World News

Afghanistan Update

31 July 2006 at 00:04 | 884 views

Afghanistan’s economy is growing like gangbusters. Problem is, more than a quarter century of war and an attempt by the Taliban to isolate the country from modern influences has left the economy in ruins.

A United Nations report in February 2005, concluded that Afghanistan remains one of the world’s least developed countries. It ranked 173rd out of 178 countries surveyed - beating five states in sub-Saharan Africa.

Out of every 1,000 babies born in Afghanistan, 142 die before reaching one year of age. A woman dies in pregnancy every 30 minutes. Overall life expectancy is estimated at just under 42.5 years.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country of about 28 million people, bordered by Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. It is a land of mountains, plains, cold winters and hot summers - and is often threatened by earthquakes and floods.

Afghanistan is a conservative Islamic country and 99 per cent of its population is Muslim. Shariah law, an Islamic legal code based on the Qu’ran, is strictly enforced. In 2003, a court sentenced two Afghan journalists to death for blasphemy but they escaped and sought asylum abroad. In March 2006, an Afghan man was brought before a Shariah court and faced a possible death penalty because he converted from Islam to Christianity.

The Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 1979, to prop up a Communist government and to suppress a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement it feared would spread to southern Soviet republics.

But the war went badly for the Soviets. By 1989, they were driven out of the country by anti-communist mujahedeen forces (trained and supplied by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan). A third of the population fled the country while the various factions fought. Most went to Pakistan and Iran.

The war also provided fertile training ground for Osama bin Laden and the Taliban movement.

Once the Soviets were gone, Afghanistan’s numerous factions lost their one common goal - liberating the country from foreign occupiers. The factions clashed - and by the late 1990s the Taliban emerged as the dominant force. It seized control of most of the country, including the capital, Kabul.

The Taliban imposed its ultra-conservative version of Islamic law on the country: television was banned, women were barred from attending school, driving and working outside the home.

The United States accused the Taliban government of harbouring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, which Washington blamed for a number of deadly attacks.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington made bin Laden and the Taliban the prime targets of the American military.

Barely a month after the attacks, an American-led coalition drove out the Taliban government. Most of its senior leaders - as well as Osama bin Laden - remain at large.

Since then, Afghanistan’s economy has been growing at 25 per cent a year. It is projected to keep growing by about 10 per cent a year through the first decade of the 21st century.

Much of that has been fuelled by the billions of dollars in aid countries have pledged to help rebuild the country.

But there are concerns that much of the country’s income is being siphoned off by warlords with strong political and military connections, further widening the gap between rich and poor.

Canada participated in the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force, which was created in late 2001 to help bring stability to the country.

Canada ended its role in late 2005 and committed a battle group of about 2,000 personnel to Kandahar in early 2006. Canadian Brigadier General David Fraser was to take the command of the multinational brigade consisting of Canadian, British and Dutch troops in March 2006.

There remain huge challenges: Afghanistan has the worst education system in the world, according to UN calculations. Nearly three-quarters of adults are illiterate and few girls go to school in many parts of the country.

The UN report points to positive developments as well. It notes that the October 2004 election won by President Hamid Karzai showed Afghanistan’s political progress. It was an election that forces loyal to the former Taliban government had vowed to disrupt.

The election went off relatively smoothly. Still, Karzai has been referred to as the President of Kabul, as the government continues to have difficulty exercising its influence in the rugged and fiercely independent countryside.

With American help, Afghanistan is rebuilding its army, aiming for a projected 2006 full combat strength of 40,000 soldiers. That’s more than twice as many as were in place at the end of 2004.

The American general overseeing the effort expects that the training of an overall force of 70,000, including a headquarters and other non-combat personnel, would be complete by 2008.

At the beginning 2005, there were promising signs that Afghanistan’s political climate was warming up. Moderate members of the former Taliban government were negotiating with Karzai’s government - among them, a former UN envoy and two former deputy ministers. They’re members of a group called Khudam-ul Furqan (Servants of the Koran), which attracted several moderate Taliban members.

At the time, more militant Taliban guerrilla officials dismissed talk of reconciliation. They vowed to continue their war against the Karzai government and foreign forces.

In the fall of 2005, attacks by the Taliban insurgency increased in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban began using improvised explosive devices, basing their tactics on the insurgency in Iraq, as well as suicide attacks and raids on remote villages in a growing attempt to destabilize the Karzai government.

Photo: Afghan leaders.