Nine Years Later, Afghanistan Looks Much the Same: A Mess

HERAT, Afghanistan -- OK. The roads are impressive. Specifically, the fact that they exist. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, more than two decades of civil conflict had left the country bereft of basic infrastructure. Roads, bridges and tunnels had been bombed and mined. What didn't blow up got ground down by tanks. Maintenance? Don't be funny.

It took them too long to get started, but U.S. occupation forces deserve credit for slapping down asphalt. Brutal, bone-crushing ordeals that used to take four days can be measured in smooth, endless-grey-ribboned hours. Bridges have been replaced. Tunnels have been shored up. Most major highways and major city streets have been paved.

But that's about it.

As of 2008 the U.S. claimed to have spent $1.3 billion on construction projects in Afghanistan. Where'd it all go? Roads don't cost that much.

That's the Big Question here. As far as anyone can tell, the only sign of economic improvement is a building boomlet: green and pink Arab-style glass-and-marble McMansions, guarded by AK-47-toting guards and owned by politically connected goons, are going up on the outskirts of every Afghan city. Most Afghans still live in squalor that compares unfavorably to places like Mumbai and Karachi. Beggars are everywhere. Most people haven't gotten any help.

"Assistance is coming to Afghanistan, but we don't know how it is spent, where it is spent," Amin Farhang, the Afghan minister of economy, said at the time.

Afghan officials tell a similar story now. "When the Americans came after the 11th of September, we thought 'good, they will rebuild our country,'" Ghulam Naider Nekpor, commander of Torgundi, a dusty town near the Turkmen border, told me. "Instead of help, they send soldiers. And not only that, they send weapons and money to the other side--Pakistan." (Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency finances and arms the Taliban.)

"We thought Americans were to help. Now we see they came to take, and take, and take from us."

There are three big problems.

First: Instead of construction, money was wasted on troops. As of 2009--before the Obama surge--the Defense Department had blown through $227 billion in Afghanistan. Bear in mind, the World Bank estimated back in 2002 that the country could have been put on solid economic footing for about $18 billion.

"Please stop sending soldiers" is a standard plea here. "Can't you send help instead of soldiers?"

The money we wasted on blowing up wedding parties and killing Al Qaeda Number Twos could have rebuilt Afghanistan 12 times over--or transformed it into a First World country.

As for those soldiers, they aren't doing much. The Taliban range freely over the countryside, raiding and kidnapping at will. The Afghan National Police have ceded most of the country--everything outside the big cities--to the Taliban.

Ninety-nine percent of U.S. troops are either sitting on their butts on military bases surrounded by blast walls and concertina wire or fighting in remote areas along the sparsely populated border with Pakistan. There are supposedly 140,000 U.S. troops here. But most of the country never sees one.

Why aren't Predator drones being used to take out the Taliban bike gangs that rule the countryside and attack motorists? Why don't U.S. troops attack Taliban strongholds in the north, west and center of Afghanistan? If we're going to spend a quarter of a trillion bucks on troops here, they ought to provide security.

Afghan cops say they know where the bad guys are. But they don't even have the basic tools, like helicopters, needed to go after them. The U.S. military does--but they ignore Afghan requests for help.

Second problem: Corruption and American stupidity. They go together; stupid American organizations like US AID pick U.S. contractors or fly-by-night outfits connected to the Karzai regime and fail to audit their expenses. Bills are padded to spectacular extents. Work, when it gets done, is shoddy. Highways paved three years ago are already warped due to inferior roadbeds.

Moreover, work often takes place without consultation with, or the benefit of, locals. No one asks villagers what they want. Outsiders do the work; locals sit and watch. Areas that need a hospital get a road. Those that want a road get a school.

The Frontier Post, a Pakistani newspaper based in the Afghan border towns of Quetta and Peshawar, editorialized: "Afghans have little to be grateful to America for. It may have pumped in billions of dollars in aid--but only theoretically. Practically, much of that has been siphoned off and ploughed back by American contractors, making them rich while Afghans get only lollipops."

Third: The Afghan people are last priority.

In a war for hearts and minds, there's no place for the trickle-down approach. But that's what the U.S.--when it makes a serious effort, which is rare--does. I wouldn't have invaded Afghanistan in the first place, but if I were put in charge here I would deploy the "trickle up" approach: direct financial assistance to the people who need it most. Help subsistence farmers buy their own plots of land. Build new houses and apartment blocs for the homeless. Invite bright children to attend colleges and universities tuition-free. Above all, don't let people starve.

We have spent $229 billion here. Meals cost less than a dollar. No Afghan should be starving--yet millions are.

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