It’s almost dusk, and our car is belching steam from the engine. We have stopped at a police station in the southwestern Afghan province of Zabol in a district where foreign aid workers have been held up at gunpoint, their belongings and vehicles stolen. My driver’s face is edgy as he pumps water from the police-station well and pours it over the boiling engine of a car he wishes he hadn’t bought.
Afghan policemen are circling the car with Kalashnikovs, peering inside at the curious light-skinned bearded man in Afghan clothes–me–clutching a Thuraya satellite phone. I’m engaged in a conversation with my editing desk about a story I filed earlier in the day about a US offensive against Taliban forces in the area around Kandahar, a city we left at dawn. One man, apparently the police chief, walks up to my translator, Ali, and asks, “Who is this man? Is he going to call in an airstrike on us?”
Just as the last light fades over the mountains around this checkpoint, we start the engine and head out on the road, breaking rule No. 1 of travel in Afghanistan: Never travel at night. But our foolishness is based on the second rule of Afghan travel: Never trust an Afghan policeman. “These men are policemen in daylight,” says Ali, a razor-sharp medical student, nervously adjusting the white prayer cap on his head. “But at night, they become thieves. They are probably the ones who steal cars from the NGOs.” My driver, Malik Jan, a former Islamist guerrilla against the Soviets, adds another layer of gloom. “These men were here before the Taliban. Then they became Taliban. Now they support Karzai. But they will always be thieves.”
Despite some positive signs in Afghanistan over the past year–children going to school, homes being rebuilt, wells being dug–there is much about postliberation Afghanistan that hasn’t changed during President Hamid Karzai’s first months of power. Businessmen complain about harassment by corrupt policemen and thuggish soldiers. All but the bravest women still wear sky-blue burqas, their only protection from the hungry eyes of gunmen. Some villages are so far away from doctors or medical clinics that preventable diseases like polio and measles are making a comeback after being largely wiped out in the early 1970s, during the reign of King Zahir Shah.
In this environment, America has an unusual chance to be the good guy, to enhance its reputation in an increasingly hostile Muslim world. In Afghan eyes, at least, the Americans started well. American diplomats helped the Afghans select their government in Bonn, Germany, even before the Taliban fell. American generals sent in bombers and troops to help the Northern Alliance and various other warlords drive the Taliban from power. Then American aid agencies led the international charge to bring in some $1.2 billion in donor aid to get the reconstruction process going after twenty-three years of war. The US government supplied some $531 million of that aid, most of it in the form of surplus grain.
But the nearly $800 million spent by international aid agencies and the United Nations in 2002 has brought few tangible results. Major highways like the one from Kabul to Kandahar remain so rutted and potholed that many drivers prefer to take their chances driving among the landmines along the roadside to the certainty of crushing their crankcases on the road itself. Despite international largesse, many Afghans feel the same sinking feeling of abandonment they felt in 1992, when the Soviet-backed Afghan government fell, and nobody came to help them rebuild the country.