AFGHANISTAN VS. THE PRESS PACK

Dubious Predictions of Doom
By ANN MARLOWE

THE latest news reports all seem to agree: Afghanistan is falling apart. Once again, pack journalism is trying to shape our foreign policy.

A prime example is Pamela Constable’s report in the June 6 Washington Post: “Many Afghans and some foreign supporters say they are losing faith in President Hamid Karzai’s government, which is besieged by an escalating insurgency and endemic corruption and is unable to protect or administer large areas of the country.”

Well, so what else is new? Karzai has always been weak and ineffectual (if well-dressed); government control has always varied in Afghanistan from region to region – and, like most developing countries, Afghanistan has always been plagued by corruption. But suddenly, the pack has decided that the country is “on the brink of chaos” with the same lack of perspective that once fed its infatuation with Karzai.

In a June 27 Daily Telegraph piece on the “Afghan crisis,” Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote that “people are being killed at a rate not seen since the 2001 American-led invasion.” The Taliban are returning, he continues, while riots in the capital show the failure of economic development.

And the “failure of economic development” is that . . . some people are getting rich. As Rashid himself reported in the Herald Tribune, he told a British soldier as they walked past some big new houses in Kabul, “These houses are why the riots took place . . . If you were a slum dweller living amid such ostentation, you would riot, too.”

Almost all of this picture is misleading.

Take those “people” being killed. Of 1,100-some combat deaths so far in 2006, only 44 were coalition soldiers, about half of them American. Another 100 were Afghan civilians – some targeted by the terrorists, some in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of the other 1,000 or so killed are insurgents – which is good news.

As for the Taliban, it’s questionable whether there is an organized fundamentalist movement at all any more. The real problem (mainly in the south) is a heroin mafia whose vast fortunes depend on ensuring that the people of the poppy-growing provinces stay poor, uneducated, dependent and fearful.

The May 29 riot in the capital? Yes, 1,000 hooligans looted in Kabul – but the rest of the city’s 3 million people didn’t: They wanted to go to work, not destroy their neighbors’ property. Unlike Rashid, they see that a country where some people get rich is a country where they can get rich, too – and a lot better than a country where everyone is poor.

Ordinary Afghans are doing better every year. Per-capita income has doubled in the last three years, the inflation rate is down from 48 percent in 2002 to 16 percent in 2005 to 91/2 percent today. Two million Afghans own mobile phones, and cars and other consumer goods are exponentially more plentiful.

Thanks in part to some good appointments by Karzai, including Gov. Noor Delawari of the central bank, and Ministers Anwarulhaq Ahady (Finance) and Armizai Sangin (Communications), Afghanistan is promoting business-friendly laws and tax measures, privatizing state-owned enterprises, and dismantling the Communist-era bureaucracy.

The progress in formalizing the economy and reducing the role of cash is remarkable. By the end of the year, all Kabul-based government employees will be paid by direct deposit, and Kabul’s private banks will have a few dozen ATMs. Locally owned Kabul Bank, just two years old, has $120 million in loans outstanding and 21,000 account holders.

Some of the most dynamic investors are returnees from the Afghan diaspora, whose confidence in their homeland has lead them to make large investments building Dubai-style shopping centers and apartment houses, opening Afghanistan’s first Coca-Cola and Virgin Cola bottlers, its first leasing company, private TV and radio stations and much more.

Local Afghan businesspeople have opened a host of large and small enterprises, not only in Kabul, but in Mazar-i-Sherif, Jalalabad, Herat and smaller cities. Even some towns of 50,000 now have much-used Internet cafes.

Like our country in its early days, Afghanistan’s regions differ greatly in degree of development and government control.

Business is booming in the multiethnic and relatively progressive north and west. In the impoverished, mountainous center little has changed from the Middle Ages: Subsistence farming, few-to-no schools and no health care are the rule.

In the southern opium-growing provinces, the “Pashtun belt,” similar poverty co-exists with illicit wealth – and violence. One province, Helmand, with just a million people, now provides a third of the world’s heroin; almost every week, the traffickers there kill Afghan policemen and civilians.

This is a problem much bigger than Afghanistan, and it’s unfair to expect any Third World government to control a drug mafia that earns its profits in Europe and America. Until we cut demand for drugs in our own country, there will always be a supply, and the outsize profits will always go to an unsavory lot.

The situation in southern Afghanistan is reminiscent of southern Italy in the ’50s and ’60s, when organized crime sought to keep the population poor, uneducated and isolated. Economic development and the rule of law did the trick in Italy; it’s plainly the answer in Afghanistan, too. But there has to be security to allow such investment, and the journalistic pack seems to be rooting for the wrong side.

Karzai is unlikely to go down in history as a great leader. But it wasn’t Afghans who expected Karzai to save them – it was the journalists who believe people need powerful governments.

Afghans hoped for, and need, what the Americans of the first generations of our independence had: a good-enough government to provide them security and justice. With a little help from us, from NATO, and from the Afghan diaspora returning to develop their country, the Afghans are energetic and resourceful enough to take care of the rest. Saying that Afghanistan is on the verge of collapse is a prediction that could become self-fulfilling.

Ann Marlowe has been visiting and writing about Afghanistan since 2002. Her memoir, “The Book of Trouble,” is partly set there.

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