Peacekeeping: Afghanistan the Laboratory

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January 30, 2006: Afghanistan is proving to be a large laboratory for demonstrating what techniques work to bring peace to a war ravaged country. In a word, it's all about disarmament and reconstruction. In late 2001, the country saw an end to 22 years of war. Most of this conflict was ignored by the rest of the world. The war with the Soviet invaders caught the world's attention from 1979 to 1988, but after that, the civil wars went on without much notice in the world media.

Not all of the defeated Taliban stopped fighting in 2002, but the vast majority did. In the next three years, 97 percent of 62,000 warlord gunmen were transformed into organized security troops. Some 28,000 Afghans, including many demobilized gunmen, were trained as police. Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran noticed this, and four million of them returned home. There, six million children soon returned to rebuilt, or newly built, schools. The peace and disarmament allowed the economy to grow again (16 percent in 2003, 8 percent in 2004 and 2005, despite a drought in the south).

All of this was propelled by $15 billion in foreign aid, for a country of 25 million ($600 per capita) and some 21,000 foreign troops. Afghanistan is a particularly difficult country to do peacekeeping in. That's because the country has never had a true national government. For thousands of years, tribal militias have held power locally. The major cities were home to an urban population with tribal ties. The "kingdom of Afghanistan" was little more than a tribal chief with enough clout to claim the title of king. This worked as long as the king didn't try to enforce his will on the tribes. The king was replaced by a president in the 1970s, and when that government tried to act like a real national government, the tribes resisted. This brought the Soviet troops in (to try and save what was a pro-communist government), and that brings us back to the present. Yet another national government trying to bring economic progress to a country that is the poorest in Asia. The new government was elected with the votes of the tribes, but the tribes are not yet willing to give up their local authority.

Peacekeeping in Afghanistan is further complicated by Islamic radicals (both Taliban and al Qaeda), who want to start a religion based revolution. They are finding few takers, but the Islamic terrorists are willing to kill people while they keep trying. There is also a thriving drug (heroin) business in many parts of the country, helping to fund independent minded warlords and Islamic terrorists. The majority of Afghans are willing to give peace a chance, and the international aid community is willing to pay for reconstruction and peacekeeping. As a result, the peacekeeping effort is turning into a large experiment in what works, what doesn't and why.

 


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