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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Ghazni, Afghanistan

THE LINE OF ARMY HUMVEES stood motionless, engines running, waiting for the order to roll forward. Behind the convoy, concrete barriers and loops of concertina wire marked the edge of a U.S. firebase--a collection of plywood shacks, canvas tents, and shipping containers clustered around a long rectangular building that was once a Taliban madrassa. Ahead, a faint path of crushed snow snaked its way to the asphalt of the ring road--90 miles to Kabul on the right, 215 miles to Kandahar on the left, and a vast expanse of ice in every other direction.

Welcome to Ghazni, Afghanistan's eighth largest city, where nighttime temperatures fall to thirty below zero. In the 11th and 12th centuries, this was the seat of the Ghaznavid Empire, a major cultural center of the Islamic world and, according to the 1977 Historical Guide to Afghanistan, a city more recently "famed for the embroidered sheepskin coats currently enjoying great popularity throughout Europe and the United States." Alas for the contemporary tourist, all that remains today of Ghaznavid glory are a pair of hulking minarets on the outskirts of town, surrounded by the rusting carcasses of Soviet tanks. The embroidered coats are also nowhere to be found--alas for aging hippies.

Spend a few days in Ghazni and it's easy to understand why Afghanistan isn't a place that lends itself to nuance. In the three and a half years since the overthrow of the Taliban, predictions about the country's trajectory--much like its weather--have tended to favor extremes. For Seymour Hersh, Richard Clarke, Michael Scheuer, and countless other critics, warlords are ruling the countryside, the Taliban is inching its way back to power, Hamid Karzai is the mayor of Kabul, and on the economic front poppy is and forever shall be king. Conversely, for too many of the Bush administration's supporters, Afghanistan has been treated as little more than a mark on a checklist, validating theories about the future American way of war and the universal appeal of democracy.

While there are kernels of truth in each of these assessments, none begins to capture the sheer complexity of either the security situation in the country or the U.S.-led efforts to build a more decent political order there. The trend lines are, for the moment, more encouraging than not. It's especially tough to be a pessimist in Kabul, a city where for every problem you can imagine, there are four Microsoft PowerPoint presentations competing to solve it. And even beyond the prefab conference rooms of the American military, the messy, sprawling Afghan capital is full of hopeful surprises.

Kabul's broad avenues are choked with traffic, as Afghans ride bumper-to-bumper alongside the white Land Cruisers beloved by the international community. There are supermarkets, Internet cafés, bookstores, and a surprisingly diverse tableau of restaurants; signs of commerce are everywhere, from posters advertising English language classes to the man with an antique, wooden camera offering photographic services just down the street from the national passport office. More children are at school than ever before. It's even possible to find local Afghan wine--the ultimate repudiation of Taliban orthodoxy--although the drink, it must be emphasized, is the color of dirty milk, stored in used soda bottles, and advisable only in the direst of circumstances.

To be sure, there are still plenty of problems in the security sector that need to be addressed, and countless reforms could become unstuck. Some of these challenges are squarely in the hands of the United States, but responsibility for most of them lies somewhere between the Americans, the Afghans, and the rest of the international coalition that is holding the country together. It's also useful to keep the image of Ghazni's frozen moonscape in the back of one's mind, if only to remember that most of Afghanistan isn't Kabul--and that there are constraints that come with working at the far side of the world.

Yet despite all the obstacles, the United States appears to be making significant progress in Afghanistan--three words that not so long ago would have been dismissed as an oxymoron. So exactly what went right? And can it hold?

THE VILLAGE OF DAYKHUDADAD sits unprepossessingly on the northern rim of the high, narrow Kabul valley, overlooking the Afghan capital. On the drive there from the center of the city, the rutted asphalt and pockmarked concrete of Kabul's more affluent districts quickly give way to mud--mud houses, mud walls, mud streets. Although it was January, the sun was out, melting the snow deposited by a storm a few days earlier and greasing the road; with nightfall, the temperature would plunge and the city would ice over, one of the few predictable routines in the country.