Losing the Peace?
To the many problems that afflict Kabul--leveled neighborhoods, broken water systems, mined fields, power outages--a new one must be added: traffic jams. During the morning rush hour, the narrow streets of the Afghan capital clog with vehicles--the white Land Cruisers favored by international donors, the black SUVs preferred by military commanders, the Soviet-era buses crammed with commuters, the yellow-and-white Toyota Corollas that serve as taxis. On some days, the traffic grinds to a complete halt, the idling vehicles belching out black diesel fumes while their drivers angrily pound their horns. Adding to the chaos are the hordes of bicyclists who recklessly thread their way through the lanes, miraculously avoiding collisions at the last moment.
While endlessly annoying to those who must navigate them, Kabul's bustling streets actually seem a cause for optimism--a sign of revival after twenty-three years of war, upheaval and isolation. There are other encouraging signs. The city's bazaars--winding clusters of ramshackle wooden stalls--brim with raisins and walnuts, tomatoes and bananas, scallions and spinach. Every day, open-backed trucks enter the city packed with families and their possessions--refugees returning home from years spent idling in Pakistan and Iran. Young boys on the street hawk issues of Kabul Weekly, an independent newspaper that offers news, gossip and gentle criticism of the government. And every night families gather to watch Afghan TV, back on the air after years of Taliban blackout. The newscast even features a woman announcer--a bold declaration that a new era has begun in Afghanistan.
Yet just beneath the surface are many causes for concern. Outside the gates of the hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Kabul stand clusters of disheveled, dispirited men desperately seeking work. While some women have boldly doffed their burqas, the vast majority remain fully cloaked, and Westerners are frequently accosted by formless blobs in blue insistently seeking handouts to feed their children. The city's poorest neighborhoods, on the southern outskirts, have been hit by a crime wave perpetrated by armed gangs believed to be linked to Islamic extremists. Awash in Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the country has recently been rocked by a series of violent attacks, including an assassination attempt on the defense minister, the murder of a United Nations aid worker and revolts by poppy growers against the government's eradication efforts. Such acts seem particularly ominous as Afghans prepare to convene a loya jirga, or grand council, in June to select a transitional government and write a new Constitution.
The one thing standing between Afghanistan and total chaos, it seems, is the presence of the international community. Long ignored by the outside world, Afghanistan is now being invaded by it. Daily, two filled-to-capacity UN planes fly in development experts and humanitarian workers from Islamabad, Pakistan. In an effort to combat rampant malnutrition, the World Food Program (WFP) is providing food to more than 6 million Afghans. The Danes are helping to de-mine the country, the Germans to rebuild its water and sanitation systems, and the Japanese to reconstruct its housing. In the Marco Polo restaurant, a modest but well-lit establishment that serves the usual Afghan fare--lamb kebabs, fried chicken, sautéed spinach--NGO officials squawk into their global-reach telephones, directing relief efforts. Most visible of all is the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whose green armored vehicles periodically roll through the city, their rifle-at-the-ready troops scouring the streets for any hint of trouble.
Visible, too, is the United States. At its sprawling embassy compound, reopened after thirteen years, modular housing units are being installed to accommodate its growing staff. Zalmay Khalilzad, George W. Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, is an Afghan-American who speaks Dari and who periodically flies in to size up matters for the White House. The United States is financing an estimated 80 percent of all the food aid being distributed by the WFP in Afghanistan. The US Embassy was so involved in helping plan a recent back-to-school event in Kabul that when I asked for some background material, I was inadvertently handed a detailed script specifying each official's every move.
All this sounds suspiciously like nation-building, the process of reconstructing a broken state that Bush has so emphatically rejected in the past. Yet over the course of my two-and-a-half-week stay, I came to see US actions in this area as largely illusory. America's political staff in the country is dwarfed by its military and intelligence presence. Embassy officials do not generally circulate in the capital, making it hard for them to monitor, much less shape, events on the ground. Symbolizing the sense of removal is the forbidding eight-foot steel fence going up around the embassy perimeter. While the barrier reflects genuine security concerns, it seems to embody America's disengagement from the messy business of creating a stable Afghan state.
Most Afghans, I found, feel deep gratitude for America's role in ousting the Taliban and banishing Al Qaeda. But they also worry that Washington is losing interest in their country. Over and over, Bush has said that the United States, having abandoned Afghanistan once, will not do so again. On April 17 the President recommitted America to helping rebuild Afghanistan. Invoking the Marshall Plan, he vowed to stay engaged "until the mission is done." It's a welcome statement. But the President pledged no new resources for the job. What's more, during my stay I found little evidence that the United States has the necessary will, or skill, to address Afghanistan's profound political and economic problems.