Afghanistan offers lesson on rebuilding
By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff, 5/2/03
SHEKHABAD, Afghanistan -- On a rutted, teeth-rattling road about 40 miles west of Kabul, the reconstruction of Afghanistan is bogged down in a traffic jam. A hulking road grader hogs the road, while six Afghans in orange smocks wave flags and tiny stop signs, halting dilapidated cars overstuffed with passengers.
Instead of protesting the delay, travelers lean out their windows to pump the hands of the signalmen and wave appreciatively at the man operating the road grader. The project to rebuild a cross-country highway from Kabul to Kandahar to Herat, funded by the United States, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, is one of the few tangible signs of reconstruction since the US-led war ousted the Taliban a year and a half ago. It will turn a several-day journey into a five-hour drive, improving commerce and daily life in countless ways.
But locals wryly predict the repairs will take longer than it took to build the road 50 years ago.
For visiting Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others responsible for postwar Iraq, Afghanistan offers a sobering lesson: Finish the job, or the problems will resurface. It is also a powerful reminder that nation building takes root not with rarefied talk about the end of tyranny, but with concrete acts such as building roads.
Rumsfeld yesterday met with US troops still hunting for Al Qaeda remnants, as well as supporting rebuilding efforts. He said that most of Afghanistan is secure and that the 7,000 US soldiers in the country have moved from a combat role into a phase of supporting reconstruction.
Afghans say the road is a symbol of the shattered country that will come to life only with asphalt and bricks, canals and dams, schools and hospitals, and above all, jobs. Afghan officials involved in the road project, annoyed by the high fee paid to a US engineering firm overseeing an Afghan-American firm that subcontracted to a Turkish firm, complain that it will be the most expensive highway in the country's history.
"They began this road reconstruction four months ago and we've barely seen progress. For weeks, they said the road grader was broken and did nothing," said Sher Agha, 35, who sells construction materials at the side of the road and says sales are not what they should be in an era of rebuilding.
"Afghanistan lost everything during 23 years of war. Once America came, it became like the father of our country, and we expect everything from him," he said, wagging his finger admonishingly.
The "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan that President Bush promised after the fall of the Taliban never fully came to pass. He proposed a long-term commitment that included projects like paving roads, clearing minefields, building clinics, and contributing to economic development.
But critics worry that without a commitment comparable to the post-World War II rebuilding plan, Afghanistian could once again fall prey to the poverty and lawlessness that fed Islamic extremism under the Taliban in the 1990s.
Despite the presence of a total of 11,500 coalition troops, United Nations agencies and foreign donors, Afghanistan's provinces are dominated by warlords and riven with power struggles. Roads are virtually impassable or plagued by bandits, schools and health care are largely in shambles, and opium poppies, the only profitable crop for most drought-hit farmers, are being grown all over the country.
The challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan are hardly the same. One critical difference is that Iraq is rich with oil and an educated populace whereas in Afghanistan, "when you talk about reconstruction, it's really construction," said US Ambassador to Kabul Robert Finn. "Only 10 of 32 provinces are connected to Kabul by telephone."
Donor countries congratulated themselves for pledging $4.5 billion to Afghan rebuilding for five years, though that was far below the $13 billion to $19 billion the UN Development Program, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank estimated was needed over a decade to carry out a much more ambitious rebuilding effort. "Expectations on the part of all Afghans were much beyond what could actually be done" with available funds, said Nigel Fisher, the UN secretary general's deputy special representative for reconstruction in Afghanistan.
But the refrain uttered by Afghans is: Show us the money. Only in the capital has the influx of foreign assistance had a noticeable impact on the economy. Foreign aid is lower per capita than in other recent conflict zones -- $40-$50 a person compared with $200-$300 a head in Kosovo and East Timor.
"The willingness or ability of the US to deliver on nonmilitary aid in a timely or effective fashion, except for emergency humanitarian aid, is very questionable," said Barnett Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, who is researching rebuilding here. "Fifty percent of money that donors gave last year went for humanitarian assistance, which isn't reconstruction. Seventy-five percent of my salary is counted as part of the reconstruction of Afghanistan."
Finn, the US ambassador, replied: "Humanitarian aid didn't buy balloons; it kept people alive. Obviously people are not satisfied. I've never been in a [post-conflict] situation where the needs were met."
The perception among Afghans is that the UN and aid groups have spent donations on high rents and salaries, Toyota Landcruisers, and computers, while little money has filtered down to the people. Aid workers reply that they can't work without infrastructure, and that hundreds of schools and clinics, irrigation projects, and jobs have grown from their efforts.
The US Agency for International Development says it funded seed and fertilizer for 113,000 farm families last year, helping to raise crop production by 82 percent; provided 45,000 short-term jobs; rehabilitated 6,000 wells and other water systems; and built 85 rural primary schools.
Most Afghans cannot believe such figures. "I haven't seen any distribution of seeds or any aid worker coming to build schools and hospitals," said Mohammad Bashir, 30, a tire repairman who works 40 miles west of Kabul in Wardak Province.
Amin Farhang, the minister for reconstruction, says the government is focused on rebuilding "that Afghans cannot see, but without which nothing else can happen: restoring the civil service, the judiciary, rule of law, and a constitution so government can function."
Donors and investors say Afghans must also reduce the choking bureaucracy, corruption, and entitlement mentality that pervades government and society, discouraging private investment and siphoning off aid.
"There is a tremendous amount of communist thought-process in the ministries that is stopping private enterprise," complained Abdullah Rafiq, an Afghan-American who is one of only a handful of diaspora entrepreneurs who came back and stuck it out. Many others came to Afghanistan last summer to invest in their homeland but left in frustration.
Yet it is not too late, many here say, to fix the project to rebuild Afghanistan. "Disarmament should be fast, weapons collected, and jobs created for the people," said Bashiri. "If that happens, people will be satisfied. But if the situation continues as it is -- where warlords have powers, weapons are everywhere, and people are jobless -- people will lose patience, and war will start again. I cannot anticipate which way it will go."