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Afghanistan's Future: What Comes After the War? - 2001-10-23

U.S. and U.N. officials are now trying to form some plans for post-war Afghanistan, while insisting that basic decisions lie with the Afghans themselves. The goal is somehow to create a unified government out of the nation's contentious groups, including Taleban defectors, and avoid a collapse into more warfare. This is a tall order for a nation that has been bitterly fragmented by years of fighting, so much so that some claim it cannot be called a nation.

On joining the Afghan army in the late 1960's, Nasir Shansab was told to write down the name of his tribe. He wrote: "I am an Afghan." That was not acceptable, and the order was repeated. Again, Mr. Shansab wrote he was an Afghan. The exasperated officer scratched in the name of a tribe, and sent him on his way. This is the curse of Afghanistan, says Mr. Shansab, an Afghan-American writer and chairman of Democracy International, a group that promotes democracy in third world countries. "Basically, the Afghan thinks that he is a Herati first before he is an Afghan or he is a Tajik first before he is an Afghan or a Pashtun first before he is an Afghan," says Mr. Shansab. "I think it will take time for a sense of nationhood to evolve."

War has not helped. Ever since coming to power, the largely Pashtun Taleban have been fighting an alliance of Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks in the north. When the conflict ends, the groups will have to be reconciled if there is going to be peace. Mr. Shansab fears they have all become too used to war. "If you look at Afghanistan today, maybe 70 per cent of Afghans are younger than 35, and the vast majority of them have only seen war. They have never seen peace," he says. "They actually do not know what to do with their lives when peace comes about. So you would have do a lot of persuading, giving a lot of incentives for them to lay down their arms."

That is where outside forces come in. Mr. Shansab is skeptical of short term social engineering. Don Camp, U.S. deputy assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, says the United States is committed to long-term help for Afghanistan. "We know well that the United States and other outside forces are in no position to micromanage a new future government in Afghanistan," he says. "We are committed to assist in ways that the Afghan people think suitable to work out forms and structures of a new government, but we are not going to try to impose such a government. I do not think we could, and we should not."

An immediate concern is getting food to Afghans in the midst of war. The United States has been dropping packets from the air, but Mr. Camp concedes this is only an interim measure. With winter approaching and so many people on the move, millions of Afghans face starvation. Oxfam International reports that many people are reduced to eating wild plants, which are fast disappearing.

A combination of U.S. bombing and Taleban interference makes it difficult for trucks to get through. Military analyst Michael O'Hanlon says in areas where planes can land safely, they should bring in vast quantities of food while weather permits. Does the west want to be held responsible for mass starvation in its effort to defeat terrorism?

Mr. Camp emphasizes the United States is at war with terrorism, not Afghanistan. "This is not by any means a war against the people of Afghanistan. It is certainly not a war against a religion. We know that Islam is a religion of peace," he says. "The United States is committed to preserving the rights of Muslims to practice their religion freely around the world, and that certainly includes in Afghanistan."

Reconstruction of a nation destroyed by war will not be easy. Gone is all infrastructure, the basics of life. Ajmal Maiwandi, an Afghan architect in London, recalls once vibrant Kabul, now fading into the surrounding dust. He writes of walls and streets disappearing, "unwinding into loosely scattered, uninhabited fragments, a modern ruin, a testament to the excesses of human conflict."