In Afghanistan, Reviewing A Decade Of Promises

Sep 1, 2011

People living in Afghanistan 10 years ago had little electricity, few radios and almost no televisions to alert them of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington. The news didn't really reach across the country until the American bombing campaign and invasion began a month later. The fall of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001 and the flood of international aid raised hope in Afghanistan.

With a U.S.-sponsored government setting up in Kabul, President George W. Bush spelled out America's pledge to Afghanistan in a speech at Virginia Military Institute in April 2002. Bush invoked America's patron saint of nation-building, George Marshall, the World War II general who oversaw the reconstruction of Germany.

"By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall," Bush said.

To Afghans, this Marshall Plan for their country sounded like a promise underwritten by the most powerful nation on earth. Bush listed how the U.S. would help; below, along with each pledge, NPR assesses progress in each area, 10 years on.

Building Security Forces

Bush: "Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army."

In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghan commandos train with live ammunition at a military base. American efforts are focused now more than ever on training up Afghan security forces, to face down an insurgency that is much stronger now than 10 years ago. NATO trainers hope to reach 300,000 soldiers and police on the job this autumn.

But gunfights are less common in this war — the preferred weapon of the insurgency is the bomb and booby trap — in military jargon, an improvised explosive device or IED.

Noor Hameed is the senior Afghan instructor at the counter-IED school at the base.

"To be honest, before this 10 years, we didn't have IED teams," he says. "The people of Afghanistan didn't know what IED is."

Trainers like Hameed are just what the Afghan forces need: native sons to replace foreign experts. But it's a tall order. After 10 years of fitful training, and nearly $30 billion invested by the U.S. alone, the Afghan security forces have an abysmal record of acting without direct NATO assistance. Attrition is still a problem, as are fears of ethnic factionalism. Literacy is only 14 percent among security personnel, a huge obstacle to building a police force that can support an evidence-based justice system.

Building Infrastructure, Services

Bush: "We're working hard in Afghanistan: We're clearing mine fields. We're rebuilding roads. We're improving medical care."

That holds up, according to Dr. Nadera Burhani, Afghanistan's deputy health minister. She cites huge improvements in basic health, thanks in large part to U.S. aid.

In 2002, the country had just 500 health facilities; now, there are 2,019.

"It has a very direct impact on services to the very needy people in very rural areas," Burhani says.

But she admits that in some ways, Afghanistan is still behind where it was decades ago, before three successive wars destroyed the country.

"Sometimes I am disappointed. Because when I was in 5th [grade], the war start in my country. Now I am 43 years old, still the war is going on. I wish that my country become secure. No more than that," she says.

Afghanistan has hundreds of kilometers of new roads, but fewer of them are safe to drive. On the day Burhani spoke with NPR, an insurgent suicide bomber leveled a heath center in Logar province, killing dozens of patients, doctors and nurses.

The United Nations reported over the summer that civilian deaths from the war are at their worst level since the invasion — the vast majority from insurgent bombs.

Building The Legitimate Economy

Bush: "And we will work to help Afghanistan to develop an economy that can feed its people without feeding the world's demand for drugs."

The report card on narco-trafficking, according to the United Nations and the World Bank, is a solid F. While poppy production has ceased in some provinces, the U.N. says the drug economy rivals the billions in aid still pouring in to Afghanistan and threatens to dwarf the legitimate economy as donors draw-down. The legitimate economy is also plagued by endemic corruption.

The U.S. inspector general for Afghan reconstruction concluded recently that high-ranking Afghan officials, including government ministers, are carrying as much as $10 million per day out through Kabul airport.

At a windswept gravel pit on the outskirts of Kabul, a construction company owner agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

"There is no system to award the good people and to punish the bad. There is no incentive toward doing good things," he says.

The man says bribes start the moment a contract is won, with a huge fee to be paid directly to the ministry involved — 5 percent to 15 percent of the contract, which can work out to something like half the profit.

"The first day you go to the ministry of mines, to take a permission to have a mine, the corruption starts there the first day," he says.

The bribes continue, from local officials to tax collectors, even a few thousand dollars to get the fee. In Afghanistan, you have to pay a bribe to get paid, he says. He links the corruption right to the top, to President Hamid Karzai, whom he voted for twice.

The construction company owner adds that Karzai's attempts to make peace with the Taliban have ruined investors' confidence.

"The future seems very dark, because the president has played a dangerous game, and he has lost that game. Next three, four years we have to leave again. Leave everything," he says.

Building Government

Bush: "Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government."

That final promise from the U.S., to bring a stable government to Afghanistan, is also an open question. Election observers say Afghan politics have grown more fraudulent over the years, and most consider Karzai's re-election in 2009 to be illegitimate. An equally questionable parliamentary election last year resulted in a near endless dispute, with Karzai trying to reinstate allies who had lost according to the official tally.

Still, among the warlords and government cronies, some new faces have emerged in the Afghan parliament — especially from the newly empowered Afghan media. Baktash Siawash, 27, was the country's youngest TV talk show host before he became the country's youngest member of parliament. Many Afghans are pinning their hopes on the next generation, a demographic that includes about half the country. But Siawash says the American promise of reconstruction has been a failure.

"Forty-one countries came here. It was the golden chance. I do see some progresses, but it is not enough for spending billions of dollars. With the energy, the money and the blood of your brothers sisters, and your sons which have died for democracy-making in Afghanistan, it's nothing. We could have done more than what we have," he says.

Siawish says it's now up to Afghans to take charge and reshape their country. The son of a poor family with no political connections, Siawish himself is a symbol of budding democracy in Afghanistan. But he's not sure that democracy will survive the departure of U.S. troops.

"The life of this regime, this government, or this democracy will end with the withdrawal of the last soldier from the international community," he says.

It's that projected date — the end of 2014 — which is preoccupying Afghans. At that time, they will again weigh the pledges made to them in 2001, and decide whether the promises have been kept.

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