The Blog

"Tragedy" in Afghanistan

A close reading of news reports shows a remarkable turnaround in Kabul. Not that you'd know it from the headlines.

11:00 PM, Nov 21, 2002 • By DAVID BROOKS
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AFGHANISTAN IS A MESS. We know that because everybody says so. Al Gore says so. But something more complicated is going on, as a fine report by Pamela Constable in the Washington Post earlier this week makes clear. The headline reinforces the conventional wisdom: "A Year After Taliban, Daily Life in Kabul Is Struggle for Most." People will scan the headline, have the prejudice reinforced, and move on.

But the story is subtler than the editors allow. It starts with a description of a bullet-pocked house without windows or floors in which three poor families are trying to survive, having returned after a decade in refugee camps in Pakistan. But the next house is a hive of activity. Bricks are being laid. A new and expensive roof is being installed. The owner of that house has also just returned from Pakistan and has a job working for the United Nations.

As you read through the story you begin to see why people are returning. There are now 2.7 million people in Kabul, more than twice the population of the city a year ago. That's because there is opportunity there, and an ongoing reconstruction effort.

As Constable writes: "A year ago, there were more bicycles on city streets than motor vehicles, and there was no rush hour because most businesses and government agencies were closed. Today the capital is trapped in semi-permanent gridlock; a testament to both the welcome surge of urban activity and the woeful incapacity to cope with it."

While for much of the media, all news out of Afghanistan must be bad news, it's clear that there is a lot of promise to the place. The old problems of inactivity and despair are being replaced by the new problems caused by crowding, growth, and dynamism. There is now income inequality in Kabul. Were things better when nobody had anything? Because of the terrible transportation system workers struggle to get to and from work. Was it better when there was no work?

Constable quotes one Syed Hashimi, who moved back from California and now owns a construction firm. "Kabul is so exciting now," he says, "I'd love to be a Home Depot, a supermarket downtown, but it's hard to get government cooperation." Welcome to normal life.

Kabul is now a draw, not only to Afghans but to international aid organizations. Constable mentions the amazing fact that there are now over 1,000 nonprofit agencies registered to do work in the city. Some are fake organizations, designed to skim off aid money. But most are genuine, an astounding army of people trying to rebuild the place. Why despair?

ANOTHER EASILY OVERLOOKED story is William Broad's piece in the November 19 New York Times, which summarizes some of the history on Iraq's weapons program. Broad mentions in passing that France and Russia sold Saddam 110 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough to manufacture between 3 and 10 Hiroshima-strength atomic bombs. These are the people taking the moral high ground in the debate about regime change in Iraq.

The piece also notes that Iraqis told inspectors that as part of their biological weapons program, they had produced enough deadly microbes to kill all the people on earth several times over.

The piece's only unintentionally comic moment comes from David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security: "We still don't know why they wanted nuclear weapons and what they intended to do with them."

Why do tyrants want weapons? History provides a few clues.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.