October 7, 2005

"PROGRESS" BEING THE KEY:

Afghanistan straddles stability and chaos: After Taliban's fall, a work in progress (Farah Stockman, October 7, 2005, Boston Globe)

Four years and $61.4 billion in US spending later, Afghanistan is a work in progress, where 18,000 US troops still engage in deadly battles with insurgents and where reconstruction efforts have crawled forward far more slowly than initially planned.

''There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and interest in getting things done quickly," said Alonzo Fulgham, a Dorchester native who heads the USAID mission here. ''We have to be very careful that we manage expectations in this country."

Thousands of Afghans and 199 US soldiers have died since Oct. 7, 2001. American deaths continue to rise as troops fight their bloodiest year since the invasion in rebellious, remote provinces in the south and east.

But Afghans who work with the new government or with foreign organizations bear the brunt of a resurgent Taliban, which has been mounting an increasing number of attacks and reclaiming territory in its former strongholds. This year alone, more than 1,200 have died -- including those stabbed along highways outside of town or blown up in high-profile suicide bombings.

Yet in Kabul, an army of well-paid, well-equipped foreigners from aid groups, the United Nations, and a host of donor governments has brought security, schools, free speech, and two widely celebrated national elections. They have built a highway to the southern city of Kandahar, no small feat given the number of violent attacks against the road builders.

From behind their walled compounds, American diplomats and some of their NATO partners weigh in on every aspect of governance, from what kind of uniform the new border police should wear to the legal details of a massive new antinarcotics law.

But many problems here are beyond their reach, at least for now. Afghanistan, where several provinces have existed outside the control of the central government since the 1980s, still struggles with one of the highest levels of malnutrition in the world, a life expectancy of just 45 years, and a government ranked the third most corrupt out of 30 developing countries surveyed by Freedom House, a Washington-based research group.

The influx of foreigners has also brought inflation. Since 2001, the price of basic goods has soared, according to Kabul shopkeepers. A kilo of sugar rose from about 52 cents to 76. A long, flat loaf of traditional bread, a staple food here, rose from about 8 cents to 12.

''Life hasn't changed," said a 9-year-old street boy called Cho Cha who doesn't go to school because he has to wash cars to support his family. ''I can earn more money now than I did under the Taliban, but things are more expensive."

Those who have financially prospered in the new Afghanistan are not hard to spot.

The fields of the lucky few landowners who have received irrigation assistance have blossomed into squares of emerald green on a horizon of parched earth. The Land Rovers of foreigners and Afghans with UN jobs or US defense contracts dominate the traffic jams that choke the city.

Commercial buildings, some financed by drug barons and others by businessmen recently returned from exile, feature never-before-seen wonders: Afghanistan's first escalator and modern shopping mall, complete with a metal detector at the door; a coffee shop that would not look out of place in Paris; and showrooms full of flat-screen televisions, Beverly Hills Polo Club watches, and Turkish suits that almost no one here can afford.

But for most residents, Kabul is still a city of antique rugs, open sewers, and mud houses built into the hillsides. For those residents, the face of progress is far more subtle.

Often, it is just enjoying entertainment outlawed by the strict religious rule of the Taliban.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 7, 2005 12:00 AM
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