- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2003

High in the mountains above the Crystal Lake of Qargha, where a few months ago the reservoirs below were bone dry, people flock by foot and car and truck on Fridays to enjoy a picnic. It is for them as much a celebration of their freedom as it is a family outing.

The difficulty required to reach this place serves as a reminder that though devastated by 25 years of war, these people are unconquered because they are unconquerable.

The gathering also provides an opportunity to spend time with hundreds of Afghans to discuss the future and the lessons that should have been learned about the perils of nation building.

The model used by foreigners to control or pacify the countryside and the villages that once ringed Kabul, a city now in ruins, does not work, they say. And as immigrants daily pour into the utterly devastated land, not only parched but rubbled and alive only with spent ordnance, the Afghans become more deeply aware of their worsening plight, and of their resentment of bizarre Western interference.

Unrest is beginning to re-emerge; soldiers are being killed as well as civilians, and armed gangs (called militias) roam the highways in deadly numbers. Demonstrations, fomented by extremists, are on the rise and foreign-aid workers are less safe here than even a few months ago. This means work stoppages on projects such as school construction and interruptions of badly needed relief services that must move through rural areas into the villages.

Afghans are appreciative of the hundreds of millions of dollars in international relief that has been poured into their war-ravaged country, not to mention the cost of the U.S.-led coalition of military personnel who provide what security there is and much-needed relief and reconstruction assistance.

During the course of nearly three weeks in the country, it is evident that people here at all levels of society are grateful to the United States. But as one of only a handful of Westerners ever to venture so far up into these mountains to spend time with Afghans and then visit with them in their homes, mosques, hospitals and bazaars, one does not miss the hazards as innocent questions are put directly.

Nagging questions

“Who will protect our people” once the Americans leave, asks an old man as he watches beggar children traversing the dangerous towpaths along the rushing waters above Qargha. “Where is the aid that has been promised?” he asks.

There are questions about America’s intentions from youths of military age, as well as from the tea merchants who have set up tents and booths from which to sell their goods to the picnicking crowds, to families wearing their finest clothes.

“It reminds us of what it was like before the wars,” the old man says, looking over the sea of people, many too young to remember such gatherings in the past in the Pagham Mountains.

A small party of Afghans, with a foreign reporter, traveled into the countryside recently to observe the delivery of medical supplies and books to rural clinics, where, for lack of antibiotics, patients face mortality rates upward of 30 percent. The group also sought answers to three questions:

• Where’s the much-publicized international aid?

• What do Afghans say that they need — as opposed to what foreigners say they want?

• What lessons have been learned in Afghanistan that might be applied in Iraq or elsewhere?

Answers were almost impossible to obtain from the dozens of U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the country. Yet, the U.S.-led military coalition and the much-maligned U.S. Agency for International Development were completely forthcoming.

Spending time separately with Westerners and Afghans made it clear that there was a considerable difference between what each group thinks needs to be done to rebuild an infrastructure that has been destroyed systematically.

What should be done to build septic systems capable of preventing human waste from polluting the groundwater? Infant mortality is roughly one in four due to disease and malnutrition. Millions of land mines have been scattered over fields made barren by four years of drought and the Taliban decision to cut off water to many agricultural areas as punishment to resisting tribes. Education was for years almost completely disrupted, resulting in 80 percent of women and somewhere between 60 percent and 70 percent of men being illiterate.

Nation building

While Afghanistan needs a Marshall Plan, due to international politics and the American prejudice against meddling, the United States has in recent years shown little inclination to engage in nation building.

The United States is virtually alone in the world as a nation with the know-how and experience to rebuild, restore and establish a free and open society in the face of disaster, something it proved in Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II.

And based on dozens of interviews with American troops — ranging from grunts to senior officers — U.S. forces in Afghanistan are ready to start full-scale reconstruction projects if only political leaders will give the go-ahead.

“It’s a shame, really, given all the talent we have just sitting around,” says a U.S. officer who points to the Band-Aid projects assigned to the military. “We could do so much more.”

A wide array of Western and Afghan officials say that somewhere up the line the decision has been made to keep the United States in the background while leaving the bulk of the aid work to the international bureaucrats, heavily laden with overhead that eats up as much as 90 percent of funds targeted for aid on the ground. Afghans see this and express desperation. Whether aid workers are Belgian, Greek, English, Hungarian or Spanish, the Afghans view all Westerners as Americans.

The United States abandoned the Afghans after the Soviet pullout in 1989, and they fear that “America” will abandon them again.

Karzai mocked

There are constant complaints about the U.S.-backed administration of President Hamid Karzai. He derisively is called the “Mayor of Kabul” and “Mr. Commission” because of his shrinking authority and penchant for announcing new studies as civil issue after civil issue reaches crisis, according to locals all the way up to his ministerial officers.

Meanwhile, next to Kabul’s bombed-out or decaying homes and businesses, new construction is going up. Some homes are selling for upward of $300,000, mostly to Westerners and rich foreigners flocking into the city. Food transported from Pakistan or Iran pours into Kabul’s bazaars, where the lame and destitute gather on every corner. The bazaars sometimes are flooded by women in sky-blue burqas, many of them widows with bedraggled children in tow, begging for money. But, there is little crime in the city. Thousands of cars, taxis and buses crowd the streets from sunrise to sunset. The sanitation system is gone, and dust swirls through the streets in the heat of each day infecting, sickening and killing. Electricity and potable water are only sometimes available.

Fueling economic activity are the funds flowing in from international organizations and the thousands of relief workers, who only rarely will allow military patrols to accompany them but universally decry the lack of security throughout the country.

Thousands of Afghans survive on handouts or benefit from the presence of the United Nations and NGOs in other ways, if only from charging housing and rental fees that run $15,000 a month on average per house for Westerners or around $4,000 for single rooms. Add to that employment of locals charging up to $100 per day to serve as drivers, plus an additional $75 to $100 for each guard, and one can imagine the sums of cash the international bureaucrats have poured into Kabul.

Amid the bleakness and sickness of the city, the dangers and hardships of the countryside and the frustration and despair of locals astonished at the waste, fraud and perceived abuses by the international social workers and NGOs, U.S. military commanders quietly report growing positives. These include local villagers turning in caches of arms (for money when the cache is sizable) and providing information that has led to the capture of militants and Taliban sympathizers.

Making a difference

“We are making a difference, and it can be measured in tangible ways,” says Army Maj. Robert F. Hepner.

Security is the key. It makes no difference who provides it — and this raises troubling issues, because traditional warlords have men waiting eagerly at the outskirts of Kabul and other cities to provide security for the throngs who continue to pour into the country. Democracy is given lip service, but few understand the implications of this Western concept. “It’s a hard road ahead,” says Jean-Jacques Blais, a Canadian national who leads his country’s mission on matters of constitutional reforms for Afghanistan. The chief problem he sees, confirmed repeatedly by Afghans, is that despite the severe crisis in infrastructure and public health the international relief agencies have widely divergent agendas based upon inappropriate models or irrelevant experience.

“This is to be expected,” says the head of a European delegation who has been in the country for months. An NGO chief adds, “You have to understand that there is a bureaucracy in play, and it takes huge sums of money to feed it.” Even so, he expresses disgust at the waste and inefficiency he says is a major failure by groups such as his.

Still, the Afghan people express optimism about their future. “You have to understand,” a mother says, “I no longer need to sleep in bed with my daughter to make certain she is safe.” Adds a father: “I can send my little girl to school and know she’ll be safe.”

Mohamed Arif Noorzai, the minister for frontiers and tribal affairs, prays daily for a secure future. “I must ensure the peace … and provide security for my country.” Doing this, he says, requires regular physical contact with the tribal leaders in the border country and personal ventures into the interior by leaders of the central government.

A complaint cited by many Afghans who agree that Mr. Karzai is a charismatic leader is that the authority of his government does not reach much beyond Kabul. Warlords and governors of major cities and provinces control the rest of the country, some with well-armed militias that work directly with U.S.-led coalition forces involved in search missions. Coalition military officers say they have no choice but to work with the Afghan militias until a new national army and police force are established.

Battle over inertia

Minister of the Interior Ali Jalali says the job of nation building that his government faces can be accomplished if the international relief agencies will begin to cooperate more fully and coordinate their services. But Mr. Jalali and Mr. Noorzai confirm a sense of resentment among a growing number of Afghans who see the swarms of Land Cruisers driven by the international bureaucrats as a symbol of indifference and colonial intentions.

“We’re tired of hearing the promises,” says an older man named Abdullah, a successful entrepreneur when he has goods to sell. A retired doctor who has practiced through many years of war agrees: “They come and make studies and promise to return with services and needed supplies. But all we get are more studies and more promises.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld recently visited and said that the war is over, that hostilities have ceased. Both Afghans and U.S. military personnel respond that a battle may have been won, but the war could be lost because Westerners, including Americans, do not have a plan for national reconstruction.

But that ignores the hundreds of schools, clinics, roads, electricity stations and other infrastructure being built. The problem is a failure to coordinate such good works through a national plan of action and provide the people with progress reports that tie together local projects and national reconstruction, says a senior communications official in the Afghan government.

A newly minted trooper of the Afghan National Army (ANA) speaks of the big picture when asked about Mr. Rumsfeld’s assessment. “If the West had not walked away from us [in the early 1990s] there would not have been 9/11,” he says. “I will do my best to prevent another 9/11. But I want my children to grow up and be safe, and this can only occur if we get the necessary support to do the job ourselves. And this we are not receiving.”

We’re not stupid

A man named Ali says he is making it possible for locals to build three- and four-bedroom houses in the villages and countryside outside of Kabul for less than $4,000 each by supplying the wooden window frames and cross beams for ceiling joists. “I supply these, and the people build their homes the way they have been doing it for centuries,” he says. “These are not houses up to Western standards, but they are well-built homes by Afghan standards, and the savings from using local know-how could be used to dig new wells and install closed septic systems. This sort of thing is what is needed here, but nobody wants to listen — we’re too stupid to know what we need is the impression I get.”

A senior Afghan transportation official who spent many years in both communist and Taliban jails, says: “I fear we’ll become a people on welfare who cannot think for themselves or do for ourselves anymore. This is very upsetting to me because I know we are capable of being better. We used to be a proud people, but now I don’t know.”

Yet progress comes in small ways. A U.S. soldier said: “The people were afraid, but now they realize this army is not taking things from them. … They realize that these soldiers are theirs and want to help.”

Indeed, the transformation of warring tribesmen into cohesive and organized ANA soldiers is remarkable. “They now want peace more than they want to continue the warfare among themselves. And having both NCOs [noncommissioned officers] and the regular army grunts being trained by Afghans has created an esprit de corps that bodes well for the country,” says a U.S. Army officer charged with developing training programs.

One problem is that the Karzai government selects the recruits, and the volume of enlistments is disappointing. In 18 months only 4,000 Afghans have been mustered through the ANA training program. “We could train 50,000 or more a year, but there are not enough recruits,” the officer says.

Fortunes spent

Overall, $5 billion has been pledged in grants and loans for the reconstruction of Afghanistan since January 2002, with a reported $2 billion for 2002 alone. But administrative overhead eats up some of the promised funds, and promised contributions are not always forthcoming or are tied to special programs such as police training or school construction.

Shaliai Mangal, a 64-year-old leader, says “only a short time remains before warfare breaks out again.” He says that while “it’s important that we bring all tribes together and support the national government at this time,” the “Americans” should stop telling Afghans what and how to do things. “We’re not stupid. We just need money to rebuild,” he says.

Without hostility, the bearded tribal leader continues: “We beat the Russians and kicked out the Taliban. And we’ll do the same to the ‘Americans,’ I promise you, unless more is done that can be seen before winter comes.”

But Lt. Col. Robert Lefforge of the U.S. Air Force says he sees a lot of good coming from what the United States has invested in Afghanistan. “Look, it’s easy to complain when you’ve been promised a car and you haven’t yet seen a car come out the factory door,” he says. “What you have to understand is that it takes time to assemble all of the pieces from around the world necessary to get the assembly line going to produce that car. But once we have all those pieces, I assure you, you’ll see that car in short order.”

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