Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Mr Peter Marsden MBE


  The military intervention of October 2001 resulted in a reversion to the power holding arrangements that existed prior to the Taliban takeover. This fragmented power holding situation has been aggravated by an expansion of the opium trade, by efforts by the Karzai government to replace governors and chiefs of police, by the US-led coalition paying various militia groups to assist them in the war on terror and by growing criminal activity, particularly banditry. Government control is tenuous in all areas, including Kabul, where Jamiat-i-Islami remains the effective power holder. However, the reach of the government is increasing incrementally through small scale administrative interventions and through efforts to have funds transmitted from the regions to the centre.

  The Taliban have re-emerged in a more radical form and have shown themselves to be willing to commit terrorist acts against targets associated with what they perceive as a US-led state building process. This terrorist activity, which largely dates from the US intervention in Iraq, has taken a very similar pattern to one which has been evident in Iraq and manifests itself in a targeting of those engaged in the reconstruction process, including aid workers, people working on major reconstruction projects such as road building and members of the newly created national army and police force. Afghans have been particularly targeted although a number of foreigners have also been killed. Many of the murders have taken the form of summary executions by shooting.

  The Taliban are in a strong position to build popular support amongst the Pushtun populations astride the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and across southern Afghanistan. The Pushtuns of Afghanistan have felt insufficiently represented in the corridors of power and their fellow Pushtuns in the tribal areas of Pakistan resent the military activities of the Pakistan army in pursuit of the war on terror. The methods used by both the US forces and the Pakistan army will have further alienated the population. The Committee may wish to note, in this context, a recent report by Human Rights Watch on the behaviour of US forces in Afghanistan: "Enduring Freedom Abuses by US forces in Afghanistan". On the other hand, the recent Constitutional Loya Jirga resulted in a discernible shift in the balance of power in favour of the Pushtuns and improved relations with Pakistan may make it less likely that elements within Pakistan will provide support to a Taliban insurgency. It is also unlikely that the population at large would welcome a return of the Taliban to power, because they are seen as too extreme, even if there is a willingness to provide protection to Taliban fighters from US forces.

  A related issue is how the West is viewed in Afghanistan. There has always been a profound ambivalence within the rural population to any Western presence because of a fear that Western values might undermine Islam or traditional Afghan values. In recent years, we have also seen the emergence of a population of students of Quranic schools or madrasahs, of which the Taliban were a manifestation, which have taken a political stance vis a" vis the West. Issues such as Palestine and the US military presence in Saudi Arabia which influenced radicals in the Middle East did not greatly concern those in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the US intervention in Iraq has aroused strong feelings in the region and, combined with statements made by the US government and by more evangelical elements in the USA, has led to a widely held view that the West is engaged in a crusade against Islam. The existence of the internet and the highly politicised nature of Afghan and Pakistani societies has meant that statements of an anti-Islamic nature made in the West are very widely disseminated. These further fuel the view that the West is engaged in a crusade. Particular care must therefore be taken by all those making statements in the popular domain.

  In response to the adverse security situation, the US-led coalition forces have established what are termed Provincial Reconstruction Teams. These are intended to improve the security situation in the areas where they are located. However, they have proved extremely difficult to define. What is clear is that they are not resourced to intervene militarily in order to calm a deterioration in security. At best, their purpose is to seek to understand local dynamics and negotiate an improvement in security through contact with the various parties. This has been the focus of the Mazar PRT, which is led by the British Government. At worst, they have focused on winning the hearts and minds of the population by digging wells and building schools in the hope of securing information on Taliban and Al-Qaida activity. The involvement of PRTs in reconstruction programmes is of serious concern to NGOs operating in Afghanistan because it has blurred the boundary between coalition forces and humanitarian and development agencies, both in the eyes of the population and of those engaged in terrorism. NGO staff have thus become targets and it has proved necessary for NGOs to withdraw from much of southern Afghanistan. British NGOs were consulted by the British government in the planning stage of the Mazar PRT and are pleased with the strong focus on security and the respect for NGO concerns with regard to any involvement in reconstruction activity. However, they have not felt that their concerns have been taken seriously by the US government.

  It is thus proving increasingly difficult for NGOs to maintain an image of humanitarian impartiality and neutrality alongside a Western military presence which is focused on the war on terror. The UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force which has, hitherto, largely been confined to Kabul, is facing equal difficulties differentiating itself from the coalition forces and ISAF forces have been the targets of a number of suicide bombings.

  We understand that the British government is developing a plan with NATO allies in Brussels to expand ISAF country-wide in the form of PRTs and that guidelines and blueprints are being drawn up which draw on the Mazar model. It is hoped, therefore, that the PRTs which come under the ISAF mandate will focus strongly on a negotiation of security, together with security sector reform, with due respect for the involvement of NGOs and other actors in reconstruction activity.

  The other major issue relating to security is that of security sector reform. Efforts to rebuild the national army, police force and judiciary remain at an embryonic stage, in spite of determined efforts by the international community, and a climate of impunity continues to prevail, even in Kabul. The decision of the British government to forcibly return Afghan asylum seekers is of serious concern in this regard. Given that Afghans did not arrive in the UK in any numbers until August 1998 and that this was a consequence of increased radicalism within the Taliban generated by the US air strikes on Afghanistan of that month, it is premature to return those who fled the Taliban to a situation in which the Taliban continue to represent a threat. The absence of an effective rule of law also means that those who feel vulnerable to one or other power holder in Afghanistan by virtue of their previous affiliations have no means of securing protection.

  Progress on disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration is extremely slow but is having an impact in some areas, notably Mazar-i-Sharif. It is still too early to say whether the current process of disarmament of the various militia operating in Kabul will be effective.


  Progress on the reconstruction front has been slow but is now beginning to pick up. The USA completed initial resurfacing of the Kabul to Kandahar highway at the end of last year and the World Bank has supported the major repair of the Salang Tunnel to the north of Kabul. Iran has rebuilt the road from Herat to the Iranian border. A European Commission-funded programme to restore the Kabul to Jalalabad highway is about to commence. Work is also ongoing on many secondary roads. Timely relief programmes significantly alleviated the impact of the drought of 1999-2002 but it will take time for farmers to recover in spite of improved rains. The nomadic population has been severely affected by the decimation of livestock herds. High priority has been given to investment in education with a strong focus on education for girls. However, the capacity of the government and the aid community to deliver education and other services has been seriously constrained by the adverse security situation in many areas, particularly in the south.

  The efforts of the Afghan government to rebuild the infrastructure and the economy have not been helped by the return, under pressure, of over two million refugees from Pakistan and Iran. It should be noted that, although this large-scale return is often cited as an indicator of the success of the Bonn Agreement, the return process was a consequence of measures taken by the Pakistan and Iranian governments to withdraw rights and entitlements and to also put the squeeze on refugees through increased police harassment and strong media messages.

  A high proportion of returnees have gone to Kabul where the population is now approaching three million. The infrastructure of basic housing, health, water supply and sanitation services is not equipped to cope with this number and there are serious public health risks.


  Opium production was relatively high in 2003 but not as high as the 4,600 tonnes reached before the Taliban imposed a total ban on production. Production is much more widespread than before which is largely a reflection of the efforts of farmers across the country to recover from the drought. However, high market prices have meant that some of those orchestrating the trade have become wealthy, thus generating what is referred to as the narco mafia. There is concern that disputes within this mafia are generating local conflict, that the mafia have significant political influence and that investment by them in the property market is fuelling housing prices in the capital.

  Measures to combat drug production involve a balance between enforcement action and the creation of alternative livelihoods. The economy is only picking up relatively slowly and has to also accommodate the needs of returning refugees and demobilised soldiers, together with those dismissed from the civil service as a consequence of a downsizing process. The government has to be careful not to use too much enforcement in case it alienates sections of the population whose support it needs. The question of resources is a difficult one in a situation in which the vast majority of drugs escape detection and the funds needed to generate increased livelihoods on a sufficient scale are significantly above the levels that donors are willing to provide.


  With only one million out of a potential electorate of 10 million registered to date since the process began at the beginning of December and with much of the country too insecure for election officials to operate in, it looks extremely unlikely that free and fair elections can be held in June, as planned. However, there are strong pressures from the US government and others to accelerate the registration process so that elections can be held without more than a few months delay. The indications are that presidential elections will be held first and parliamentary elections delayed until 2005. This is viewed with concern by particular elements within the government who fear that the President will enjoy excessive power without the checks that a parliament would create.

  President Karzai enjoys popular support to the extent that people see him as better than the alternatives. There is concern, however, over what is perceived as undue US influence over his government. There are clear tensions within the government between those who stayed in Afghanistan to fight in the jihad and those who have returned from the West, having worked as professionals, to take up key positions. Although Karzai alternated between the USA and Pakistan/Afghanistan, he is primarily identified with the exile group. However, he remains a strong contender for the position of President when elections are finally held.

  There is a risk that interest in registering for the elections will be affected by a view that the outcome of the elections has already been determined. However, others have hinted that they may put themselves forward for election and this may encourage participation by their supporters.


  The British government has maintained a steady course in providing funding for Afghanistan since 1989. The European Commission has been equally steady, as have the Scandinavian governments and Japan. The US government has been quite erratic but has provided funding on a large scale when it has allocated resources for Afghanistan. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have recently started to embark on large spending programmes. The overall level of funding for Afghanistan, however, has been very much less than in many other recent recovery situations such as Iraq, the Balkans and East Timor. This has been viewed with concern by the Afghan government among others, which has faced serious cash flow problems over certain periods. The time-frame for international commitment to Afghanistan needs to be a minimum of 10 years and, ideally, 20 years.

Peter Marsden, MBE
Project Coordinator
British Agencies Afghanistan Group

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