US/AFGHANISTAN: Unknown Afghanistan

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Want a billion dollars in development aid? If you happen to live in
Afghanistan, the two quickest ways to attract attention and so aid from
the U.S. authorities are: Taliban attacks or a flourishing opium trade.
For those with neither, the future could be bleak.

In November 2008, during the U.S. presidential elections, I traveled
around Afghanistan asking people what they wanted from the United
States. From Mazar in the north to Bamiyan in central Afghanistan to
the capital city of Kabul, I came away with three very different
pictures of the country.

Dragon Valley is a hauntingly beautiful place nestled high up in the
heart of the Hindu Kush mountains. To get there from Kabul involves a
bumpy, nine-hour drive on unpaved roads through Taliban country. In the
last couple of years, a small community of ethnic Hazara people has resettled in this arid valley,
as well as on other sparse adjoining lands, all near the legendary
remains of a fire-breathing dragon reputedly slain by Hazrat Ali, the
son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed.

A few miles away, hewn from the soaring sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan
in central Afghanistan are the still spectacular ruins of what used to
be the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings
in the world. Two hollow but vast arched, man-made alcoves, which rise
higher than most cathedrals, still dominate the view for miles around.

For much of the world, the iconic image of Taliban rule in
Afghanistan remains the shaky video footage from March 2001 of the
dynamiting of those giant Buddhas that had rested in these alcoves for
almost 1,500 years. Months after they were blown up, the Taliban bombed
neighboring Hazara towns and villages from the air, burning many to the
ground. Tens of thousands of their inhabitants were forced to flee the
country, most seeking shelter in Iran.

In the seven years since the Taliban were ousted by the United
States, the Hazara villagers of Bamiyan have started to trickle back
into places like Dragon Valley in hopes of resuming their former lives.
Today, ironically enough, they find themselves in one of the safest, as
well as most spectacularly beautiful regions, in the country. Its stark
mountains and valleys, turquoise lakes and tranquil vistas might remind
Americans of the Grand Canyon region.

Yet the million-dollar views and centuries of history are cold
comfort to villagers who have no electricity, running water, or public
sanitation systems -- and little in the way of jobs in this
hardscrabble area. While some of them live in simple mud homes in
places like Dragon Valley, others have, for lack of other housing,
moved into the ancient caves below the ruined Buddhas.

No Help Whatsover

Just outside one of the many single-room mud houses that line the
floor of Dragon Valley, I met Abdul Karim, an unskilled laborer who has
been looking daily for work in the fields or on construction sites
since he returned from Iran a year ago. Most days, he comes home
empty-handed. "We have nothing, no work, no electricity, no help from
the government or aid organizations. Right now our situation is
terrible, so of course I have no hope for the future. I'm not happy
with my life here, I'm ready to die because we have nothing."

His only source of income is a modest carpet-weaving business he's
set up inside his tiny house at which his two children, a boy aged
about 10 and a girl of about 15, work. It generates about a dollar a

As I went door to door in the small Hazara settlement, I heard the
same story over and over. In the mud house next to Karim's, I met
"Najiba" (not her real name), a woman of perhaps 70 years, who said
that her family had received virtually nothing in aid. "The government
hasn't done anything for us. They just say they will. They just came by
once, gave us some water, some clothes, but that's it."

Traveling in Bamiyan province, I repeatedly heard the same story
with slight variations. In the wheat fields outside the village of
Samarra, I met Shawali, a peasant who told us that he and his son had
fled south to Ghazni, a neighboring province, to escape the Taliban.
"My son and I labored hard pulling big carts full of timber and heavy
loads until we could raise enough money to return to Bamiyan." Here he
remains a day laborer, eking out a living, and no better off than when
he was in internal exile in Ghazni.

situation has so disintegrated that many say they wish they could
simply return to the refugee camps in Iran. In Dragon Valley, for
example, I met "Khadija." As the middle-aged woman fanned a small fire
fed by wood gathered from nearby, she said, "We were happy in Iran. It
was good. The weather was warm. We had a good life there, but it was
still someone else's country. When the [Iranian] government told us we
had to go back home, we wanted to return to start a new life. But [the
Afghan government] hasn't helped us at all. They told us they were
going to give us wood, supplies, and doors but they've given us
nothing... no help whatsoever."

A recent report from the U.S. Agency for International Development
(USAID) offers some context for the kind of desperate poverty I
encountered in Bamiyan. The agency's analysts estimate that about 42%
of the country's estimated 27 million people now live on less than $1 a


Unlike Bamiyan which has almost no paved roads and no electricity,
the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif stands out as a relative success
story. Mazar was the first place the U.S. and its Afghan allies from
the Northern Alliance captured in the 2001 invasion. Some 40 miles from
the border of Uzbekistan, it is home to the Blue Mosque, the holiest
shrine for Muslims in all of Afghanistan, where Hazrat Ali is said to
be buried.

When I first traveled to Mazar in January 2002, only the mosque was
lit at night, a comforting beacon of hope in the post-invasion darkness
of a shattered city. The sole other source of luminosity: the
headlights of the roaming Northern Alliance gunmen who policed the city
in Toyota pick-ups packed with men armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket

During the day, however, the city was brimming with hope and activity, just weeks after the Taliban fled. I met folk musicians
like Agha Malang Kohistani performing songs on the street to mock the
Taliban and classical musicians like Rahim Takhari playing in public
for the first time in years, while weddings were graced with singers
like Hassebullah Takdeer who sang classics like Beya Ka Borem Ba Mazar ("Let's Go to Mazar").

The Fatima Balkhi Girls School was among those that were opening their
doors to students for the first time in years. Amid the rubble of bombed-out buildings
at the Sultan Razya School, for instance, little girls flocked to
classrooms with earthen floors and no chairs. They squeezed by the
hundreds into tiny rooms, where lessons were sometimes chalked onto the
backs of doors.

At Sultan Razya, I spoke to 14-year-old Alina, who bubbled with
teenage excitement as she described her adventures studying secretly in
teachers' houses during the Taliban era. "One day we went to class at
eight o'clock, another day at ten o'clock, and another day four
o'clock," she recalled.

Seven years later, I returned to find Mazar now well supplied with
electricity (by the Uzbek government) and connected to the capital city
of Kabul by a smooth, new, well-paved two-lane highway. Although there
had been a couple of suicide bombings in the city, Mazar was almost as
safe as Bamiyan. Residents who fled during Taliban rule to places like
Tashkent had returned with hard currency to invest in local businesses.
While it would be an overstatement to say that Mazar was flourishing,
it's certainly decades ahead of Bamiyan in development terms.

I tracked down Alina -- one of very few in her class to have
continued her education -- at Balkh University, where she was studying
Islamic law. Now a little shy about talking to foreign journalists, she
was still happy. "Things have completely changed in every part. All of
the women and girl students are studying their lessons in computers and
English, and they are happy," she told us.

I also revisited the Fatima Balkhi School,
where the principal took us to meet a new generation of 14-year-olds
who told us about their plans for the future. One wanted to be a
banker, another dreamed of being a doctor, a third spoke of becoming an
engineer. Earthen floors and makeshift chalk boards were a thing of the
past. The Sultan Razya School had been completely rebuilt and the girls
wore neat school uniforms, although teachers still complained of a lack
of proper supplies.

Opportunities for girls were also expanding. Maramar, a 14-year-old
Balkhi student, invited us to visit the local TV station where she
hosted her own show. Astonished, I took her up on her offer and went to
the RZU studios on the outskirts of town where I filmed her reading
headlines -- about the U.S. elections! -- on the afternoon news.

Indeed girls' education is one of the real success stories in
Afghanistan, where one-third of the six million students in elementary
and high schools are now female, probably the highest percentage in
Afghan history. The education system, however, starts to skew ever more
away from girls the higher you get. By the time high school ends, just
a quarter of the students are girls. Only one in 20 Afghan girls makes it to high school in the first place and even fewer make it through.

The Return of the Taliban

Neither rural Bamiyan in central Afghanistan nor urban Mazar in the
north has had to worry greatly about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism
in the last few years. For one thing, as Hazaras, an ethnic minority
descended from the army of Genghis Khan, most residents of Bamiyan are
from Islam's Shia sect, while the Taliban, largely from southern
Afghanistan, are Pashtun and Sunni. Indeed, when they ruled most of the
country, the Taliban went so far as to brand the Hazara as non-Muslim.

Similarly, Mazar, which has a large Tajik and Uzbek population as
well as some Hazara, but relatively few Pashtuns, has also been spared
the influence of the Taliban. Unlike rugged and remote Bamiyan, it is
situated in a well connected part of the country, close to Russia and
the Central Asian republics. (The former Soviet Union used the city as
a strategic military base in the early 1980s.)

Yet when one heads south to Kabul and toward the Pakistani border, a
third Afghanistan is revealed. Twenty minutes from the center of Kabul,
the Taliban control large swathes of the provinces of Logar and Wardak.

In the Pashtun-dominated southern city of Kandahar, the stories of
attacks on girls' schools are already legend. In November 2008, while I
was visiting Bamiyan and Mazar, three men on a motorcycle attacked a group of girls
at the Mirwais School, built with funds from the Japanese government.
Each carried containers of acid which they used to horrific effect,
scarring 11 girls and 4 teachers. The Taliban have denied involvement,
but most local residents assume the attackers were inspired by Taliban
posters in local mosques that simply say: "Don't Let Your Daughters Go
to School."

Last March, Taliban followers raided the Miyan Abdul Hakim School
in Kandahar, which serves both boys and girls, making bonfires out of
desks to burn the students' books. At another local school, a caretaker
had his ears and nose cut off, and this was but one of dozens of
attacks on such schools.

"Yes, there have been improvements in girls' education in
Afghanistan. You can see it on the streets when the girls walk home
from school in their uniforms, laughing with books in their hands. You
can see it in the schools that have been built all over the country, in
villages where they have never had schools before," Fariba Nawa, author
of Afghanistan, Inc., told us.

"However, in the south there's a different story to be told," she
added. "That's the story of girls being afraid to go to school, even
the story of newly built schools being burned down, or teachers being
beheaded for teaching in them. So it depends on what part of
Afghanistan you go to, which story you want to tell."

Seeking Answers in Kabul

Green laser beams darted from the fast-moving military convoy
scanning the pedestrians and parked cars along the road from Kabul
airport. As I bent over our taxi's stalled engine, the sharp,
pencil-thin beams raked across us menacingly, causing me to stumble
back in surprise.

Unlike in Bamiyan or Mazar, Kabul teems with vehicles: military convoys
from a dozen nations, Ford Ranger pick-ups (supplied by DynCorp, a U.S.
contractor), Toyota land cruisers used by United Nations personnel, and
thousands of used Toyota Corollas driven by Afghans.

Our first stop was at the home of Mir Ahmed Joyenda, a member of the
Afghan parliament. I wondered, I told him, why, all these years after
the fall of the Taliban, entire provinces like Bamiyan had no
electricity or potable water supply to speak of. As (bad) luck would
have it, Joyenda could discuss the problem on a personal basis -- and
by the light of a kerosene lamp.

"You see," he responded, "we are in the city of Kabul. As a member
of the parliament of Afghanistan I'm sitting in front of you, but I
don't have any electricity in my house. What do you think of the rural
areas? What about the poor areas of the Kabul city and other parts of
the country?" He suggested I ask the ministry of electricity why he had

So I arranged to meet Wali Shairzay, the deputy minister for
electricity and water. After enduring an hour-long lecture on all the
new projects supposedly in the pipeline, I asked him why there was
Uzbek-supplied electricity in Mazar, but no Afghan-supplied sources in
most of rural Afghanistan. I noted that many countries had emerged from
decades of war to successfully provide basic services to their

Who knows why a man in his position wouldn't have expected such a
question, but he looked like a deer caught in the headlights. "Most
people call Afghanistan a post-conflict nation," he began hesitantly.
"My terminology is a bit different, I call it post-devastation."

As a result, he suggested, battle-weary Afghans weren't able to
articulate what they needed. "Like a patient speaking of the problems,
where it is hurting, when it started, how bad is the pain, etcetera.
Unfortunately, this patient here -- Afghanistan -- could not speak and
you have to find out what the problem is, what is the prior diagnosis
and medication."

Shairzay claimed that, over the previous seven years, his ministry
had focused on the big electricity projects like the importation of
power from Uzbekistan, and then he, in essence, passed the buck. When
it came to provinces like Bamiyan, he said, his ministry wasn't really
in charge at all. That fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of
Rural Rehabilitation and Development, where he was going that very
afternoon to discuss matters with his counterparts.

Yet, the deputy minister's words ran counter to what I had heard
from the dozens of villagers around Bamiyan who knew exactly what they
wanted: electricity, water, health care, a steady food supply, and

I even found very articulate and well educated Afghans in Bamiyan
who were more than happy to describe simple but effective projects that
might have gone a long way toward serving the population's desperate
needs. For example, Dr Gulam Mohammad Nadir, the chief medical officer
of Bamiyan's only hospital, told us that the needs of small rural
communities were already well known. For example, he assured me, he
could dramatically reduce health problems and save lives with a small
grant that would allow him to demonstrate basic sanitation principles
in local villages.

"I believe having clean water is the most essential aspect to human
health and to prevent diseases. At the very least, we need to educate
the people about how important it is to have proper sanitation, a clean
water supply, and [knowledge about] how they can protect themselves
from water-borne diseases."

Why, in fact, were such simple projects never implemented? The
answer proved to be surprising, and it helps, in part, to explain the
dismal fate of the Bush administration's version of Afghan
"reconstruction." Virtually none of the $5.4 billion in taxpayer money
that USAID has disbursed in this country since late 2001 has been
invested in Bamiyan Province, where the total aid budget, 2002-2006,
was just over $13 million.

While the Japanese government and UNESCO have dedicated some money
to Bamiyan province, most of it has been spent on restoring the giant
Buddhas, not on basic services for residents.

The bulk of the foreign aid has gone to big cities like Kabul and Mazar, but much has also gone into the coffers of foreign contractors and consultants
like the Louis Berger Group, Bearing Point, and DynCorp International
in Afghanistan. The rest of the aid money has been poured into "rural
development" projects in southern provinces like Kandahar where
Canadian and U.S. troops are fighting the Taliban, and into provinces
like Helmand where British soldiers, alongside U.S. troops, are
struggling against the opium trade.

Most American taxpayer money is actually spent on the troops, not,
of course, on poor Afghans. In fact, with Pentagon expenditures in
Afghanistan running at about $36 billion a year, the annual aid
allocation for the 387,000 people who live in Bamiyan Province is
outstripped every single hour by the money spent on 30,000-plus
American troops and their weaponry.

It turns out the villagers of Dragon Valley have two problems that
can't be overcome. They have neither the Taliban to fight, nor opium
crops to eradicate

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