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U.S. Turns Its Back on Afghans, Again

Despite lofty talk, aid is nowhere to be seen outside Kabul.

November 18, 2002|Andrew Lawler | Andrew Lawler is Boston correspondent for Science magazine.

The governor of Ghazni, an Afghan province south of Kabul, is just the kind of leader Washington should like. He's young, educated and progressive. Haji Hassadullah Khalid studied political science before the Taliban shut down Kabul University, speaks passable English and dreams of studying in the United States.

He is a striking contrast to the warlords, such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, recently implicated in the deaths of Taliban prisoners, or Ismail Khan, who pays little heed to Kabul's diktats.

But Khalid gets no help from the U.S. One year after coming to power, he says his people still must walk an average of three miles just to get drinking water. He has no tax money to pay teachers. And there is little support from the central government in Kabul.

"This job is very difficult," he said, taking a break from the endless stream of supplicants who come to his reception room.

What about support from the United States? He shakes his head, sighs and lights up another cigarette. "We've talked to USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development], but we haven't received any help yet."

The Bush administration pledged this month to try to do more to rebuild Afghanistan, but help so far has been too little and too late.

Outside the heavily guarded walls of Khalid's residence, the burnt fields, destroyed irrigation systems and virtually nonexistent roads are mute testament to his helplessness. The drive from Kabul, once smooth and easy, is now a harrowing four-hour ride. When Khalid travels it, he does so only by day in a convoy with soldiers and machine guns.

He is struggling to control sporadic fighting across the desperately poor province, often between rival Pashtun and Hazara ethnic militants. In August, he was forced to place soldiers around the United Nations relief ministry in his own provincial capital after an armed robbery.

President Bush last month ballyhooed the $588 million in humanitarian assistance and reconstruction showered on Afghanistan during the last year. Now the Pentagon promises to bring in a few hundred more civilians to help. But put that in perspective: The Pentagon spent nearly $15 billion on the war in that same period.

The truth on the ground is even more alarming. Kabul is full of European and Japanese aid workers, while American GIs are largely confined to a military base north of the city.

Beyond Kabul and its environs, there are few signs of foreign assistance. In a recent two-week trip through central and south Afghanistan, outside the relative safety of Kabul and the surrounding area, I saw few signs of foreign aid.

Groups of armed men, some in fatigues, some not, block what's left of those roads between the major cities, demanding money. The only road work I saw outside Kabul was being done by hundreds of people -- almost all children -- along desolate portions of the rutted roads. As drivers approach, they throw a spadeful of dust into the ruts and then hold out their hands for money.

Given enough political and economic willpower, the U.S. could rebuild the main roads, sink thousands of new wells and help revitalize the devastated school and university systems. Instead, the U.S. is training a much-needed national army but turning a blind eye to broader reconstruction.

We did it for Germany, but Afghanistan is yesterday's problem. American statesman George Kennan foresaw the problem during World War II, when he was assigned one summer to Baghdad. "Our government is technically incapable of conceiving and promulgating a long-term consistent policy toward areas remote from its own territory," he wrote. The problem, he added, is that "our actions in the field of foreign affairs are the convulsive reactions of politicians to an internal political life dominated by vocal minorities."

It was that lack of a long-term policy that led us to walk away from Afghanistan in the early 1990s, after we had pumped the country full of weapons to defeat the Soviets, leaving it in chaos and eventually to Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden. Now we are again moving on to other things, such as Iraq.

A media darling just a few months ago -- remember reading about his fabulous wardrobe? -- Hamid Karzai is out. Kurds are in. And Khalid is left on his own.

Didn't we learn the first time?

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