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Afghanistan, the badland of international politics, faces its toughest challenge: life and peace. Two decades of war, six months of non-stop bombing and incessant US efforts to establish a friendly government, make this a bitter dream. One-tenth of its population has already perished. One-third has been driven out of the country. As for the rest, their only source of livelihood - an ecology based on land and water - has been severely threatened. Afghanistan wants its life back. Its land, agriculture and water. The rest of the world, through operation Enduring Freedom, curtails that wish. The US-led coalition is pushing for a new government and a new constitution with the carrot: a global aid package of US $4.5 billion. The stick: imposition of a centralised governance system. But the concept of a centralised government is anathema for Afghans. An Afghan's loyalty always remains with the local community chiefs. Afghans have seen too many rulers and too little development. In a month from now, an assembly of tribal chiefs, called the Loya Jirga, will meet to decide the country's future. This is Afghanistan's moment of reckoning
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-- (Credit: Prashant Panjiar / India Today)After 20 years

If the bombs didn't kill, the land will. Afghanistan's natural resources are all but dead

survival is an impossible dream in Afghanistan. Last December, as Afghans looked up to the deceptively beautiful sky for rain, bombs rained from endless streams of b-52 bombers -- each 'smart' bomb costing more than Afghanistan's gdp. On the ground, the situation was no different. In Tora Bora and other mountains -- where usa believed its enemy number one Osama bin Laden was hiding -- most of the country's life-saving traditional water canals known as karez were being flattened. So were Afghanistan's hopes for survival.

"Why did they bomb our water canals," asks Azimullah, 25, a peasant whose village, Agam, overlooks Tora Bora. There is no water in karez. And this is the fourth drought year. Azimullah is now worried about the next wheat crop: "No rains during winter means no wealth in May."

By all probability, Azimullah must have left for a refugee camp, ignorant of us president George W Bush's declaration of a Marshall Plan for his country. The country's interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, is hurriedly preparing the country's constitution to make way for a global aid pledge of us $4.5 billion. But aid has never reached Azimullah's village. Refugee camps in Afghanistan's urban areas are teeming with people like Azimullah, carrying the reluctant burden of two decades of war.

Forbidden toll
War has driven Afghanistan's one-third people out of their country. Starting from the proxy war of the superpowers in the 1960s through 1980s, to the brutal internal conflicts in the 1990s, Afghanistan remains a 'great game.' According to the International Committee for Red Cross (icrc), around 1.7 million people have been killed in the last two decades. Around one million people are believed to have moved to remote mountainous areas to escape the war, which has gripped almost the entire country.

The shadow of war has eclipsed the whole country leaving hardly any place to escape. Desperate farmers run to their lands with the smell of rain, only to be blown into pieces by anti-personnel mines. Around 10 million landmines dot Afghanistan -- 45,000 landmines in every 25 sq km -- making it the world's most densely mined area, according to un secretary-general Kofi Annan. And this is a major deterrent for the revival of agriculture and animal husbandry, which accounts for its 95 per cent population's livelihood. "An estimated half a million households are without a male provider," says Anne Bauer, the head of Food and Agriculture Organisation (fao) for Afghanistan. Children are the worst affected. A 1997 survey of 300 children carried out by unicef found that 90 per cent believed that they would die during the conflict. The World Health Organisation says that some five million Afghans are suffering from psychological distress.

Nowhere people
For a country with two-thirds land covered with mountains, precious natural resources like water and agriculture formed the backbone of a fragile economy. "The marathon wars have changed all that. Afghanistan's environment is completely devastated," says N S Jodha, a natural resource management expert with International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (icimod), a Kathmandu-based research organisation studying the Himalayas and Hindukush region. The country's 80 per cent rural population are the worst hit as they depend on agriculture. An estimated 36 per cent of all irrigation systems (according to Afghanistan's former president Burhanubbin Rabbani's speech at the un) were directly affected by war. These figures, however, do not take into account the indirect effects of neglect and abandonment.

"War has swept across Afghanistan like wildfire, leaving broken lives and barren landscapes in its trail. It is a conflict without end, warfare has physically erased many of their country's natural resources," says an icrc's report on Afghanistan published in 1999. As for the remaining two-thirds of the population, Rabbani says, "I am not sure about them. Those who have left the country are lucky."

Indeed. The two-third residents of Afghanistan, if not crippled by the war, are fighting another battle: the fourth consecutive drought. Famine is imminent. The World Bank says that seven million people are vulnerable to famine this year -- more than half the country's population. The deficit of wheat up to next June is around 1.7 million tonnes, according to a November 2001 fao report. Drought has halved the harvest as compared to 1998. "Ninety per cent of people in this region depend on agriculture and have been affected by drought," says Nigel Pont, a programme officer of Mercy Corps, an international aid agency working in Kandhar city. The bombing that began in October 2001 has made sowing difficult for peasants. Relief agencies estimate that 7.5 million people, displaced by war and drought, will need food assistance.

But help is never going to come easy. Post September 11, aid agencies have disappeared due to military intervention. War has driven people into remote areas and ongoing military intervention has kept relief agencies away from them. Life has become a very difficult proposition. "In some remote areas such as Uruzgan province, drought refugees are barely surviving. People are living under bushes with no water. It is an absolute disaster," he says. In Kandahar, villages have been polarised over access to water: poor are those who buy water and rich are those who can dig deep wells to get water.

There was a glimmer of hope this January and April. It rained a bit. But farmers didn't have the seeds to sow. And finding seeds suitable to Afghanistan's climate is an equally daunting job. The country has exhausted all its indigenous varieties. A desperate worldwide search has zeroed on a deep freezer in one of Turkey's agriculture research institutes, which has stored some of them. These need to be cloned. Even fao's emergency appeal of us $39 million for agricultural rehabilitation has a major component on seed procurement and distribution. " fao is focusing on seed production and distribution, better water management, animal production and animal health as priorities," Cyril Ferrand, fao deputy emergency coordinator for Afghanistan. These seeds could well be the starting point to restore the traditional economy of a once-rich country.

-- life ravaged by war and drought has one hope: resilience of a people. "A good monsoon and a bit of peace will bring Afghan's life to normal," says J Gabriel Campbell of icimod. Take Kohistan district of Kapisa province for example. Just after usa bombarded and damaged water channels in January this year, residents came together to revive them. One week of community labour brought water to the channel. Now residents are waiting for their first harvest of wheat in seven years.

Banking on systems
In many ways, Afghanistan has a very productive ecology. Even with scarce resources, it has managed to ensure life for some 20 million people. Land and water are two crucial resources that have shaped the country's economy and ecology. About 85 per cent of the country's population is engaged in rural economy based on agriculture even though only 15 per cent of land is suitable for farming. Agriculture has been affected by drought and more than two decades of war. Poorly designed and controversial land reform programmes were undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s. But in the past two decades, re-allocated land has largely reverted to original owners or been seized by both Taliban and Mujahideen commanders. This has left many of the farmers as agriculture labourers.

Disputes and conflicts over landownership or usage are widespread. While landholding patterns in Afghanistan vary, both between and within districts, sharecropping is common on irrigated lands. But there is panic now as the one-third population of the country in exile is set to come back. According to undp strategy paper on Afghanistan, it will lead to severe constrains on the already degraded resources and can lead to conflict. It is better understood by the estimate of the un's least developed report of 1996, which says that the dependence on agriculture is growing despite lower yields. The share of agriculture in labour force has gone up from 61 per cent in 1980 to 69 percent in 1996. It should be more now.

On the other hand, land under cultivation is totally dependent on irrigation. About six percent of the land is actually cultivated, while at least two-thirds of this farmland requires irrigation. Half of the country gets less than 300 mm rainfall and the barren terrain retains hardly any water to be used later. Agriculture accounts for 99 per cent of water use. Except for the river valleys and a few places in the lowlands, where underground fresh water makes irrigation possible, agriculture is difficult. Since 1967, many figures have been given for irrigated, rainfed and total cultivated areas. Unfortunately, most of them are unreliable. Some pre-war publications suggest that 2.8 million ha were cultivated, of which 1.4 million ha had sufficient water to support double-cropping.

Since 1996, the irrigated area has declined by around 60 per cent. According to fao, only 30 per cent is managed satisfactorily, 10 per cent has been destroyed by the direct impact of war and 40 per cent is damaged due to lack of maintenance. Due to the increasing use of groundwater in recent years, there is a risk of overexploitation and depletion in the absence of regulating and licensing authorities, which in some places might lead to the drying out of karez or qantas , springs and wells, depending on the same water sources.

However, the traditional sources despite being neglected for years still have the potential to irrigate lands. According to an assessment made by fao in 1996, water resources in Afghanistan are sufficient to support the irrigation of 5.3 million ha. In 1987, about 26,600 sq km of farmland were irrigated through such systems. Rivers contribute 84.6 per cent of water need, springs contribute 7.9 per cent, karez contribute 7 per cent and Persian wheels half a per cent. There are about 6,470 karez and also thousands of other small dams (similar to India's village tanks), which are in use (see box: Tunnels of hope).

A historical conflict
Since the scarce natural resources are an integral part of Afghanistan's economy, they have been targets during wars. Successive invaders gained control over the country by destroying their natural resources. In the 13th century, when Genghis Khan invaded Afghanistan, he destroyed the irrigation systems, which led to a slump in agricultural production for generations. When the erstwhile ussr invaded the country in 1979, it destroyed irrigation facilities and agricultural fields as a strategy to break the economy. "Soviets wanted to wreck the patterns of rural life and drive out as many Afghans possible," says B Madjrouth, a professor at Kabul University. More than one-fifth of Afghanistan's population fled during the Soviet occupation, according to Madjrouth.

The collapse of the Cold War saw the us playing an active role in the region. And this interest has a lot to do with the business of oil. There is a strong belief that usa is looking for a secured pipeline to transport oil from central Asia. "Afghanistan's significance from an energy standpoint stems from its geographical position as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from central Asia to the Arabian Sea," says a us department of energy report. The report also stressed that companies were unable to get a foothold in the absence of an internationally recognised government in Afghanistan.

Till recently, the Argentinean oil company, Bridas Corporation, was pushing through the pipeline project because of its close ties with the Taliban regime. The us oil corporation, Unocal, had been sidelined. Unocal is linked to the Saudi Arabian oil company, Delta, which is associated with the Saudi intelligence chief, prince Turki bin Faisal. Faisal is believed to have once financed Osama bin Laden.

The current war in Afghanistan, in fact, clearly is working in the interest of us oil corporations. All the key players in the current Afghan crisis -- from President Bush and Hamid Karzai (a former Unocal executive) to the top ranking advisors to the us president -- have at some point worked as lobbyists with the Taliban to secure the pipelines.

The great games being played in Afghanistan have come at a great economic and human cost. But the resilient Afghan has always fought back. Kunduz -- a town that witnessed intense battles between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance backed by usa in the current intervention -- is a historical reminder of Afghanistan's instinct for survival through its meagre resources. In the 19th century, the popular saying was "If you want to die, go to Kunduz". But Sher Mohammed Khan, the provincial governor, changed all that. He made Kunduz the cotton capital of Afghanistan from a place known as a death chamber. In just seven years (1932-1939), the province's canal irrigation network was revived and a systematic cultivation pattern was adopted. Starting from wheat to water melon to cotton, all cash crops were grown depending on water availability. This resilience shaped the United Nations Afghanistan Rural Rehabilitation Programme, which within five years in the early 1990s brought some 44,000 ha of land under cultivation by restoring the traditional systems. Now the phrase is redefined: "If you want to get rich, go to Kunduz."

Social institutions vary in their structure from region to region but are coming back to life. The communal irrigation system, for example, organised by the mirab (controller of the water system), still functions effectively in many war-torn areas like the foothills of Tora Bora. When the Taliban fled Kabul, it was found that these institutions were quietly ensuring a smooth life for many villages. "In the last 10 years without any governance, people have been managing the country's micro-affairs," says Farooq Ahmed, a Pakistan-based agriculturalist .

The many states of Afghanistan
Traditionally, Afghanistan is never a nation state. People's loyalty is always to their respective pocket of tribal administration or the village heads. And the Loya Jirga, an assembly of some 1,500 community heads, is the only national entity which takes wide-ranging decisions related to common affairs (see box: Power centre). In fact, the modern notion of a centralised system is a recent phenomenon. The present Afghanistan was founded in 1747 by a combined decision of all the tribal groups just to fight the numerous invaders and to protect agriculture and other livelihood sources.

Interestingly, resource distribution kept these fiercely independent groups together. By the 1930s, when modernisation of the economy began, most Afghans were engaged in the cultivation of small plots of land or tending orchards. Traditional and primitive farming methods provided the population with a subsistence standard of living. The herds of nomads rearing livestock -- some two-thirds of the population was involved in livestock production -- are still referred as the roving ambassadors of Afghanistan. These nomadic people move between summer-grazing pastures in the highlands and winter-feeding grounds in the lowlands. As the economy is meant just for survival and the difficult terrains constrained interaction between villages, the nomads form not the only link between the villages, but also are the trading partners for these entire scattered villages in remote areas.

Afghans are staunch protectors of this traditional economy and autonomy. It comes as no surprise that they oppose and fight any system that threatens their autonomy.

-- The assassination of Dutch rightwing populist Pim Fortuyn, and the stunning electoral advances of his French counterpart Jean-Marie Le Pen have brought some lingering trends in European politics to the forefront. Rightwing movements and parties, mostly campaigning on anti-immigration, anti-globalisation and anti-establishment sentiments, have been advancing in quite a number of European countries. In a few, namely Italy and Denmark, they have assumed political power, though these governments cannot quite be put on the same level as the openly fascist Le Pen in France.

So, what is going on in Europe? The answer, of course, is not simple. A decisive factor clearly is the identity crisis of considerable segments of European nations at a time when many certainties of their parents' generation are fading into history. The challenges -- dangers and opportunities alike -- in a changing world are big enough to frighten many people.

The notion of a secure lifetime job that can feed your family is rapidly becoming a distant dream. You have to be constantly mobile, flexible, always eager to adapt to the technological whirlwinds of the Internet age. You have to be international and speak foreign languages to match the demands of a globalised economy. You have to be a player in the stockmarket to manage your savings aptly until retirement since public pensions are no longer sufficient for a decent life when you're old. You have to take care of yourself; the welfare state is gone. You even have to protect yourself against rising violent crime as the police is underfunded and understaffed and doesn't care anyway.

Too much a challenge for many. The established political parties provide no guidance whatsoever for people in search of orientation. The social democratic parties ruling most of Europe until recently are perceived by large segments of their key electoral bases -- the working class, to use an old-fashioned term -- as urban technocrats out of touch with the daily life of the not so well-off. It is these people who actively vote for rightwing populists, who provide them with what they -- and all the established parties -- lack: orientation, simple certainties and somebody to be blamed (non-white, and particularly Islamic, immigrants and the globalised establishment).

Globalisation in Europe primarily means European integration. While this has bound European nations closely together, it has also come to mean that the loss of national sovereignty is much greater than what will ever be achieved on a global scale. However, Europe continues to have a positive image. The warm welcome given to the most recent step in European Union (eu) integration (i.e. loss of sovereignty), the common currency, clearly demonstrates that.

But that positive image is quickly changing. The eu can be blamed for all the things that the losers of globalisation dislike: loss of jobs due to open borders for capital and immigrants, and arcane regulations from Brussels for many details of your daily life, right down to the size of bottles. This is going to be even more pronounced when a number of economically weak, low-wage Eastern European countries join the eu in the near future. In short, the nation-state is becoming a member state, unable to defend you against an uncontrollable Brussels bureaucracy and global markets, whatever that may exactly be.

It is this loss of identity that provides fertile ground for the populist movements now gaining ground in Europe. The established parties are singularly unable to even grasp the dimensions of the problem. The same can be said of the non-governmental organisation (ngos) and environmental movements, themselves largely a middleclass phenomenon. Ever seen a Northern African or Turkish immigrant in an environmental ngo? Or somebody from poor working-class neighbourhoods that are now so likely to vote for Le Pen and his counterparts? Of course not.

We have successfully integrated many issues into the political mainstream, at least superficially, and maybe integrated even ourselves into the establishment. However, (re)integrating the economically weaker parts of society, including immigrants, is now the key social problem for Europe. The economic ideas associated with sustainable development -- such as decentralisation, job-creating sectors such as organic agriculture and renewable energies, redirecting public expenditure -- can be a powerful tool for that. Shaping the necessary alliances to make sustainable development a part of the solution, rather than an abstract ivory tower concept by an elite for the elite, is the challenge. Not an easy one. Stay tuned.

Jrgen Maier is director of the Germany-based ngo Forum on Environment and Development
Your fate is in my hands: US s (Credit: Reuters)We are not starting from scratch. Our institutions have been substantially weakened. But they still exist," says Hedayat Amin-Arsala, minister of finance of Afghanistan Interim Authority. Hidayat's statement has more meaning now when the interim government is struggling hard to convene the Loya Jirga and to chart out his country's reconstruction through a new constitution. And as of now, the process is dictated by the us consortium dangling the carrot worth us $4.5 billion. Afghanistan now faces the proverbial million-dollar question: which way to go from here. As the past suggests any move to impose a us-backed central government may backfire, while on the other hand, the enormous money pledged will not come as it is conditioned to this. The Loya Jirga is going to decide this, and the future.

Hedayat's statement is a reminder to what the future is in store. For the desperate people of Afghanistan, it is another round of 'great game' played by usa. usa is just repeating what it has done elsewhere like in Kosovo or in Somalia and in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when it was fighting a proxy battle with the ussr. After bombing the country, it is getting the un to arrange the 'reconstruction' of the failed state. As elsewhere, it also installed a provisional government of its supporters, like the Karzai government in Afghanistan, and mobilised the un through allies to enforce its own interest.

Critical issues
Two crucial issues now haunt the interim government and for that matter the people of Afghanistan: the form of governance and the nature of development. As far as the form of governance is concerned, it has polarised the country over the traditional and the modern form of government as pushed by usa. There is a growing protest now on the imposition of the new government and new constitution. Syed Ishaq Gailani and Pir Gailani, two prominent Afghan leaders in exile and supporters of the Bonn agreement, feel that Afghanistan should be left to decide on its own form of government, independent of the us and other countries.

Will the us allow that to happen? Or will it become another ordinary under-developed American-prone country? "No," says the 65-year-old Mohammed Noor, a tribal elder of Jalalabad, "Remember from Alexander the Great to the British to the Russians...the invaders are enemies. We will do it with the Westerners, if we understand they want to impose us their will." That is the dilemma that the interim government has to sort out before convening the Loya Jirga and finalising the new constitution.

But the much publicised pledge of us $4.5 billion is nowhere in sight. Even the interim prime minister has appealed twice to the world community to give the pledged money within one month. At a meeting held in Tokyo on January 21-22, 2002, the International Conference on Reconstruction pledged us $1.8 billion for the first year and us $4.5 billion for the first 30 months. Development experts who met in Paris on May 4 called for the speedy release of funds. "The budget is not completely financed and it is essential that the funds be made available more quickly," said Jean-Claude Faure, head of the Development Assistance Committee for Afghanistan at the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (oecd). "The (Afghan) budget is short of us $ 100 million," said oecd development specialist Michael Roeskau.

But problems abound. There are already talks of usa not channeling its aid through the proposed Central Trust Fund by the World Bank and many other countries have also hinted about it. And the fear of usa washing its hands from the ruins of Afghanistan is gradually gaining ground.

On the other hand, experts feel that the huge money pledged will be spent on building an army and a centralised government structure, leaving very less for the crucial sector like agriculture and water. In 2000, before the us-British bombing, all appeals for help to Afghanistan fell on deaf ears; only 12 per cent of all appeals were pledged. And this is considered as one of the reasons for not controlling the spread of opium cultivation as no alternative could be offered. Funding for agriculture and forestry amounted to 10 per cent of the requested funds.

USA AND ALLIES: A friendly government to be established through Loya Jirga
UNDP: Wants to implement all UN activities and a nodal position in the

THE INTERIM ADMINISTRATION, AFGHANISTAN: Will oblige USA if ensured power through Loya Jirga
World Bank/IMF: Want all development pledges to be channelised through them and focus on construction activities
"If imf and World Bank enter, we can expect only massive building activities pushing the real issue of people's livelihood into oblivion," says Farouq Ahmed. One question often asked is whether Afghanistan has the capacity to absorb this huge amount of money? It still doesn't have a banking system and printing of currency is still controlled by a warlord. The situation is so acute that the interim prime minister is receiving cash money in suitcases from countries like India during his recent tours.

In fact, the World Bank and the imf, and undp are emerging as the key players in Afghanistan's reconstruction. World Bank and the undp have already come out with strategic papers for reconstruction of the country. They have asked for the us $4.5 billion to be channelised through them. The Transitional Support Strategy for Afghanistan of the World Bank hawks for its prominence: "The Bank will use its comparative advantage to support the Afghan authorities in building essential institutions and capacity to manage the large inflow of aid resources. The Bank has worked closely with un agencies, ngos and bilateral donors on assistance to Afghanistan in the past."

The bank has even activated its Watching Brief policy under which it monitors countries in conflict for reconstruction activities. Similarly, the undp strategy revolving around establishment of governance has set in place a formula to rebuild the country. David Lockwood, deputy regional director for Asia pacific, undp, says, "We need to reactivate the 2,000 local committees which will facilitate the local rehabilitation and governance."

The Bank even warns in its transitional support strategy for Afghanistan: "If assistance is not provided quickly to help the government respond to the needs of the population and manage the inflow of aid resources, there is a risk that the fragile political and security environment will unravel and that donor resources will be wasted and international support lost." In all the meetings of the potential donors, this aspect has been discussed as a political strategy as usa since the beginning of the military operation has been using money as a major tool for bringing together the fighting factions.

"To begin with a grossly over-ambitious programme of reconstruction risks acute disillusionment, international withdrawal and a plunge into a new cycle of civil war and religious fanaticism," says a policy brief of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released in January. "The situation in Afghanistan is still confused and complex. Under the present circumstances, it is rather premature to talk of development and reconstruction. Unless tribal factions come to consensus the chances of development are bleak. It is the economic activity, which could facilitate future administration and simultaneous development," says Kalim Bahadur, a Delhi-based political analyst.

Till now the talk of reconstruction has ignored the restoration of the natural resource systems, so crucial to Afghanistan's economy. Rural recovery cannot be discussed without parallel discussion of critical natural resource issues. "Environmental issues should form a part of the package being considered by governments for the rehabilitation of Afghanistan," says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (unep). The major environmental challenge facing Afghanistan is the impact of the return of refugees on already stressed water and forest resources. When the refugees returning to rural areas, the carrying capacity of the land will depend not only on food and fuel supplies, but more broadly on success in rehabilitating agricultural systems -- particularly irrigation systems -- seeds and fertilisers.

Afghanistan is at crossroads. The king, Zahir Shah, has returned to open the Loya Jirga . The return of the refugees from Pakistan by the thousands bring back hope into the parched land. But B-52s still bomb and the more than two dozen countries eager to chart out Afghanistan's future remain confused themselves. A painful wait for peace may not come though. It is frightening: resilience also has a limit. Afghanistan can't afford pushing it further.
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