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Afghanistan Ascending

Optimism and insecurity mix in a nation still in need of help

November 04, 2002|Charles Norchi

KABUL, Afghanistan — A little more than a year ago the Taliban ruled Afghanistan and cracked the whip in the name of Allah. There was no future in this captive nation, only a dreadful present. Women were banned from the workforce. Thousands of families headed by "war widows" had no means of support. Girls' schools and colleges were shuttered. Music, television, video, chess, soccer and kite flying were banned. Regular Friday lashings, amputations and executions were held at the city soccer stadium. Two symbols of enlightenment, the pair of giant Buddha statues that for centuries had peacefully stood watch over silk route travelers, were demolished. Then the American bombing campaign began, and change came swiftly.

Today in Kabul, determination and optimism mix with insecurity. Youngsters play soccer in the roads and parks. Kites, favored by Afghans of all ages, are in the air. Young Afghan men and women brim with excitement, eager to rebuild, to write their own history.

But they worry about next year. More than two decades of war left houses, public buildings and infrastructure demolished. Medical facilities, food, clean water, electricity and jobs are in short supply. Civilians have died in errant U.S. bombings. Remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda still plant bombs and try to assassinate the people's new leaders. The fundamentalist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has declared a new jihad. As winter approaches, there is a widespread expectation of violence.

Yet when I ask an Afghan, "Are you better off today than you were a year ago?" the answer is invariably yes. Whether that answer can last depends on the fulfillment of the world's pledges of reconstruction aid.

Assistance so far has been mostly in the form of relief, which is short-term and safe. It gives donors an easy exit and the opportunity to highlight popular humanitarian programs. Reconstruction, by contrast, requires staying around--for perhaps a decade or more. It is slow to show results and carries an uneasy air of permanence that frightens donors. However, nothing would drive the country back to disintegration faster than unfulfilled Afghan expectations.

Afghanistan is still real estate trying to become a nation-state. U.S. aid should help by promoting a stable government that reflects human dignity and an equitable balance among ethnic demands and claims. The International Security Assistance Force must be quickly and effectively expanded across the country. Visible, labor-intensive projects such as road-building and garbage and sewage management projects should be top priorities. Afghan decision-makers need training in how to develop policy and run a government.

Show Americans at their best. Bring in the Peace Corps, build a new American library and form civil-society partnerships with private educational, human rights, medical, media and legal organizations.

I remember the sad faces of Afghan refugees when the American cultural center and library in Peshawar, Pakistan, was closed in the mid-1990s. It was a place where a young refugee could borrow a book, young women could safely exchange ideas and ordinary Afghans could learn about democracy and human rights. I often wonder how many young people who once read about Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in the American library became radicalized in the Taliban madrasas, or religious schools, because they had nowhere else to go.

Another sharp memory: In the early 1980s, I crossed the Khyber Pass with Abdul Haq, then a young moujahedeen commander who had left Kabul University to fight the Soviet army. "This is a difficult time for Afghanistan," he said, "but a better year is coming."

It took more than 20 years for that time to arrive, and Haq, by then a respected regional leader, did not live to see it. He died a year ago in a Taliban ambush while aiding the U.S.-led war. But he believed that a dignified Afghanistan would come.

"Are you better off today than you were a year ago?" I asked a young Afghan woman who had shed her burka and now studied journalism. "Yes," she said. "This year is much better." Next year must be better as well.


Charles Norchi is a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and a fellow at Yale Law School. He has worked in Afghanistan as a journalist, lawyer and educator.

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