- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2006

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — Life is grim when you can’t pay the rent on a scorpion-infested cave, there is no job in sight and desperate people are waiting to take your spot.

As Afghanistan struggles to rebuild, five years after September 11 and the fall of the Taliban, hundreds of families are trapped in a sprawling web of caves in the lush Bamiyan valley, surrounded by stark, desert mountains and famous for two giant Buddhas blown up in 2001.

“We have no work. Our lives are getting worse. We can’t get enough food,” said Mahtab, 35, a mother of six perched on a narrow path carved into a cliff, nursing her year-old daughter Fatema, her hair stiff with sand.

Five years on, Bamiyan is at once a symbol of the progress that has been made and of the lack of it in Afghanistan.

Bamiyan province has Afghanistan’s first and only female governor, and is trying to rebuild its tourist trade. But it remains desperately poor, dragged down by the failure of President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers to kick-start the economy and eliminate opium production.

With the Taliban at its strongest since 2001 and opium production at record levels, violence is blocking efforts at economic development. The lack of jobs means more people are willing to grow opium poppies. It also bolsters warlords and propels impoverished villagers into the arms of the Taliban as paid fighters.

“We have the young generation and all of them, they are jobless, the majority of them they are jobless,” said Habiba Sarabi, a medical doctor and Bamiyan’s thoughtful, soft-spoken governor.

“Of course, the enemy of Afghanistan can use this very sensitive and emotional young generation. They can give money for these young people and use it as a terrorist thing.”

During their five-year rule, the Taliban barred women from going outside without a male escort and from most work. Girls were denied education. The Taliban held public executions, banned music and cinema and destroyed the ancient statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, deeming them “un-Islamic.”

The Taliban have made a strong comeback this year and fighting is the heaviest since U.S.-led troops toppled the hard-line Islamists for giving refuge to Osama bin Laden, architect of the September 11 attacks.

More than 2,000 people have been killed this year alone, mainly in the Taliban’s southern heartland.

NATO forces undertook their biggest land offensive last weekend, Operation Medusa, to crush the Taliban in the south. NATO has about 16,500 troops in the country.

The Taliban’s No. 2, Mullah Obaidullah, said support is growing among Afghans disillusioned with violence, corruption, the lack of reconstruction and the drug trade.

“The Taliban had established a true peace in the country with law and order,” he told Reuters from an undisclosed location. “But now, the country has become a center of instability, killings, plundering, obscenity and drugs.

“There is no protection for the life or property of any individual. Everybody has seen the true face of the United States and its allies. Therefore, the Afghan people are supporting the Taliban.”

Amidala Tarzi, a leading academic, writer and former Cabinet minister, said reconstruction so far is far from adequate.

“For the common people, I think, so far, very, very little has been done,” he said. “In fact, I think that the whole effort has been downgraded. It’s become more difficult for the common man.

“There is no production, and there is nothing you can call investment,” he added.

Along with the lack of a real economy, he singled out the failure to provide public housing as a major problem. Many Afghans live in mud-brick huts with no running water or sewage system. Disease is rife and food is short.

By some estimates, 10 times more money has been spent on security and defense in five years than on development. Politicians and analysts say much aid money was stolen or wasted.

Although the people of Bamiyan have rallied in the streets over the lack of progress, Miss Sarabi said the news is not all bad.

Her priority is roads, to improve links with the rest of the country and bring the tourists back. Bamiyan city is a bruising 7- or 8-hour drive from Kabul, mostly along a dirt road still littered with the wrecks of tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Miss Sarabi faces other problems. Warlords in the region are pressing a political campaign to have her replaced by someone more sympathetic to them.

As the country’s first female governor, expectations were high she would draw extra attention — and money.

“One of the biggest difficulties at the moment is that people’s expectations are very high,” she said. “People think that I as the only [female] governor will receive a lot of attention from the international community, but in practice, it’s not like that.”

In the cliffs of Bamiyan, all the safe caves are full, with more than 20 people sometimes sleeping head-to-toe and side-by-side on threadbare carpet. Chunks of rock fall from the bare ceiling and walls, and scorpions infest every crack.

It’s a dusty, filthy life, with dung from donkeys, calves and goats littering the paths and outside the ovenlike caves.

Still, there is a waiting list of people living in tents and local business people charge rent — 1,000 Afghanis ($20) to Mahtab’s husband to use the sleeping room and separate cooking cave.

“He told us if we don’t pay, we will have to leave here,” she said, frowning. “We don’t have anywhere else to live. We don’t have any money. We don’t know what we will do. God knows!”

Saeed Ali Achakzai contributed to this report.

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