Looking the other way

Observations on Afghanistan

Every two or three days we get the doleful news of a young soldier killed in Helmand, but other than that, Afghanistan is pretty much out of the news. Even the foreign pages have replaced accounts of the Taliban and the poppy harvest with more dramatic reportage from neighbouring Pakistan and the Swat valley conflict.

So is no news good news? Sadly not. Security is still extremely fragile: outside of Kabul and a few key roads, Hamid Karzai’s government can hardly pretend to provide even basic security for the Afghan population. Taliban-affiliated groups, tribal militias and armed criminal gangs all prey on local people, often buying off police officers or members of the Afghan army. Seven and a half years on from the fall of the Taliban government, public opinion polls show chronic insecurity and, as a result, major dissatisfaction with Karzai’s government.

Large parts of the country also face crushing poverty and hunger. Thanks to insecurity (around a quarter of a million people have fled their homes in total), corruption and inefficiency, only about 10 to 15 per cent of international assistance actually makes it to the people who really need it in the towns and villages.

Meanwhile, 30 years of virtually incessant conflict have left their mark. Warlords and suspected war criminals still hold sway in many regions. They also have a significant foothold in the Afghan parliament itself – parliamentary malfeasance makes Westminster’s expenses pale into insignificance. Since the inauguration of the Afghan National Assembly in 2004, there have been thousands of complaints about human rights abuses perpetrated by Afghan members of parliament. In that time, precisely one member, Malalai Joya, has been suspended – not for anything she had done, but for speaking out about other alleged offenders in parliament.

Meanwhile, the rest of Afghanistan’s female population faces appalling discrimination. The recent issue of the Shia Personal Status Law underlined how much remains to be done on women’s rights. Before backtracking amid a storm of international criticism, President Karzai reportedly approved a law this March that would have legalised a feudal relationship within Shia households (some 15 per cent of Afghanistan’s population). Women were to be forbidden from leaving their homes without permission, and would have been obliged to have sex with their husbands as and when required (widely seen as an endorsement of rape).

Aside from the sad body count of armed forces fatalities, the other steady drip-drip of Afghan news across the past few years has been occasioned by US “drone” missile attacks, accompanied by reports of civilian casualties. More than 100 civilians were reportedly killed in US missile strikes last month; the new commander of US and Nato operations in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, promised that civilian protection would now be the number one priority.

But even if death doesn’t come suddenly from the sky, it frequently overtakes members of this beleaguered population: the average life expectancy is 42.9 years, one of the world’s lowest. The judicial and political systems remain moribund, the country is staggering along like a drunken man. I wish it were otherwise, but the news from Afghanistan is still very, very bad.

Kate Allen is director of Amnesty International UK

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran