The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- What has been happening since the new president came in'

There was a time, not too long ago, when Afghanistan made front pages. Taliban, Bamian, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharief had become almost household words in India. Then a graduate of Himachal University became Afghanistan's president; and Afghanistan vanished from our newspapers. What has been happening in this little friend of Hindostan'

Zahir Shah became Padshah of Afghanistan in 1933 when he was a kid; his uncles ran the country. While he was enjoying himself in Europe in 1973, Daoud Khan led the Afghan communist party in a coup, abolished monarchy and made himself president. The party was divided into Khalq (people) and Parcham (banner) factions. In 1978, Nur Mohammad Taraki and Babrak Karmal killed Daoud Khan and seized power. Soon the Khalqis began to purge the Parchamis. Karmal was sent off to Czechoslovakia, and Hafizullah Khan Amin of Khalq took over. Taraki's followers tried to kill Amin; but Taraki was killed first. Land ceilings were imposed, and women were liberated. Such reforms were found intolerable, and thousands migrated to Iran and Pakistan. Finding that communists had got a bad name, Amin began to say that his was an Islamic regime. There were several attempts to assassinate him. Keen to restore communist rule, the Soviet army marched into Kabul on Christmas Day in 1979. They brought in Babrak Karmal as president.

A guerrilla movement soon started against the regime. The Afghan army dwindled with desertions from 105,000 in 1978 to 30,000 in 1987. The Soviets prevented its rout only by the use of tanks and helicopter gun ships. Pakistan and the US combined in 1986 to launch an operation in which the Pakistan army trained and led Afghan recruits as well as Arab volunteers, with arms and money coming from the US. It bled the Soviet Union until it withdrew in 1989. The ensuing civil war ended in 1994 when the taliban, a subsidiary of Pakistani ISI, took over Afghanistan. The border with Pakistan became more or less open.

In 1998 the 25 million people of Afghanistan owned 40 million animals or 1.6 animals a head ' 25 million sheep, 9 million goats, 4' million cattle, 1 million donkeys and half a million camels (we Indians own about a third of an animal per head). They also had 11 million chicken. The 2.7 million hectares of cultivated land produced 3.9 million tons of foodgrains ' 2.7 million tons of wheat, 400,000 tons of rice, 300,000 tons of maize and 250,000 tons of barley. Of the 2.7 million hectares, 1.2 million was irrigated, and produced 2 million tons of wheat.

The country imported almost all its industrial goods ' petroleum products from Iran, and the rest from Pakistan. Taliban had an Afghan Transit Trade agreement with Pakistan under which it imported goods duty-free through Karachi. As India has often done with Nepal, Pakistan used to badger Afghanistan about goods that were imported across Pakistan and then smuggled back into Pakistan. Of the $2.5 billion of goods imported under the ATT in 1996, $2 billion was smuggled into Pakistan. In 1995 Pakistan removed 17 items from the ATT, including synthetic fibres and clothing; in 1999 it asked the Afghan government to levy the same customs duties as Pakistan. Indian tyres were particularly cheap, so their import was taken out of the ATT in 1994. But still in 1999 Pakistan, to its horror, found Modi tyres being smuggled in.

Taliban, a devoutly Sunni outfit, had theological differences with Shia Iran, which affected trade. It became difficult to import goods through Bandar Abbas and Islam Qala; and there were obstacles in the import of the crucial petroleum products from Iran. Taliban also quarrelled with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. So in the last days it was reduced to importing small quantities of petroleum products from Turkmenistan; their cost was raised considerably by transport.

Taliban's control over the country also melted soon. It lived entirely on US, and then Pakistani aid; its state revenue in 1996-97 was only 2.6 per cent of its expenditure. By then, collection of economic statistics had virtually ceased. Later observers looked back on taliban rule with nostalgia because of the law and order it imposed. But its writ did not run far beyond Kabul.

Taliban lost the goodwill it had in Washington by continuing to provide a safe haven to Osama bin Laden, whose al Qaida was associated with a series of terrorist acts starting with the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in Manila in 1994. But it had good friends in Pakistan. So it was left alone till the attacks of September 9, 2001 in the US. The US used the attacks to remove taliban and install Hamid Karzai as president.

In 2003, Afghanistan had a population of 21 million. It produced 3.6 million tons of foodgrains from 2.2 million hectares ' 2.7 million tons of wheat (2.1 million tons of it irrigated), 350,000 tons of barley, 300,000 tons of wheat, and 260,000 tons of rice. But in addition, 74,000 hectares of land produced 3,422 tons of opium, which brought export revenue of $2.5 billion ' two-fifths of the gross national product. It gave 78,987 person-years of employment; at harvest time it employed 822,722 people, according to a report Manabu Fujimura did for the ADB.

Re-exports ' also known as smuggling into Pakistan ' brought $2.7 billion, and opium exports brought $2.3 billion. Foreign aid brought another $1.8 billion. Thus this country, which exported $150 million's worth of its own produce ' dry fruit, sheepskin and carpets ' could afford imports of $4.7 billion.

It collected $132 million in government revenue ' 2 per cent of GNP. Half of it came from import duties ' less than 1' per cent of imports. A third was collected by the provinces but little of it was remitted to the Central government. It spent $349 million; it received $184 million in grants, $25 million in loans, and $39 million in other financing. Amongst the last were fees from overflights over Afghanistan that International Air Transport Association had collected for years but not remitted since it did not know to which government to send them to. The government employed 456,000, including an army of 100,000. But not more than 330,000 were actually being paid.

All government employees got 1,200 afghanis a month in food allowance, Af440 in a second food allowance, Af130 in transport allowance and Af8 in professional allowance (the official exchange rate of the afghani was about the same as that of the rupee). The salary itself was Af210 at the top and Af40 at the bottom; gross pay including the allowances varied from Af4,077 to Af1,818.

These are new afghanis. Many variants of afghanis were in circulation including counterfeit ones. In 2003, the government got 500 tons of new notes printed in Germany and Sweden, and flew them in. Then they were flown to seven provinces ' roads were considered too hazardous ' and then transported to 47 exchange points. When anyone came to exchange his money, 10 per cent of it was examined; the proportion of counterfeits in it was then applied to the entire amount he wanted to exchange, and he was reimbursed for the rest. The old and phony afghanis were burnt on the spot. So Afghanistan finally has a single currency ' except for the dollars, which the government receives in millions and periodically auctions.

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