Christian Aid says US can learn from Afghanistan

 As the war in Iraq cedes to peace, few concrete plans have emerged as to what will happen next. Christian Aid's emergency officer, Dominic Nutt, spent time in Afghanistan - both under the Taliban and after September 11, when American troops had overthrown the fundamentalist regime. He argues that George Bush has vital lessons to learn from his first war on terrorism. It's true that since the American-led alliance crushed the Taliban, Afghanistan is a happier place. Previously banned, music can now be heard in the market places, people can watch television without fear of execution and men can shave their beards and grow their hair a little longer than the previously obligatory skinhead. But for many, the changes are cursory. Most people can't afford televisions and while wearing a beard may have been annoying, shaving it off is not exactly life changing. What Afghans really want is peace and bread. So far, the former remains tenuous, while for those millions whose larders still remain bare, finding food continues to be a daily struggle. After the Afghan war, Bush and Blair went on record promising to put Afghanistan on top of the political agenda. During the conflict, the Prime Minister said: "To the Afghan people we make this commitment. The conflict will not be the end. We will not walk away as the outside world has done so many times before." Bush has made the same pledge to Iraq - a developed, oil rich country which is very different to Afghanistan. However, like Afghanistan, if serious plans to deal with the post-war situation are not made now, Iraq and the Middle East as a whole, could face horrific problems. Yet Blair and Bush's post-war intervention in Afghanistan has been patchy, to say the least. The Afghan government says it will take $20 billion to start rebuilding the world's third-poorest country. So far the international community has promised $4.5 billion - to be delivered over the next five years and less than $2 billion has been handed over. Worse than this, since the defeat of the Taliban, Afghanistan has further fragmented into a loose collection of fiefdoms under the control of disparate and belligerent warlords. The writ of the national government does not extend beyond the borders of the capital. The interim president, Hamid Karzai is disparagingly known as the mayor of Kabul - The rest of the country is effectively beyond his control. Violence, banditry and armed skirmishes abound, and there is little Karzai's government can do to bring order. Iraq too will face similar problems. It is also a country with a recent history of internal conflict and pressure-cooker repression, which could erupt when the lid is lifted. The problem in both Afghanistan and Iraq is that the US - rightly or wrongly - is seen to be concerned only with its interests. It is no good issuing gilt-edged press releases and heartfelt sound bites about wonderful intentions of liberation, peace and love for all when the newly liberated don't believe you. There is a lot of evidence suggesting that the US has handed over cash and weapons to warlords, hoping they will track down Osama bin Laden. The guns and cash have added fuel to the already existing internal conflict between the warlords, fighting their turf wars. These actions strengthen the hand of the local leaders, increasing their power at the expense of the national government. These warlords are masters of their own realms with their own power structures and systems of taxation. Many do not care to be told what to do by the legitimate authority of Afghanistan and therefore it is hard for this government to solve national problems, raise taxes and legislate in the interests of the whole country. So while the US promised to support the new government - and indeed has, with cash and technical back up - it is at the same time undermining it. The US should remember its recent history. Previous administrations initially bank-rolled bin Laden, along with the mujahadin, the muslim militia fighting to overthrow the communist government of Afghanistan, held in power by Soviet troops. The US helped create a monster. So the main lesson from Afghanistan is simply this: the US has a credibility problem. Whether deserved or not, many people across the world and certainly in Afghanistan and the middle East suspect the US has an agenda of its own, that it's not in Afghanistan to liberate the poor and that it's not in Iraq to free the people suffering at the hands of Saddam. Many feel the US is in Iraq for the oil, for the construction contracts and eventually to re-organise the whole Middle East country by country in its own interests. Whether these assertions are fair, they are being nonetheless being made - not least by many Arabs in the wider Middle East. And people are angry. In Egypt, the Palestinian occupied territories and elsewhere we have seen widespread anti-US demonstrations. Many Palestinians, for example, feel the US is guilty of gross hypocrisy. Going to war on the basis that Saddam failed to respond to UN resolutions on weapons of mass destruction seems laughable to most Palestinians whose land is occupied by Israeli troops - condemned by a raft of UN resolutions calling on its troops to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Simply put, many Arabs do not trust the US and will react badly to an American-led government in Iraq after the war. The best option is for the US to hand over the reins to an interim UN-led administration. Such an administration should have clear and open plans as to how it will then transfer power to a representative Iraqi government within a set timeframe. Bush should back his statements of good intent with action. It won't be easy. The UN is not a god. It will make mistakes. But at least it will be legitimate and legal and more easily accepted by Iraq is and the populations of surrounding states. The bottom line is the US cannot impose liberty and democracy at the point of a gun. And this time it cannot afford to get it wrong. If it does, judgement will be severe.

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