There is so little good news coming out of Afghanistan that an announcement on Wednesday that the country risks becoming a failed state fighting a war must be just one more headache for Charlie Higgins.
Higgins, who took up his post as head of the United Nations Assistance Mission (Unama) in Afghanistan four months ago, when asked what his priorities in the job are said: “I want to move away from the hand-to-mouth way of dealing with everything as if it is a massive crisis. We will have a massive crisis one day, say an earthquake, and we need to get ourselves prepared for that.”
His task at present is complicated by the worst winter the area has known for 25 years, with remote villages cut off by heavy snowfalls.
“We always know there will be a hard winter, and heavy snow will bring flooding in the spring. Other areas of the country are hot and arid, and suffer drought. We need to join up what is already being done, and work considerably better to prepare for disasters,” he said.
All of this has to be achieved against what Higgins calls the “background noise” of the situation in Afghanistan.
As well as the harsh weather, this includes dire poverty, hunger, huge rises in the price of staple foods, displacement, a health crisis and, of course, an escalation in the fighting that has crippled the country for years and led to high levels of criminal activity.
A study by former UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Retired Marine Corps General James Jones, released on Wednesday, said: “Afghanistan stands at a crossroads. The progress achieved after six years of international engagement is under serious threat from resurgent violence, weakening international resolve, mounting regional challenges and a growing lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan people about their country’s future.”
One recommendation is for more Nato troops to go in. There are already 37,000 deployed to bolster President Karzai’s authority as the Taliban mount a comeback.
The south of the country, the study finds, has seen the worst violence since the Taliban were thrown out of power in the US-led invasion of 2001.
Higgins is left grappling with the practicalities on the ground. “Effectively, banditry rules,” he said. “Having a dialogue with the anti-government elements is difficult. Aid workers are targeted, and the aid gets lost. This is not only because of the fighting, but also criminality.”
For example, early last month a consignment of World Food Programme aid was looted, the lorry driver (a contractor) killed and his truck burned.
Against this background, the fact Afghanistan has managed a few “days of tranquillity”, when all parties agree to a ceasefire to allow medical staff to vaccinate children, seems a miracle. “It is one of only a handful of countries where polio has returned,” Higgins said.
“Every issue is a local one in a country like Afghanistan. After 30 years of war, the infrastructure, already poor, is sometimes destroyed. There are communities accessible only by a walking track in the summer months. In remote areas and where government control is not assured, we work with the tribal committees – the chosen elders.”
The statistics for a stable economy are appalling: 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture, while only 12 per cent of the land is agriculturally viable.
“The really poor do not have an income for several months every year when they cannot rely on their own crops,” Higgins said. “They then borrow money to tide them over, and each year get deeper into debt.”
In fact, the situation is leading to health concerns that will resonate for decades.
Healthcare workers are finding a bigger proportion of children suffer stunted growth, and a poor diet is also leading to an increase in learning difficulties.
The rise in the wheat price is exacerbated in Afghanistan because of where they import some of their wheat from – Iran and Pakistan.
“Pakistan has gone from being a net grain producer to a consumer,” Higgins said. “They will be exporting less and less. Add to this the insecurity on the roads, and you can see the problem.”
Across Afghanistan, bread is the main staple food yet wheat flour prices have risen by 58 per cent in the past year – and by up to 80 per cent in the areas that are inaccessible by roads.
Higgins said: “A day rate labourer in Kabul will earn about $1.14 a day (Dh4) and may be supporting a family of seven. He will spend up to 70 cents, half his wages, on bread.
And that is a man who has a job and is in Kabul, where wages are higher.”
What happens next is that families like these will cut out nutritious (and relatively expensive) food items from their housekeeping and rely on bread to give them their daily calorie intake. That is when children, in particular, begin to get the health problems that will stay with them for life.
The UN and the Government of Afghanistan earlier this month launched a $81million (Dh297.4m) appeal to help the country’s poorest 425,000 families with buying wheat flour. “These are the families who are most vulnerable to changing conditions,” Higgins, whose previous job was with the World Food Programme in post-tsunami Indonesia, added.
Surrounding this humanitarian crisis is the armed conflict that takes away what aid workers call their “space”, the freedom to do their job.
Part of Higgins’ job is to protect civilians caught up in the conflict, and to ensure that international law is observed. He said: “This is done by pointing out the abuses of the law. We have to ensure that civilians are not targeted, and that they do not suffer from military action. For example, the idea of a siege is now outlawed, so part of our job is to ensure the military do not cut off access to power or water as a tactic.”
The United States is sending 3,200 more marines to Afghanistan. There are already 20,000 US-led coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Higgins’ UN mission works with the International Security Assistance Force, headed by General Dan McNeill. His job is to rebuild the Afghan Army, which was destroyed in the civil war of the 1990s, and get it operational by about 2011.
“We are going to be aggressively pursuing the insurgents and continue to push our reconstruction projects,” the General said last weekend. Of 2007, he said: “It was a superb year. The insurgents won nothing on the battlefield.”
In Afghanistan, how you define the battlefield is food for thought.
Life expectancy in years
1 in 9
Chance of a woman dying in childbirth
Number of Afghans at risk of malnourishment
Number of children not going to school
Population with access to safe drinking water
Population with piped water to their homes
Rural homes with access to sanitation
Children with access to measles vaccinations
Export of goods as percentage of GDP
Failed Afghan economy puts nation in crisis