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Afghanistan Struggles to Build a Democracy

August 5, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BEARDEN: Two and a half years after the fall of the Taliban, voters in Kabul and across the country are gearing up to take part in Afghanistan’s first national election.

COUNSELOR: Do you know who is the president in Afghanistan?

NAHIHA, Afghan Voter (Translated ): I want to exercise my rights and participate in the process in order to make peace for my country.

TOM BEARDEN: But the upcoming Oct. 9 election, already delayed twice, could again be sidelined by violent attacks, like the bombings that killed election officials this summer.

The spokesman for the U.S. led coalition forces now patrolling Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Tucker Mansager, spoke recently about the escalating violence.

LT. COL. TUCKER MANSAGER, Coalition Spokesman: There will be people, there will be terrorists who will try to stop the upcoming elections, and this may be an indicator of the desperation of the people trying to derail the elections that will allow the Afghan people to choose their free and democratic future.

TOM BEARDEN: And obstacles for the Afghan government go beyond securing a safe election.

The government also faces a blossoming illegal opium industry, and warlords who have yet to disarm their militia. At a recent military parade, Afghanistan’s interim president, Hamid Karzai, showed off the country’s national army, an army that was created by the country’s newly drafted constitution.

Karzai insists that the only way Afghans can be secure is to have the national army take control away from the powerful regional commanders, the nation’s traditional warlords.

For years, warlords in Afghanistan created local militias, their own private armies, by providing villagers with guns and food in exchange for their allegiance. Karzai acknowledges that his government is currently outgunned by militia factions. Last October, the Afghan government and the United Nations began the daunting task of disarming the factional militias.

Peter Babbington is an official leading the disarmament efforts.

PETER BABBINGTON: It’s the commanders that we are targeting in this process. We have to remove the commanders from the equation, so that you can dismantle the units that are underneath them.

TOM BEARDEN: By June, 40,000 men loyal to rival militia were supposed to have disarmed. So far only 9,700 have done so.

This warlord says he is willing to disarm his militia, but he says he will not give up all his weapons until the national army becomes strong enough to protect all Afghans.

WARLORD (Translated): The national army we have right now, I cannot trust them. Our people are worried about turning in all their weapons.

The army is not complete so they cannot disarm all the people. I’ll give you an example. You couldn’t have come here to interview me if we had turned in all our weapons. It would not have been secure.

PETER BABBINGTON: The weapons issue is a tricky one because there are far more than 100,000 weapons in this country.

This is not a country that has insurance companies that insure your house. In this country, your insurance policy is an AK-47 over the fireplace.

And most households will have a weapon of some sort, so there’s millions of weapons in this country.

TOM BEARDEN: President Karzai now holds an 85 percent approval rating among Afghans, but his opponents accuse him of promising warlords positions in his administration in exchange for securing regional votes.

Karzai acknowledges the problem warlords pose, but on a recent NewsHour interview with Gwen Ifill, he said he’s willing to talk to those commanders who agree to disarm.

HAMID KARZAI: After all, I’m the president of Afghanistan. I’m supposed to be talking to all Afghans. It is my job to take Afghanistan peacefully towards a better day.

It is my job to take Afghanistan towards stability by enhancing it, by talking to people. What should I do? Not talk to them? Shun them away? Fight them? Is that my job? Or is my job to create an environment whereby the Afghan people begin to talk to each other, whereby the Afghan people go to voting, go to elections by reaching compromises, by reaching agreements? Aren’t we beginning a democracy? Isn’t democracy about talking?

PETER BABBINGTON: President Karzai’s government is really an amalgamation of factional interests. And therefore, until the government goes through the election process and has a government that gets the mandate from the people, it is very much a government of factions.

And the president has quite a tricky task in maneuvering his way around to keep agreements with these various factions. So at the moment he doesn’t have that mandate. Hopefully, once the election has been passed, then he will have that mandate.

TOM BEARDEN: Perhaps an even bigger challenge to the Afghan government is the illegal and skyrocketing opium production.

HAMID KARZAI: Poppies are not only criminalizing the Afghan economy, destroying our agriculture, destroying lives, addicting people, but they are also going hand in hand with terrorism, with extremism and with warlords in Afghanistan. So we have to attack it.

TOM BEARDEN: In southern Afghanistan’s Nangahar Province, poppies– the plant that is used to make opium and its derivative, heroin — can be seen everywhere. It’s a dramatic resurgence of a crop that had been outlawed during Taliban rule.

The reason is simple economics. The United Nations estimates that poppy farmers like these will earn more than $2,500 a year, while a farmer who grows traditional crops will earns barely $700. The growing boom has led farmers who never grew poppies before into the business. Seven million now rely on it for their livelihoods.

Farmers cut or slit the poppy skin to create openings for sap to drip out, then they carefully handle each plant, scraping off the sap until they have enough to form a cake.

The process can be repeated up to six times. The mash cake will eventually be wrapped in leaves, tied in twine, and sold to traffickers, an opium factory, or transported overseas.

POPPY FARMER (Translated): There are two main ways for a farmer to sell. If we sell in this village, the price is low. If we take it to the place where the factories are located, the price is high.

Those factories are located between the mountain areas in the border areas. The main road is blocked, but we have other ways– underground subways, we know those ways. It’s easy for us.

TOM BEARDEN: This year, the farmers in Nangahar have competition. Across Afghanistan, opium cultivation is at an all time high. The plant is now found in 28 of the country’s 32 provinces.

A staggering 75 percent of the world’s opium now comes from Afghanistan’s fields. So many Afghani farmers decided to grow opium poppies this year that they flooded the world market causing a steep drop in the price of the drug.

Eradicating the poppies has been politically difficult. Part of the problem is that the poppies are grown in areas that are largely controlled by warlords who have been key in helping the coalition forces bring down the Taliban and fight off insurgents — warlords like this man, Haji Mosa.

HAJI MOSA (Translated): We patrol for the defense of our city and for the safety of our people. We have fought the Taliban, and we have fought al-Qaida.

TOM BEARDEN: Some of the commanders actually own the fields of poppies and are themselves drug traffickers. Mirw Yasini is director general of counter intelligence for Afghanistan.

MIRW YASINI: They are involved directly in manufacturing heroin, they are sponsoring the trade, they are growing opium and they are involved from A to Z.

PETER BABBINGTON: At some stage if the government is to control the poppy business and bring that under control, they’re going to have to do something about those commanders.

Now the whole problem of commanders we’ve recognized is significant here because it’s to the commanders these soldiers owe their allegiances, as we talked about earlier. So we have to separate the commander from his men.

TOM BEARDEN: There are also the economic implications of destroying poppies. The $1 billion industry represents more than half of the delicate Afghan economy.

POPPY FARMER (Translated): I know it’s illegal to grow poppy, and I realize it’s dangerous for people, but there’s no other way for us. We have a very small piece of land, and we are 20 people in our family.

Our land is too small to grow wheat. That’s why we grow poppy. Poppy gives us enough money to live on. Also poppy doesn’t need a lot of water, and this area doesn’t have much water.

We want the government to make us deep wells, and allow us to water the land so that we can grow other crops.

TOM BEARDEN: But Badshah says he and most farmers from his region would gladly give up the profitable harvest if the new government would help them find another way to support their families.

POPPY FARMER (Translated): The government told us to stop growing poppies, and we said, "You have to give us jobs." We need hospitals, schools, we need paved roads, we need jobs to have food. We say, "Give us work at a factory."

But we haven’t seen anything. We haven’t seen any action from it. If they eliminate growing poppy, we will die, we will die from hunger.

TOM BEARDEN: But counter- narcotics officials contend it will be impossible for Afghanistan to gain international respect and much- needed financial aid if the opium trade continues to flourish.

MIRW YASINI: We have to enforce the law just to regain our good name in the international society.

So that it is not an excuse for the farmer, or the traffickers, that they are doing it because they have to do it, or they are getting a lot of money. Well, a crime is not permitted because of the necessity, so that is very clear.

TOM BEARDEN: Still, the government is sympathetic to farmers who have suffered greatly under years of civil war.

MIRW YASINI: The al-Qaida and Taliban presence in Afghanistan brought nothing but calamities and destruction to this country.

So the farmers have the rights, that the government should give them a means of living, but not in exchange because the… or exchange in trading with us the poppy cultivation.

We do give them on the basis of the government has to give the minimum living standards to its citizens, and also the international community have the moral obligation to help these war and conflict suffered people.

TOM BEARDEN: The Afghan government has asked for a substantial increase in troops by election time, but has heard from NATO that only a portion of those requested have been assigned.

JIM LEHRER: Since that report was completed, President Karzai has removed his running mate from his ticket.

That prompted the resignation of his foreign minister. The education minister also quit to run against Karzai.