provinces, compared with 14 per cent under Taliban control. (The remaining 30 per cent are contested.) Aid from Germany is credited with building around 1200 km of road in the north, where the remote provinces of Balkh and Kunduz are now connected by motorable road.
Land-locked Afghanistan traditionally traded westwards with Iran and eastwards with Pakistan. A recent development has been the opening up of routes northwards to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The extension of the Uzbek railway system to Mazar-I-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, has diluted another Afghan tradition as a country with no railway. Trade across the Pakistan frontier diminished because of security concerns. It was the withdrawal of American armaments across the Uzbek border that helped develop trade with Afghanistan’s northern neighbours, reopening a branch of what China has depicted as the ‘New Silk Route’.
Indeed China is a major beneficiary. The two countries have a short land border at the easternmost point of the Wakhan corridor, a strategic ‘device’ designed to separate British-ruled India from advancing Tsarist Russian forces during the 19th century territorial ‘grabs’ known as ‘the Great Game’. The land border between Afghanistan and China, high in the Pamir Mountains, has never been usable as a trade route.
Now, trains laden with Chinese goods can reach Afghanistan on the rail version of the ‘New Silk Route’ through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The dismissed Balkh Governor, Atta Muhammad Nur, claimed in a letter to the Economist that revenues from goods crossing by road or rail from Uzbekistan have doubled over the past three years under his stewardship ‘as trade with our Central Asian neighbours increased to compensate for a drop in imports from Pakistan’.
The trade is, of course, two-way with Central Asia having become an important destination for Afghan exports of fruit, nuts, wheat and precious stones – not to mention the illicit trade in opium which continues, though not through official border crossings. A key import to Afghanistan is electricity, supplementing the country’s own limited generating capacity with electricity from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Another ‘Great Game’ border is that linking west Afghanistan to Turkmenistan at Serhetabat. When Central Asia was part of the Soviet Union little crossed this border except traditional Turkmen carpets sold in the trading bazaar of Herat. Now it is the crossing point for an international gas pipeline known as TAPI, from the initials of the countries involved. By the end of 2018, TAPI will bring natural gas from Turkmenistan, which has the fourth largest global reserves, to power-hungry Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Even the Taliban supports this project for the benefits it will bring to the country. And Herat, which is not far from the Turkmen border, could become the second Afghan city to have a railway connection.
Yet these infrastructural and economic developments will be of limited value unless Afghanistan can solve the bitter internal feuds which have afflicted the country for 40 years. If the Taliban is indeed tiring of the fight and ready to sue for peace –and the signs are as yet mixed – then Afghanistan is well placed to return to its historical role as a crossroads between South, West and Central Asia.