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Afghanistan: EU Parliament Debate Largely Pessimistic About Country’s Future

The European Parliament held a debate on Afghanistan today. Although the parliament supports EU involvement in the country, many deputies today questioned whether recent moves toward democracy are sustainable. The continued repression of women, the fragile security situation, the growing drugs trade, the role of Islamic fundamentalism, and conflicting international agendas for Afghanistan were cited as forming a "vicious circle" that will not be easy to break.

Brussels, 12 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Although Afghanistan has been the object of one of the largest international aid efforts, there is little optimism within the European Union regarding its future.

Today's debate in the European Parliament identified a myriad problems while offering few, if any, pointers as to how they might be overcome.

"If you're trying to institute Western-style democracy in Afghanistan, you're wasting your time."
Opening the discussion, the EU's external affairs commissioner, Chris Patten -- who will visit the country next week -- listed a number of recent improvements. He cited the adoption of the new constitution, moves to disarm and demobilize fighters, the return of 2.5 million refugees, the expansion of health services, and greater-than-expected international aid allowing the salaries of teachers, doctors, and police officers to be paid.

However, Patten noted, Afghanistan's future "depends critically on security.”

"Without better security, reconstruction will certainly stall, and we will find ourselves struggling to hold open and credible elections. So I very strongly welcome [EU] member states' engagement in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, as well as their continued support to ISAF, and I strongly hope that NATO will be able to provide more troops," Patten said.

Patten recognized that improving security, in turn, is dependent on stamping out drugs production, which feeds lawlessness in the regions. He said the trade is worth 2.5 billion euros ($3.2 billion) a year and is on the rise.

Patten did not offer any views as to how the drug problem might be resolved. Responding to Patten, many members of the European Parliament (MEPs) returned to this issue, adding to his somber statistics, but most equally at a loss when it came to remedies.

Two conservative British MEPs, Charles Tannock and Nirj Deva, stood out in this context. Both suggested the EU should simply buy the poppy crop from the Afghan farmers and warlords and burn it. Deva said this would also save EU taxpayers tens of billions of euros in law enforcement costs at home.

However, most speakers today indicated they believe that Afghanistan's problems run deeper than a lack of security. Many criticized the new constitution on account of the precedence it gives to Islamic law, and the perceived curbs it imposes on freedom of expression.

Women's rights -- or more precisely, the lack thereof -- in most of Afghanistan were taken to be particularly indicative of the new government's inability or unwillingness to establish a Western-style democracy in the country -- a prerequisite for continued large-scale EU assistance.

Emma Nicholson, a British deputy, said no advances at all have been made in this respect.

"Commissioner Patten said that Afghanistan has reached a crossroads. I believe, and so does Amnesty [International], Human Rights Watch, and the [Afghan] Revolutionary Association for Women, that the [current] government has taken a wrong turn, and that the position of women is, in fact, worse than it was before," Nicholson said.

Nicholson supported her point by quoting reports by human rights organizations saying Taliban-style repression is rife in the countryside, that rape and sexual violence -- committed as well by members of foreign military forces in the country -- is high, and that the number of female suicides is higher than under the Taliban regime.

Like Nicholson, a number of female MEPs sharply criticized Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's record on women's education.

Ulla Margrethe Sandbaek, a Danish deputy, made a direct appeal to Patten to raise the issue on his visit to Afghanistan.

"In November 2003, Mr. Karzai's government allowed the enforcement of a 1970 law banning married women from the classroom, which led to the expulsion of possibly more than 2,000 to 3,000, according to the deputy education minister. Do you think you could raise the issue of this law enforcement? Also, Article 3 of the constitution states that no law in Afghanistan could be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of Islam. This language, designed to secure a relatively smooth approval of the new Afghan constitution, may entail high costs for women in the future," Sandbaek said.

Sandbaek said there have been 16 armed attacks on girls’ schools since September 2002.

Some MEPs sets their sights higher, trying to draw distinctions between differing international agendas.

Andre Brie, a German and the author of a European Parliament report on Afghanistan, argued that the future of the country will be a crucial test for the credibility of the EU and its brand of foreign policy.

"It would be irresponsible if the international commitment to Afghanistan and solidarity with its people were reduced because of the war in Iraq or the current dramatic problems there. I believe that it is precisely in view of the situation in Iraq, and the unilateralism being practiced there, that Afghanistan must be made into a success for the international community on the basis of the UN Charter, with a central role [being played by] the United Nations," Brie said.

Others suggested the EU should capitalize on its position as the largest aid donor to Afghanistan and impose what some termed "political conditionality" on its government.

Per Gahrton, a Swede and the parliament's recent rapporteur on the Southern Caucasus, sharply attacked U.S. motives in Afghanistan, saying its troops have "no plans" to defend women's rights, support democracy, or fight the drugs trade. Instead, he said, the main demand of the U.S. administration is to be able to return to the country whenever it wishes, most likely as part of the war against terrorism.

Glyn Ford is a British MEP active in issues pertaining to Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan. Ford also criticized U.S. troops for "sitting in a fixed and immobile fortress." At the same time, he said, the NATO-led ISAF forces are largely confined to Kabul, leaving regional warlords to "dispense arbitrary justice" in the provinces.

Ford's final assessment was bleak, but on the whole representative of the debate. He noted that the spreading of ISAF forces to the provinces will remain "wishful thinking" because its mostly European backers have no wish to finance the up to 40,000 troops needed for nationwide coverage.

Meanwhile, Ford said, foreign aid workers will remain vulnerable to attacks, reconstruction efforts will stall, and ordinary Afghans will see no improvement in their situations. Elections in the populous southern region will at best return supporters of an Islamic regime.

Consequently, he said, the international community must temper its hopes in Afghanistan.

"Human rights are important, particularly the situation of women. Formal rights may well be given, but they're unlikely to play out in the villages. The best hope for the future may be universal education, which will not change current attitudes but rather those of the next generation. The U.S. and the EU are pushing bottom lines that in practice are probably undeliverable. [As] Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative, said, 'If you're trying to institute Western-style democracy in Afghanistan, you're wasting your time,' " Ford said.