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Issue Date:  January 11, 2008

-- Photos by Church World Service/Chris Herlinger

Students at a rehabilitation center in Kabul for youths who have experienced trauma and violence. Boys and girls share a classroom -- something unthinkable during the era of the Taliban.
Hope remains fragile in Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan

Winter is upon Afghanistan, which means people are trying to stave off the bitter cold.

But in a cruel and, some would say, characteristic Afghan irony, winter’s harshness may bring a few months of calm and reprieve from what has been a difficult, tense year of violence, bombings and renewed international concerns about this tough, war-battered but still profoundly beautiful country.

I recently returned to Afghanistan for my third visit after a five-year absence and six years after my initial trip in the summer of 2001, when a Danish colleague and I reported on what was then the prominent humanitarian story of the moment -- a crippling drought during what proved to be the last months of Taliban rule.

My visit roughly a year after Sept. 11 saw clear changes. Before, even speaking to women was to invite unwelcome risk for all parties, and it was a relief, a year later, to interview women without fear.

Yet despite the welcome, hopeful and humane changes -- for women and for young people in particular -- Afghanistan still seemed like a tired, unsettled and inchoate place in 2002. It was an open question which way the balance would tilt.

Rahima Korosh teaches at the Kabul rehabilitation center for children.

In rereading what I wrote for NCR in 2002, I am struck by a passage in which I quoted a human rights activist who noted that the country’s infrastructure remained depleted and in serious disrepair.

I also noted that the “civil society and central government remain fragile … threatened by both a lack of strong international support and the continued strength of local warlords and religious fundamentalists.”

Unfortunately, that sentence could well have been penned this year: Afghanistan’s central government remains weak, and local warlords have, if anything, gained even more power since 2002.

In a recent report, the United Nations Development Program said that while “Afghanistan has made great strides in raising its level of economic prosperity, along with access to health care and education, the needs of many remain unfulfilled.” The U.N. report said Afghanistan’s “human development index” -- which measures such benchmarks as health and education -- was the lowest among its neighbors, including Pakistan, and placed the country 174th out of 178 countries. Only four countries in sub-Saharan Africa had lower indicators than Afghanistan.

Taliban find new strength

Moreover, there is a something of an addendum: Fueled by drug money and growing dissatisfaction among rural people about continuing poverty and local corruption, as well as the U.S. and NATO military presence, the Taliban are finding renewed strength. Their growing power as an insurgent force is causing an increased sense of insecurity throughout Afghanistan, though some would say the country’s insecurity is a byproduct of being caught in the cross hairs of the U.S.-led “war on terror.”

One doesn’t have to spend much time in Afghanistan before the mantra of “insecurity, insecurity, insecurity” makes itself felt.

Youths play soccer in Kabul, a city noticeably bereft of parkland or other green areas.

This is not merely the concern of humanitarian workers who must now determine new strategies to move assistance from Point A to Point B, or who, in some cases, have had to abandon projects in rural areas because of threats by the Taliban. (Schools that educate girls have been a particular target.) Their agencies have also found their medical clinics just yards from NATO bombardments.

Rahima Khorosh, who teaches at a Kabul rehabilitation center for children who are recovering from experiences of trauma and violence, told me of three suicide bombings that rocked Kabul in September, one of which killed the daughter of a neighbor. What does this type of violence mean for her own life?

“I don’t know what will happen to me when I take my [15-minute] walk to the center,” she said of her own fears.

The children in her class spoke less about day-to-day fears and more of their hopes for their country -- not merely that Afghanistan might someday have more books and parks (Kabul is notably bereft of greenery and park land) but might also be a place “without war, with peace,” “with reconstruction and peace.”

Hope hangs by a thread

The hope that life in Afghanistan will improve, however, often hangs by a thread.

A man guards a one-time retreat for the wealthy outside of Kabul.

At a meeting at the center that had been arranged for me to meet children and parents, one mother suddenly cut through the niceties of polite talk and bitterly declared, “We hate this country and want to leave. There are no jobs here.”

The outburst was striking not only because such displays of raw emotion are, in my experience in Afghanistan, rare around foreign visitors. It also pointed to something I sensed from almost the beginning of my recent visit: growing economic inequality was becoming strikingly evident, at least in Kabul.

The streets of Afghanistan’s capital city are displaying a wider variety of consumer goods -- some of them decidedly high-end -- and storefronts are showing surer, and welcome, signs of the pride of ownership.

It is hard to convey the sheer ugliness and paucity of hope that seemed to envelop Kabul six years ago, so the presence of shopping centers and even cash machines (that dispense both American and Afghan currency) is a striking and not unwelcome change.

But the downside of economic improvement for some is, of course, a growing income gap between the wealthy and the poor.

It may not make much difference to those living in Kabul’s poorest neighborhoods that the mansions that reportedly belong to a growing class of drug lords and warlords are still accessible only by appallingly bad, potholed roads. But such ornate homes are at least receiving electricity -- something I was told in October was still not the case for about half of Kabul.

It was telling that six years after the fall of the Taliban and after billions have been spent on reconstruction within Afghanistan, such a basic necessity as electricity still eluded a large segment of a city of 3 million.

Faces of progress

There are perhaps two ways of viewing such a problem. One is to note the progress that has been made in the last six years. Signs of progress do exist. Among the faces of progress is that of Faqirullah Hamidi, 45, who relies on crutches because of leg wounds suffered during what he laconically calls “the Soviet time.”

Faqirullah Hamidi, 45, with two of his eight children.

Because of his disability, this father of eight children, ranging in age from a month old to 12 years, is a stay-at-home parent, while his wife, Nafisa, is employed by a government agency.

The family has now settled into a small home on the outskirts of Kabul as part of a housing project funded in part with the support of U.S. churches.

“It’s a fundamental change that I have my own house,” Hamidi said, describing the family situation now as “happy.” He credits international relief and development groups for helping him and others build a better life.

As for larger issues, Hamidi said: “We want a secure country; we want peace in this country; we want development in this country.”

Left unsaid was how to define “security” in a country with a weak central government; the presence of foreign troops and a growing insurgent movement.

A more jaundiced and critical view of the current situation rests in asking, as many Afghans apparently are, where exactly billions of dollars in assistance have gone and why more Afghans are not seeing the concrete results of such aid.

A new shopping center in Kabul, an example of new prosperity for a small number of Afghans.

Afghans are not the only ones asking the question. In a recent report, Oxfam Great Britain said that much of the more than $15 billion in international aid that has gone to Afghanistan since 2001 has been ineffective or inefficient.

The Oxfam report was particularly damning of large portions of assistance being “absorbed by profits of companies and subcontractors, by non-Afghan resources and by high expatriate salaries and living costs.”

Given such problems, it is hardly a surprise, some say, that the Taliban are experiencing a resurgence.

Little to lose

One senior program officer with a U.S.-based humanitarian agency whose work often takes him to many of Afghanistan’s rural areas, told me, “Poverty is the source of the instability.”

“People feel like, ‘Why not join the Taliban? We have nothing to lose,’ ” said the relief worker, who like many humanitarian workers in Afghanistan does not want to be quoted by name because of security concerns.

That raises an inevitable question: How is the United States viewed among Afghans at a time when the situation in Afghanistan seems to be spiraling downward? Is the United States faulted for its mere presence in Afghanistan or for not having a sufficient-enough presence?

A girl on the streets of Kabul

The responses I heard ran the spectrum.

One humanitarian worker minced no words when he said that Afghanistan has become “just one example where the international community, without understanding the context and history, has once again gone wrong.” He said that the U.S.-led presence in Afghanistan -- specifically, aerial bombings that have needlessly killed civilians -- has “only increased the sufferings of the people.”

“It’s just introduced new pain and sufferings to one of the poorest countries on the face of this planet,” he said.

Others viewed the situation differently, arguing that the majority of Afghans support the current U.S. and NATO military presence in part because it’s the only tangible security people, at least in Kabul, actually have.

Yet, memories of the long and hated Soviet occupation in the 1980s have made Afghans understandably weary of a sustained foreign presence -- and make no mistake, the U.S. presence, when seen by Afghan eyes, is foreign.

Even those who support American efforts in a general way shake their heads at oft-repeated stories of American troops breaking Afghan cultural rules and decorum. Most frequently mentioned are incidents of U.S. troops entering homes without a clear invitation to do so.

At the same time, there are decidedly welcome words for U.S. relief and development assistance if done sensibly and in concert with local communities. There are anecdotal accounts that confirm the conclusion of the Oxfam report, with tales of heavily funded projects that have gone awry because local community involvement in planning relief and development work wasn’t sought.

Fond memories linger

What is perhaps most striking in speaking to Afghans in their 40s and 50s is their recollection and fond memories of American teachers and engineers who worked in the country in the 1960s and 1970s.

A mansion-like structure is an example of a new dynamic in Kabul: large homes appearing in areas once affected by war.

For these Afghans, that was something of a golden era for U.S.-Afghan relations.

A telling moment for me came when Naseer Ah Popal, the director of the social protection division of the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, pointed to me -- an American journalist who works for a humanitarian organization, wearing rimless glasses and not attired in a military uniform -- and said, “Before there were Americans like you here. Now there are Americans with guns and that doesn’t always create a good image.”

That comment points to the continued and baleful legacy of war and violence in a country that has borne so much -- indeed too much -- of the world’s political problems during the last three decades. Afghanistan in the 1980s was a crucible of the Cold War, fell into disregard as an ignored and blighted state in the 1990s and now finds itself as something of the second theater of the “war on terror.”

It doesn’t take much to imagine what this has done to the national psyche of a country where the power of the past and the weight of history exert enormous influence.

“Some say everyone in Afghanistan is traumatized; some say no one is traumatized,” said one international aid worker. However one resolves that question, he said, Afghanistan seems “stuck in the past, and so can’t go forward either in the future or even in the present.”

Chris Herlinger is a writer for the New York-based humanitarian agency Church World Service and was recently in Afghanistan on assignment for CWS. He last wrote on Afghanistan for NCR in 2002. More recently, he reported for NCR on the situation in Darfur, Sudan.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2008

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