Beset by war, beleaguered by poverty

Nearly seven years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, Afghanistan is still under-developed and mired in violence and poverty.
An Afghan woman walks past the Darul Aman palace in Kabul, which was destroyed during the civil war of the early 1990s. ((Rahmat Gul/Associated Press))
War, insecurity, poverty.

These are the hallmarks of life in today's Afghanistan. But they're also the dominant themes of the country's recent history despite billions of dollars in aid and military spending by Canada, the United States, Britain and other countries.

The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 toppled the repressive and unpopular Taliban regime that had given sanctuary to al-Qaeda.

Aerial bombing and soldiers' boots on the ground were part of another mission, though. They were supposed to secure the countryside so humanitarian work and economic development could take place.

So far, that hasn't happened, and statistics tell a grim story of problems that just won't go away.

Abdul Malak, 30, who lost his leg in a mine blast while grazing his animals, walks toward his home in Bakhshikhail village in Parwan province, north of Kabul. An estimated 60.000 survivors of landmine explosions live in Afghanistan. ((Farzana Wahidy/Associated Press))
Start with poverty. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan ranks 174th out of 178 countries on the Human Development Index, a ranking that mixes per capita income with public health statistics, crime rates and other indicators.

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

Afghans scrape by on about $1,000 per year. That's an average. More than half of the population earns less than $2 a day.

Most of those statistics are an improvement from 2002, but there's a long way to go. The task of reconstruction isn't made any easier by the persistence of violence and insecurity.

Hunger, malnutrition plague millions

While the per capita annual income of Afghans has gone up since 2002, nearly seven million people don't have enough food to meet minimum daily needs. That's about a quarter of the population.

The grim toll taken by malaria and tuberculosis has dropped considerably in the past six years, but Afghanistan is still beset by infectious and preventable diseases.

Perhaps most ominously of all, the opium trade has become far and away the most important economic activity in the country, worth more than $3 billion in 2007. That's about a third of the gross domestic product and a huge distortion of attempts to build a modern, legal, inclusive economy.

Part of the problem is geography.

Quick facts

Capital: Kabul

Area: 647,500 km sq. (same size as Manitoba)

Population: 32,738,376 (2008)

Head of State: Hamid Karzai

Unemployment: 40%

GDP (2007): $9 billion US (est.)

Growth rate (2007): 12.7%

Exports to Canada (2007): $753,889

Imports from Canada (2007): $13,580,685

Median Age: 17.5

Literacy Rate: 28.1%

Life expectancy at birth: 42.46

Ethnic groups: Pashtun 42%, Tajik 27%, Hazara 9%, Uzbek 9%, Aimak 4%, Turkmen 3%, Baloch 2%, other 4%

(Source: CIA World Fact Book, Government of Canada)

Afghanistan is landlocked, bordered by Pakistan, Iran, China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Only 12 per cent of its territory is arable land.

Almost all imports and exports must flow through neighbouring countries, and that leaves Afghans more vulnerable to regional geopolitics than many other countries.

Pakistan, for example, is far and away the largest trading partner, and its own challenges with poverty and instability frequently spill over into Afghan life.

Most Afghans feel that Pakistan's governments and shadowy military intelligence agencies take far too active a role in their country's affairs.

At the whims of history's empires

Throughout its history, Afghanistan has been subject to the whims of global and regional superpowers.

In the 19th century, the British and Russian empires jockeyed for control and influence over the fractious tribes between the Hindu Kush mountains and the Oxus River (now known as Amu Darya).

Neither were successful. In fact, Britain had to pull back from a disastrous attempt to install a new king on the Afghan throne in the 1840s, losing 15,000 soldiers to snipers and guerrilla attacks during its retreat from Kabul.

A 20th-century imperial force, the Soviet Union's Red Army, invaded in 1979 to prop up a faltering Communist regime and stem the influence of militant Islam on the mainly Muslim Soviet Central Asian republics along Afghanistan's borders.

That, too, failed spectacularly, although it took 10 years of brutal occupation and billions of dollars in aid, training and military support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States for anti-Communist mujahedeen guerrillas to force Soviet troops to pull out in 1989.

That war gave rise to the world's worst refugee crisis; more than five million Afghans left their country, and half of them have yet to return.

It was also fertile ground for Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the Taliban movement.

Each emerged from the wreckage and devastation of a civil war among mujahedeen factions that refused to share power. Their fighting impoverished and isolated their country even more than the Soviet occupation.

Taliban victors lose early support

The Taliban swept to power in Kabul in 1996, riding a wave of revulsion for mujahedeen warlords. At first, they were welcomed by many Afghans as liberators, but they lost support at home and abroad when they placed heavy restrictions on girls, women, music and other aspects of life viewed as "un-Islamic."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul in early August 2008. ((Rahmat Gul/Associated Press))
Bin Laden and al-Qaeda were already based in the country and spreading their militant Islamist message through the Muslim world and eventually the West.

Washington lashed back in 1998, bombing an al-Qaeda training camp near the Pakistan border in retaliation for deadly attacks on U.S embassies in east Africa. But it was the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States that made Bin Laden and his allies prime targets of the U.S. military and its allies.

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.

In the years since then, billions of dollars in military and civilian aid has poured into Afghanistan, and the effects have been mixed at best.

Nearly six million Afghan children, half of them girls, can go to school now, but there are few jobs. Many areas of the country know relative peace, but other parts are in the grip of a worsening insurgency, blamed on the Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers.

Foreign, Afghan troop numbers growing

The number of foreign military forces trying to stabilize Afghanistan has been growing recently. Canada's 2,830 troops are mostly based in the southern province of Kandahar. Soldiers from the U.S., Britain, France and 39 other countries patrol most other parts of the country, with American soldiers making up about half of a fighting force that totalled more than 56,000 by February 2009.

U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that an additional 17,000 troops will go to Afghanistan in the spring and summer of 2009 to improve security in the provinces surrounding Kabul, along the national "ring road" system and especially in the south.

NATO forces, primarily the U.S., are training the Afghan army and police to take over some day, but that day is a distant prospect at best.

The police in particular remain poorly trained, much targeted by insurgents and hugely distrusted by ordinary Afghans who face corruption, inaction and often abuse when reporting a crime, or even passing through a checkpoint.

The United States will fund a big increase in recruitment for the Afghan National Army, which has improved markedly in recent years.

But Afghans also fall victim all too often to NATO and U.S. operations against the Taliban. Thousands of civilians have died in "collateral damage" incidents, often involving NATO air and artillery strikes against suspected insurgents. The alliance has promised to limit the risk to ordinary people.

Foreign civilians have been killed, injured and abducted in unacceptable numbers in Afghanistan; aid workers, private contractors and journalists are among the victims.

Karzai criticized

Politically, the country is far from stable.

President Hamid Karzai won elections in 2004 that were generally hailed as a triumph of voter turnout and organization. But his government remains mired in allegations of corruption and ineptitude. A former U.S. anti-narcotics official has also accused Karzai of sheltering narcotics traffickers in his government, and even his family — an allegation the president has angrily denied.

Karzai says he'll be running for re-election in 2009, an election that may occur as early as March 22. The constitution states that Karzai's term ends May 21, and that elections must be held between 30 and 60 days before then.

The Independent Election Commission said in January that such an early election would pose logistical and security problems. The commission has set the vote for Aug. 20.

Opposition parties and other presidential candidates have said that if the election occurs after the end of Karzai's term, he must step down and appoint a neutral administration to govern between May 21 and the election date. They say that if Karzai remains president during a campaign, he could use the government apparatus, especially security, to his advantage.

Karzai faces stiff opposition from an alliance of parties called the National Front, but even his vice-president, Ahmad Zia Massoud, has accused him of corruption and incompetence.

Karzai cautions Afghans and foreign allies alike that restoring stability and developing his country will take a long time.

On that, it's hard to find a dissenting voice.

The question is: does the world have the staying power to keep extending a helping hand?  Afghanistan's people — for decades beleaguered, invaded, bombed and ignored by turns — certainly hope so.