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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > July

Afghanistan: a nation in danger of collapse

Operation Enduring Freedom’s bitter fruit: a first-hand report from Zaher Wahab

Afghanistan has slipped off most Americans’ radar screens, thanks in large part to the Bush administration’s efforts to refocus national attention on Iraq. For expatriate Zaher Wahab, however, the plight of his country is never far from mind. The Lewis and Clark College professor has returned to his homeland several times since initially leaving in the 1970s — part of the time under a Fulbright fellowship in Central Asia and later at the invitation of the new Afghan government and the U.N. to assist in rebuilding the nation’s shattered higher education system. The Alliance has interviewed Professor Wahab before, including a strangely prescient interview a few months before 911. On each occasion, Wahab has provided an inside view of the disintegration of his homeland by powerful outside forces. He returned to the United States in early June, after ten months working with the minister of higher education in Kabul. Alliance editor Dave Mazza began the interview on the purpose of that mission.

DM: What took you back to Afghanistan?

ZW: As you know, I spent ten weeks there in early 2002 advising the Minister of Higher Education on policy, planning and rebuilding higher education in the country. It was during that visit when I was asked both by the Minister, Dr. Sharif Fayez, and some of the international agencies to return to Afghanistan and it so happened that I was up for sabbatical this past school year. So, we all decided that I would return and continue doing the same thing at the Ministry of Higher Education, but also I feel a strong desire and obligation to give something back to that country. I was born and raised in Afghanistan and most of my family still lives in Afghanistan, so it is sort of a personal, moral, and intellectual obligation. Also, there is my need and desire to learn about what is happening in the world. There seems to be a pattern of aggression by some countries against other countries and to try to understand the enormous upheaval and catastrophe in Afghanistan and prospects for the future. So, for multiple reasons.

DM: Did your work with the ministry of higher education keep you in Kabul or did you have a chance on the last trip to get out into the countryside?

ZW: I was, of course, stationed in Kabul, the capital, and I spent most of my time at the Ministry of Higher Education, but my work and also family relations and other connections took me to the countryside, and so I visited five other provinces, North, East, South, West.

DM: The corporate media has put a pretty heavy filter on their Afghanistan reporting. We get very little news and the general impression our government is trying to make is that the war was a success, Iraqi democracy is thriving, there are a few problems with some recalcitrant warlords, but basically America has improved a lot of Afghanistan. Is that true?

ZW: I don’t think so, not at all. There is a very wide disparity between Washington’s view of events and developments and Washington’s interpretation of what has been happening in Afghanistan and that of the rest of the world. As we speak, there is no peace, democracy, development, harmony, stability, safety or security in Afghanistan. There is no economic development, there are no opportunities. The situation, in fact, is quite dismal and volatile, and it has deteriorated steadily as the venture in Iraq proceeds. And this is what the transitional Afghan government from President Hamid Karzai to internationals, to non governmental agencies, other observers and Afghan citizens are saying. They really worry about being forgotten by the U.S. and the rest of the world since the Iraq venture started, and that is precisely what seems to be happening. Washington is saying and proclaiming that it is going to do nation building in three places: Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. I’m not convinced that Washington either has the resources, will, commitment or compassion to be nation building in faraway places. Places that it itself has something to do with their destruction. Furthermore, it would be good to start nation building here at home, from Portland all the way to Long Island. So, when the Taliban were dislodged in October 2001, and the Bonn Accords signed, there was a period when there were great hopes, aspirations and desires for peace, harmony, development, stability, security, democracy and so forth. But now very little of that is happening and there are understandable reasons. In fact, there is every indication that the situation is deteriorating rather fast in the last few months. I was just reading a report by a Swiss expert who had just visited Afghanistan warning that the situation could descend into chaos. Right now there is fighting amongst different Afghan factions in the North. In the West, South and Southeast there are attacks on the Americans, the coalition forces, on the International aid agencies, and on the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul. Consequently, relief and reconstruction activities are impeded, suspended or ended entirely in the lower half of the country, and some in the North. The Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society also just issued a report warning of “losing the peace” in Afghanistan, resumption of civil war, terrorist takeover and the destabilization of the region unless peacekeeping, stability, power-sharing and massive development take place soon.

DM: What is the frequency of those incidents?

ZW: There is hardly a day that you don’t hear about a bombing, an explosion, a grenade attack, a murder, a clash, a robbery, an ambush, a rocket attack or a car bombing — which is a very new phenomenon in Afghanistan. This happened right in the capital. So, I would say that attacks on aid workers, ISAF, factional fighting, or attacks on coalition forces happen on a weekly, if not on a daily basis. And you have the sense that there is almost no central, credible, effective government that is in charge. People keep referring to President Hamid Karzai as an ineffective mayor or governor of Kabul. He has no control because there is no national army or police force yet. With all the international assistance, they have managed to put together about 4000 recruits in the national army, as opposed to the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of armies and militias by the warlords in the North and the West and other parts of the country. There are known warlords and rogue elements in the government itself —installed and supported by Washington.

DM: Of course, he has his American bodyguard of sorts.

ZW: I actually visited the palace three or four times and you see it on television every now and then. Hamid Karzai owes his very life to the Americans — as you know there was an assassination attempt which came very close to killing him; and again during the fighting with the Taliban, but he was saved by the Americans. So, yes, his bodyguards include Americans with M16s and German shepherds. His physical survival is very much a function of the United States but economically, politically and socially he is not doing very well in the United States. The U.S. and allies are not doing enough to salvage the situation or continue the original agenda for development, democracy, justice, peace, safety, security and reconciliation. The country is on the knife’s edge and at a turning point. This is why about 80 aid agencies, Kofi Annan, and L. Brahimi and Karzai wrote an urgent letter to the U.N. Security Council urging expansion of ISAF and massive reconstruction aid; and the International Crisis Group warns of resurgent civil war unless conditions are right for the new constitution and election in June 2004.

DM: Who is leading the resistance over there in terms of the attacks that are going on; is there one particular faction?

ZW: Well, it is unclear. About a week ago, there was a car bombing next to an ISAF bus which killed five people — four Germans and one Afghan — and injured dozens. They were initially blaming it on Al Qaida, then the Taliban, then Hekmatyar, but now consensus seems to be that they were perhaps terrorists or resistance people from Pakistan. It seems that the Taliban, Al Qaida, Hizbe Islami, and others who don’t want the United States in that part of the world are regrouping in the Northwest frontier province in Pakistan and, if we are to believe the reports, elements of the Iraqis also are reaching that part of the world and uniting behind the International Islamic Front (IIF), which is a new combination. Karzai and the Americans have a lot of antagonists in Afghanistan — Al Qaida or their remnants, the Taliban and the warlords in and out of power, and drug dealers. But there is something else happening. Talking to people, I hardly met anyone, international or local, who was actually pleased with the Americans and what they were doing or their presence — even the internationals, and I met a lot of people from all over the world who are trying to help. The perception is that Americans are too arrogant and they are viewed as an abusive, violent and intrusive occupying force, not as a liberating force. It could be anybody. When I compare today’s Afghanistan with, say, 18 months ago, there is little change or development taking place. Though about $1.8 billion dollars have entered the country, that money was spent mostly on relief and on the wages, automobiles, overhead, etc. of these hundreds of NGOs, not on development. The situation doesn’t look very good politically, economically or otherwise. And so it is possible that people are associated with the usual antagonists or they are just average citizens who have become very disillusioned and disappointed with the situation and are angry with the Americans and/or the government because the promises have not been kept and life continues to be very hard.

DM: That is what I was curious about too, I don’t know how large Afghanistan’s middle class is...

ZW: Tiny

DM: Is the middle class — or perhaps professional class is a better term — becoming disillusioned and walking away from the government?

ZW: Afghanistan has a highly pyramidal and stratified social structure. A very small group of people have become obscenely wealthy through drug dealing, smuggling, weapons, graft, high level corruption and so forth; and you can see these people living conspicuously well with no qualms. And then there are, of course, the internationals who live much better than anyplace else, thanks to their enormous perks. But the vast majority of the people really struggle and suffer because there have been no major economic enterprises or projects; for example: factories, schools, hospitals, highways, agriculture, or construction work, etc. As I said, most of the relief work has meant feeding people, giving them blankets or stoves or this and that, but nothing major has happened. So, there is indeed an aristocracy, an oligarchy, a ruling elite, and then I would say a very small middle class, and then the suffering vast majority — people who struggle. For example, a university full professor is paid about $100 dollars a month, civil servants $1 or $2 per day, school teachers, nurses, ordinary workers get $1 or $2 per day. The government in fact is almost bankrupt, and that’s why it can’t pay its employees on time, especially in the countryside where people haven’t been paid for a month or months for example. You can see the pain, the suffering and the deprivation. People look haggard and much older. They are malnourished and undernourished. They look twice their age because health care, clean drinking water, productive land, housing, food — these are still very much in short supply throughout the country, and people don’t have the purchasing power, and on top of that, you have a lot of people returning. The refugees return with the hope that they will rebuild their lives and the promise that the country is being rebuilt, but when they return there is nothing for them, because of the drought, destruction, and isolation — although we had some rain and snow this year. There is little industry, construction, agriculture, and other paid employment. The situation is both desperate and critical. And insecurity and instability impede economic development. And there is not enough aid coming in because donors want a clean, effective, transparent and accountable government first; and you need money to form such a government.

DM: When Bush made it clear that he was going after Iraq, people here began saying “Well, here’s the real goal he was going after — Afghanistan was just a sideshow.” And this seems to have beenborne out by the total absence of any discussion of Afghanistan over here during the war. How do the people in Afghanistan feel? Was that their perception?

ZW: People who understand these things observe that the same thing would happen in Iraq which has happened in Afghanistan. A superpower attacks a small defenseless country, ruining its infrastructure, killing many, and saturating it with depleted uranium. Incidentally, David, there is new research by Canadian and European researchers indicating that in Afghanistan the uranium level in people’s urine and bodies is the highest in the world. Especially in the Mandahar province in the Southeast. These are independent scientists. And people really do worry about the health and environmental damage, the residue from the war — not just destroying the infrastructure and killing about 10,000 civilians, but also the invisible damage that is done to the land, food, wild life and so on. It is believed that everything is profoundly contaminated with depleted uranium because people speculate that almost every exotic new weapon was tested in Afghanistan. They used these deep-penetrating weapons that can penetrate caves and mountains and so forth. Birth defects and cancer are on the rise — a kind of slow invisible genocide and ecocide is taking place, but nothing is being done about this crime.

DM: Bunker busters.

ZW: Yes, so when the Iraq episode was heating up, people were saying, chuckling or snickering, saying, “Well, they will do the same thing to Iraq as they did to us. They came, they conquered, they occupied. They promised things and there has been very little development in terms of really improving people’s lives.” And surprisingly, there was no outward reaction when the bombing of Iraq began because I think the Afghans are too preoccupied with their own survival; and also, frankly, people are frightened by the United States’ incredible power. I could see the B-52 bombers passing over our house almost daily going to bomb in the southeast area. I mean you can really see the power of the United States and its allies. Airplanes, helicopters, troops, huge GIs, soldiers, U.S. soft drinks, U.S. agencies etc. People feel overwhelmed by the United States. But there is also a sense that the country is desperate, hanging on a thread really, on a knife’s edge. If the United States gets angry with Afghanistan, the country would literally fall apart or be bombed into oblivion. And so everyone from the President to the average peasant and the average civil servant all depend for their very survival on the United States. Yet the United States is not doing as much as it should be to help the people, so it is a very strange situation. Afghanistan’s friends and independent observers are concerned and issue warnings to that effect.

DM: It is almost like a spousal abuse relationship where the victim can’t just walk away.

ZW: Yes, it is not surprising that in recent months, as I said, there have been increased attacks on all internationals, including the helping agencies, the U.N., and other non-governmental organizations. Because the feeling is that more money is being taken out of the country than is being brought in, and that these internationals enjoy enormous privileges at the expense of the Afghans and the country. And the government is angry because, as the Minister of Finance said, speaking to the donors conference in Brussels, either help in a major way — which is to say pump in another $2 billion a year for the next 10 or 15 years — or this country will fall apart or be taken over by the narco traffickers. People already talk about Afghanistan becoming a second Colombia. I heard rumors that drug traffickers land their planes and take off at night. Drugs have come back on a massive scale after the Taliban. So people do feel disillusioned, betrayed and angry; and that explains why there is increased violence against all internationals, not just the coalition forces, but all internationals, even civilians, health workers, etc. NGOs undermine the government, have become a shadow government, a culture within a culture, a way of life, and a serious threat to Afghan values and institutions.

DM: Would it be an overstatement to say that the United States could find itself where the Soviet Union was at one point in time vis-à-vis Afghanistan?

ZW: One problem is that there is still foreign interference. It is a fact that Iran, Pakistan, Russia, India, and other countries, not to mention the United States, still interfere and intervene in Afghan affairs. One interpretation is that the Russians are committed to teaching the Americans a lesson because the Russians were humiliated by the Americans. The sense is that the Russians would like to get even with the Americans in Afghanistan through Afghans. And so people talk about the Afghan quagmire, because, as I said, there is no more stability today than there was earlier, no more security, no more peace and no more development, and no love for America. So, what do we have to show for a year and a half of the American and the ISAF presence in Afghanistan? The small economic activities take place by the people themselves, not the government or the occupying power.

DM: I’d like to backtrack just a minute. When you were talking about the uranium presence, I wanted to clarify, we are talking about those measurements taken post-U.S. intervention, right, so this isn’t dating from the Soviet era?

ZW: No, this is recent. I will be very happy to actually provide you with the source I was reading yesterday by Canadian and European experts. The same well-known expert who also is an independent researcher, whose name I don’t recall, who studied the Gulf War Syndrome. His finding is that these contaminants or poisonous elements are 100 times higher amongst the Afghans — the civilian population in certain parts — than there were during the Gulf War. We are talking about the consequences of the massive American attack on Afghanistan. I have a friend who understands environmental hazards who is deeply pained by this because the country has no defense against it. And it is also an economic and health care situation. As it is, people don’t even know where to go to have a physical check-up. But we have pictures of deformed babies and people, so this is a serious matter that has not been discussed in the popular press or among progressives and academics.

DM: Yes, I was going to say you don’t see anything about this in the popular press.

ZW: Environmental toxicity and damage, the massive reemergence of heroin, the tobacco invasion, AIDs cases, illicit economic activity, western cultural imperialism, including pornography, and mindless consumerism by a few constitute serious problems in a society whose socio-economic infrastructure has been crippled, where there is no effective government, where there are no civic organizations, and where the vast majority are submerged in poverty, ignorance, oppression and misery. We may witness a complete disintegration of the country.

DM: Even though Afghanistan has its own tobacco industry?

ZW: It does but people prefer American and foreign cigarettes thanks to very aggressive marketing. But just these massive problems that are not dealt with or resisted by anybody in the country.

DM: So a lot of that was going on-pre 911 has accelerated since the war?

ZW: It seems, because during the Taliban and the Mujahadeen preceding the Taliban, there was some control, of course. In fact, I heard people, even in Kabul, being nostalgic for the Taliban era. The lawlessness, the crime and criminality, the insecurity, the lack of an effective, credible, legitimate authority like during the Taliban and the Mujahadeen, not to mention the earlier periods are very serious problems; there were laws and regulations. There was some kind of control then. But now anything goes. Right now it is almost like there is no government and the internationals, including the Americans, can’t be worried about crime or about people not having clean drinking water. But you can find almost any kind of American drink you can think of, alcohol in certain restaurants, tobacco, drugs, and weapons. A country that produces this amount of drugs which is bigger than the Medellin cartel is bound to have a drug addiction problem. And we see signs of that. And then when the police and the law enforcement agencies are terribly poor, under-qualified and under-trained, underpaid, and corrupt, you can see the damage that would be done to the very fabric of society, the culture and the people’s values. You can reconstruct roads, buildings and factories and so forth but how do you reconstruct people’s way of life, a society, a culture? And this is what pained me a lot, to watch and see how things seem to be deteriorating, a society falling apart, this was very painful. Not in the physical sense alone, but also psychologically and intellectually. There are reports that the FBI, the ISI of Pakistan have been meeting the Taliban to reincorporate them into Afghan society and politics — an interesting and amazing development.

DM: Which is of course the most insidious part of...

ZW: Of war, turmoil, civil war, invasions, attacks, mayhem, neocolonialism and globalism.

DM: and empires.

ZW: Yes, indeed.

DM: Do you think the U.S. can actually extricate itself from the situation it has gotten itself into? When you and I talked in 2001 before 911, it was clear that it wasn’t just Afghanistan but the entire region that the U.S. seemed to be making a play for. If there is some sort of acknowledgement of failure in Afghanistan, isn’t there the fear — like there was in Southeast Asia — that the whole house of cards will collapse, that we’ll lose all this?

ZW: Yes, everybody else, and people who didn’t have a particular ideological axe to grind, but internationals and Afghans, would say that the American intervention in Afghanistan has failed. Now this would be very difficult for Washington to admit and extricate itself from. People also have also been asking first for an expansion of the International Security Assistance Force throughout the country, and the Americans becoming part of that. NATO will take over on August 10, so we’ll see. Second, to quickly make sure security and stability are restored, and third to begin a massive international assistance program to rebuild the country. Otherwise civil war could resume and the country will fall apart. As people have observed, the United States is in Afghanistan not just for the sake of Afghanistan — that certainly is not the case. And it is not doing very well fighting terrorists and terrorism because Al Qaida, the Taliban and other groups have resurfaced; and they are very active, not just in Afghanistan but also in other countries. So there is indeed a bigger U.S. agenda; a pipeline that is to connect Turkmenistan with the port of Guader in Pakistan — the work on that is likely to begin later this year. The bigger prize, of course, is the enormous energy resources of Central Asia which can best be accessed through Afghanistan. To do that you need security and stability, and to have stability you need a massive American force because no one is really trying to either build a democratic Afghan state apparatus or a national army or the police force. In other words, U.S. economic, ideological, geopolitical and strategic interests would compel it to stay in Afghanistan even though it is facing massive failures and problems.

DM: Well, you know the one thing we didn’t ask: you went over there to help work on the higher education system. How is the progress on that?

ZW: Very slow, like in everything else. The damage done to Afghanistan is deep, vast, and multi-faceted. The economy, the education system, the health care system, the production system, the highways, the farms, the housing, the culture, everything has been damaged deeply, and this has been going on for 25 years, and in some ways it continues to this day. So, to rebuild, reconstruct and revitalize anything, including higher education, will take time, resources, and expertise. Only two percent of the higher education age bracket attends college, which is one of the lowest in the world. Only four percent of the professorate have some kind of doctorate degree, another 18 percent have masters degrees but the vast majority of the instructors only have a BA or a BS degree, earned a long time ago. University campuses have been ruined. There are no dorms, laboratories, classrooms, offices, or libraries. And so we try to rebuild, but for very curious reasons, the Americans don’t seem to be paying much attention to higher education. They are helping some with primary and secondary education. I tried to convince fellow Americans to rebuild higher education quickly because, in my view, without an accessible, effective, democratic and quality higher education, the country has no future, and it will forever be dependent on internationals. And so the Minister, Dr. Fayez, who is also an Afghan American, and I did our utmost. We did the best we could to start classes, get books, get scholarships, reform the curriculum, introduce the credit system, rationalize the system, modernize the management, and have a semblance of higher education. Things have improved compared to a year ago, but by international standards I think there is another 20 to 30 years worth of work to really restore higher education to a credible and respectable system. Some 80 percent of the government budget is spent on the military and 20 percent on all the other ministries. The Ministry of Higher Education is allocated $28 million this year. Compare that to the $92 million Lewis and Clark College annual budget!

DM: Are you going back?

ZW: I don’t know. I am not looking for work, but I will be available as of Christmas until next June, and would welcome the challenge and opportunity. I do feel an obligation to make a difference and to contribute, because the country has been so devastated. And so, if I am asked, I will consider going back even though working and living there is hard and fraught with hazards. But I feel and will answer the calling, although my mother, who fears for my safety, has asked me not to return.

Zaher Wahab is a professor at Lewis & Clark College. He can be reached by email at:

Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance.

To learn more about research on effects of depleted uranium on Afghan civilians: Uranium Medical Research Center


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Last Updated: January 29, 2003