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Afghanistan adrift politically, economically
KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. and other Western officials like to point to Jamila Mujahed as a symbol of how successful the liberation of Afghanistan has been.

Within hours of the Taliban's leaving Kabul a year ago this week, Mujahed was one of the first Afghans to go on national radio and television — without the head-to-toe covering that the fundamentalist Islamic regime had required women to wear in public — to declare, "The Taliban are gone."

In February, she launched Afghanistan's first magazine for women. Foreign groups, applauding her efforts, have promised to provide support for her projects. Even so, Mujahed says the reality of her life is far different from the widely disseminated image. "I am in greater danger now than I was a year ago," says Mujahed, 39.

Other Afghans also say life here is different — and far more dangerous — than they expected a year ago:

  • The U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai has little control outside of Kabul, the capital. And the new government is racked with dissension.
  • Warlords continue to control much of the countryside. Already, several factional power struggles have broken out.
  • Extremists, in hiding outside the well-protected capital, wait for an opportunity to strike. Taliban and al-Qaeda forces lurk in the mountains. U.S. troops on patrol in search of terrorists in eastern Afghanistan face almost daily hostility and attacks.

"The fundamentalists and the warlords are in charge. The gunmen have the authority and the power, and actual rights the government says we have are not given," Mujahed says.

Afghans are waiting for the new government and the outside world to deliver on promises of peace and prosperity. Beneath the veneer of a country on the mend are growing signs that Afghanistan is adrift politically and economically.

No two wars or the nation building that follows are alike. But as the White House moves against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the sluggish and frustrating experience so far in Afghanistan offers a perspective on the challenges of winning the long-term peace after a seemingly victorious short-term war.

The United States had the chance to bring stability, economic rejuvenation and democracy to Afghanistan in 1989, when the U.S.-backed Afghan guerrillas drove out the occupying Soviet forces. But once the Soviets were gone, Washington lost interest. A year of peace was followed by bickering among the country's ethnic factions. The result was a civil war that leveled much of Kabul and ushered in the Taliban and the conditions that led to Afghanistan's becoming a terrorist training center.

Today, graduates of Afghan terrorist camps are spread out across the globe. They are credited with recent attacks and threats in Indonesia, the Philippines, northern Africa, Europe and the USA. Many others are across the Afghan border in Pakistan, waiting to see whether the United States leaves or wears out its welcome here.

"A temporary peace always happens in this country," says M. Akbar Popal, president of Kabul University. "But underneath, there are great, different factors that signal to one group or another as to which way the country will go, either stability or war."

Afghanistan a year later

More small businesses are opening in Kabul each week, including restaurants offering international food and video stores selling and renting first-run movies and television shows. But drug use, pedophilia and prostitution, almost non-existent under the Taliban, have re-emerged with the market economy.

Refugees who returned believing there would be opportunities have found no work, housing or safe drinking water. There are few schools. Crime is on the rise, and begging, forbidden by the Taliban, is endemic on the capital's streets. At jammed intersections across Kabul, wailing mothers carrying tiny, shriveled babies compete with one-legged men for charity — a daily ritual that to many is the most visible symbol of the new era.

Despite repeated promises by international officials to provide financial assistance and build roads — the single most important indicator of economic and political stability and prosperity — it was only on Sept. 12 that President Bush announced Afghanistan would get $180 million from the United States, Japan and Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, Iran earlier this year quietly built a 75-mile road from its eastern border to the Afghan city of Herat, a project that has boosted Iran's image here and renewed questions about the West's commitment.

"They (the West) have said they give us their full support and made many promises," says A. Jabbar Taqwa, deputy minister for reconstruction. "Perhaps we have been misinformed."

It's Friday night, and B's Place, the most popular restaurant in town for Westerners, has a long waiting list. Shrimp flown in from Dubai has been transformed into cocktail appetizers. The multilingual waiter urges a quick decision on the special, Thai curry, because it's going fast. Those so inclined can start the meal with vodka and tonic — real stuff, not something that tastes like kerosene. Just a year ago, alcohol was forbidden by the strict Islamic regime.

The murmur of business hums between tables. If it were not for the chug-chug-chug of the nearby generator that keeps the place in operation, it would be easy to forget that a few months ago the restaurant was an empty shell. B's Place is among some of the superficial changes that have transformed the city that has swollen by a million to about 2.3 million people in less than a year.

Tsunamis of bicycles now compete for the shrinking space on the capital's clogged streets. Even the faces are different. Nearly half of the capital's women have decided not to wear burqas or have opted for a modified version of the head-to-toe covering. So the eyes and smiles of women, once confined to their homes, have joined the mosaic of the city.

"They used to choose the simplest dresses," A. Jamil, 22, co-owner of the Zarghone Wedding Store, says of his customers. "Now they are more modern, more stylish and they seem more happy. Now everyone wants embroidering on their dress. And we (men) can take their measurements."

There has been an influx of 21st century gizmos and conveniences — for those who can afford them. Two Internet cafes have opened this year, and the price of black-market beer has dropped. Video stores joust with each other to tout the latest pirated copy of a Western movie. A film buff can acquire almost any first-run release, from Spider Man to episodes of the TV series Sex and the City, the latter drawing a large audience of Afghan males whose responses range from stimulation to bewilderment.

During the five-year period of Taliban rule, Sayeed Abdual Wahid's electronics store was one of a handful of shops that had televisions, radios and other black-market items. Wahid, 30, sold these illicit goods only to known customers, from the back of the shop. Now there are about 80 such stores, and the competition has changed how people shop.

"Before they didn't check what was in the box, they just took it out of the store," Wahid says. "Now they check inside the carton."

Old-timers say the mood today reminds them of a decade ago, just after the Soviets were driven out. There was calm for a few months. Stores reopened. People returned to more traditional lives. But then, as now, there was no strong central government or true stability. The country soon fell into a bloody civil war that led to the Taliban's rise.

Hagi Muskin, 93, who sells bowls, trinkets and water pipes on the oldest street in Kabul, says, "I sit here through the bombing, and I sit through the Taliban and the king and the others and I see how things move. I hope it is too good now to destroy the stability. But things can change."

At the peak of the Soviets' 1979-1989 occupation, they had 118,000 soldiers deployed here. U.S. and coalition forces now number about 16,000. Plans to create a 60,000-strong multiethnic Afghan army to provide nationwide security are stalled. So residents worry that the current calm will not last.

Most worrisome: reconstruction has not yet started. Kabul has 40 Soviet-era trucks for sanitation duty. Most human waste goes into poorly dug latrines, eventually winding up in streets and yards.

Money to rebuild anything is almost non-existent. Of the $1.8 billion pledged by donors at a January conference in Tokyo, 52% has been received. Most of that has gone for humanitarian aid needed to feed returning refugees.

Foreign donors have said they cannot fund any major reconstruction projects until 2003. After state and local civil servants were paid this summer with an emergency spurt of funds from the West, many have again gone without salaries for five straight months.

Older Afghans are not surprised by the slow pace of recovery. The young, however, still expect to see the promises of prosperity, jobs, health care, education and freedom fulfilled. Returning Afghans live in primitive slums that breed disease and despair. This already volatile situation could be inflamed by a failure to improve living conditions quickly, humanitarian groups warn.

"Need will turn to resentment, which in turn will inflame insecurity, making reconstruction increasingly difficult and future emergencies more likely," the humanitarian group CARE reported in October. "Despite the rhetoric, the donor community has yet to deliver the required funding for Afghan reconstruction. This not only breaks a promise; it is potentially counterproductive, in both the short and long term. Each month without funding makes it harder for the government to achieve credibility by satisfying the expectations of its people."

For Afghanistan, the United States has pledged $296 million for 2002, part of the $4.5 billion international package. The U.S. military operation here, by comparison, cost $3.8 billion from November through January.

The U.S. military has been slowly shifting its priority in Afghanistan from hunting remnants of al-Qaeda forces to helping rebuild the country. The U.S. Army is involved in small construction projects, and U.S. soldiers will be providing security in some major cities as efforts continue to rebuild the Afghan armed forces.

Almost always the discussion comes back to roads. "Why is this so hard to understand?" asks Taqwa, the deputy minister for reconstruction. "You pay men to fix the road. That takes money and power away from the warlords. That pulls the country together."

Roads are the country's economic and political lifeline, officials say. They make it easier for the government and aid groups to deliver supplies and for villagers to get to markets, schools and hospitals. Not building roads tells Afghans the West cannot be trusted to live up to its word. It also invites the Irans of the world to become the dominant foreign force here.

Taqwa says the road projects could be completed in two years if the funding came through. "It brings progress, it helps brings jobs. This is not rocket science. But not doing it can lead to rockets."

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