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15

Destination Afghanistan

When Lonely Planet was hitting the Asia overland trail in the 1970s, Afghanistan was known for its dramatic mountain scenery and the un- paralleled hospitality of its people. At the turn of the 21st century the country was more synonymous with war and terrorism, the picture of a failed state. The fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 and the subsequent reconstruction attempts have done much to address this view, but in early 2007 Afghanistan’s future remained on a knife-edge. Having been bled white by 10 years of Soviet occupation, Afghanistan was dropped by the international community almost the minute the last Red Army tank withdrew in 1989, allowing it to slip into the chaos of civil war and the Taliban. Promises not to repeat the same mistake 13 years later proved half-hearted at best. Progress in development of edu- cation and the political process (which have seen successful presidential and parliamentary elections) are real enough. Kabul and other cities have boomed with increasing trade and new constructions. Most of the country is at peace, but the state remains perilously weak. The return to power of many of the rejected warlords of the 1990s has cynically proved to Afghans that you can apparently have peace or justice, but not both. The booming economy has failed to touch the countryside where most Afghans live and development programmes have mostly ignored the important agricultural sector, particularly in the Pashtun regions that originally spawned the Taliban. Afghanistan’s rugged landscape and tribal patchwork has never al- lowed it a strong central government, and attempts by the international community to build one have been patchy. The economy is dependent on aid, and in 2006 domestic revenues raised just US$13 per capita. This pales in comparison with the 6100 tonnes of opium produced in the same period – over half the value of the legal economy. Opium corrodes the fragile state, reaching from bribed provincial cops to the centres of power in Kabul, and out into the developed world. Over 90% of the heroin on the streets of the UK comes from Afghanistan. Ever the meddling neighbour, Pakistan has continued to play a double game in Afghanistan. Islamabad has been a key partner in public in the War on Terror, but stands accused of giving sanctuary to the Taliban leadership it once helped into power. The Waziristan compact it signed in 2006 to quell a tribal rebellion on its own troubled frontier has pro- vided both a reservoir and safe haven for Taliban fighters operating in southern Afghanistan. Flush with opium money and drawing new inspi- ration from the Iraqi insurgency, Taliban attacks set swathes of southern Afghanistan ablaze in 2006, drawing NATO forces into heavy combat. Is the Afghan glass half-empty or half-full? Continued and improved

international commitment is crucial for Afghanistan’s success. Afghans still welcome foreigners who come to the country to help, knowing full well the cost of neglect. At the time of writing, international sabre-rattling over Iran fuels Afghan fears that the country will again slip off the radar. Progress is slow and painful, but possible. A peaceful, stable Afghanistan is still there to be won – the costs of losing it again are simply too high for everyone.

FAST FACTS

Population: 31 million (2006 estimate)

Population under 14: approximately 14 million

Refugee population outside Afghanistan: approximately 2 million

Adult literacy: 36%

Infant mortality rate: 160 per 1000 live births

Gross Domestic Product per capita: US$800

Main exports: opium, fruits and nuts, handwo- ven carpets, wool, hides and pelts, gems

Main imports: petroleum products, food, textiles, machinery

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