The Magazine

Nation Building, After All

From the April 11, 2005 issue: With the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Apr 11, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 28 • By THOMAS DONNELLY and VANCE SERCHUK
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Like many of Kabul's poorer outlying areas, Daykhudadad is populated predominantly by refugees, Afghans who fled the country during its civil war and came back after Hamid Karzai was installed as provisional leader in late 2001. Three and a half million such people have returned from Pakistan and Iran since the fall of the Taliban in what amounts to a straw poll of ordinary Afghans' confidence in the future of their country--and everyone's got an opinion about its progress.

"First of all, there's no electricity, no light," one shopkeeper says, an ethnic Hazara originally from Bamiyan, cradling a glass of steaming tea in his hands as we talk. "The street is not good. Also, there's no hospital."

How about the police? "They are thieves."

Have coalition soldiers ever stopped here? Have they done anything to help? "They don't talk to locals. They just look to see if it's secure or not, and then they leave," the man explains, shrugging.

Such was a typical exchange in Daykhudadad, whose impoverished inhabitants are quick to reel off the improvements they would like to see from their government. But as striking as the litany of problems at the start of each of these conversations was what invariably came at their conclusion: praise for President Karzai, the U.S.-led military coalition, and the overall state of the nation. "The main thing is the country is at peace," insists the shopkeeper, again and again.

Daykhudadad illustrates a simple but crucial point in understanding Afghanistan's progress over the past three and a half years. For most of the world, and especially Americans, the September 11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan marked the beginning of a war. But for most Afghans, the arrival of the U.S. military in late 2001 signified the end of one. Traveling across the country today, one sees a landscape crisscrossed with scars--rocks painted red to indicate mines, houses flattened by rocket fire, scraps of decaying Soviet weaponry--the relics of a Cold War battlefield where the fighting continued long after Washington and Moscow gave up and went home.

Indeed, while Americans generally acknowledge that our abandonment of Afghanistan following the Soviet collapse was a strategic mistake, providing a safe haven in which al Qaeda was able to plot mass murder, what is less appreciated is the degree to which disengagement was also a humanitarian catastrophe, on par with some of the worst bloodshed of the post-Cold War period. During the 1990s, Afghanistan was physically and psychologically mauled, not just by the Islamist authoritarianism of the Taliban in the territory under its control, but by conventional warfare between factions battling each other. In their summer offensive of 1999, for instance, more than 6,000 Taliban soldiers launched a three-pronged assault with tanks, aerial bombardment, and heavy artillery into the Shomali valley, north of Kabul. Entire towns were emptied, goats and cows were machine-gunned, and crops burned. By 2001, every major road in the country had been torn apart by tank treads.

Operation Enduring Freedom put a stop to this brutal and unremitting civil war. Afghans in Daykhudadad may complain that they lack amenities, but they haven't forgotten the large-scale violence that drove them from their country; simply preventing its resurgence has bought the U.S.-led coalition and the Karzai government an enormous store of good will.

In a strange and unforeseen way, Afghanistan's mind-boggling backwardness has also played to America's strategic advantage. Unlike Iraq, which enjoyed a level of prosperity during the 1970s roughly equivalent to that of some poorer countries in Europe, Afghanistan has always been rural, destitute, and lacking in infrastructure. As one American soldier poetically put it, "Most people here are lucky to have a pot to piss in."

Afghans are unquestionably eager for more schools, new hospitals, and better roads, but most are also accustomed to not having them. Even relatively small projects--building a village well, providing veterinary care to livestock--can consequently have a disproportionate impact in winning hearts and minds. "In Afghanistan, people have no expectations of the government," explains Colonel Cardon Crawford, the operations chief at Combined Forces Command Afghanistan. "If the government can show anything positive, it has a huge strategic effect."