In Afghanistan, Reviewing A Decade Of Promises

Sep 2, 2011
Originally published on September 2, 2011 7:57 pm

People living in Afghanistan 10 years ago had little electricity, few radios and almost no televisions to alert them of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington. The news didn't really reach across the country until the American bombing campaign and invasion began a month later. The fall of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001 and the flood of international aid raised hope in Afghanistan.

With a U.S.-sponsored government setting up in Kabul, President George W. Bush spelled out America's pledge to Afghanistan in a speech at Virginia Military Institute in April 2002. Bush invoked America's patron saint of nation-building, George Marshall, the World War II general who oversaw the reconstruction of Germany.

"By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall," Bush said.

To Afghans, this Marshall Plan for their country sounded like a promise underwritten by the most powerful nation on Earth. Bush listed how the U.S. would help; below, along with each pledge, NPR assesses progress in each area, 10 years on.

Building Security Forces

Bush: "Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army."

In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghan commandos train with live ammunition at a military base. American efforts are focused now more than ever on training Afghan security forces to face down an insurgency that is much stronger now than 10 years ago. NATO trainers hope to reach 300,000 soldiers and police on the job this autumn.

But gunfights are less common in this war. The preferred weapon of the insurgency is the bomb and booby trap — in military jargon, an improvised explosive device, or IED.

Noor Hameed is the senior Afghan instructor at the counter-IED school at the base.

"To be honest, before this 10 years, we didn't have IED teams," he says. "The people of Afghanistan didn't know what IED is."

Trainers like Hameed are just what the Afghan forces need: native sons to replace foreign experts. But it's a tall order. After 10 years of fitful training, and nearly $30 billion invested by the U.S. alone, the Afghan security forces have an abysmal record of acting without direct NATO assistance. Attrition is still a problem, as are fears of ethnic factionalism. Literacy is only 14 percent among security personnel, a huge obstacle to building a police force that can support an evidence-based justice system.

Building Infrastructure, Services

Bush: "We're working hard in Afghanistan: We're clearing mine fields. We're rebuilding roads. We're improving medical care."

That holds up, according to Dr. Nadera Burhani, Afghanistan's deputy health minister. She cites huge improvements in basic health, thanks in large part to U.S. aid.

In 2002, the country had just 500 health facilities; now, there are 2,019.

"It has a very direct impact on services to the very needy people in very rural areas," Burhani says.

But she admits that in some ways, Afghanistan is still behind where it was decades ago, before three successive wars destroyed the country.

"Sometimes I am disappointed. Because when I was in 5th [grade], the war start in my country. Now I am 43 years old, still the war is going on. I wish that my country become secure. No more than that," she says.

Afghanistan has hundreds of kilometers of new roads, but fewer of them are safe to drive. On the day Burhani spoke with NPR, an insurgent suicide bomber leveled a health center in Logar province, killing dozens of patients, doctors and nurses.

The United Nations reported over the summer that civilian deaths from the war are at their worst level since the invasion — the vast majority from insurgent bombs.

Building The Legitimate Economy

Bush: "We will work to help Afghanistan to develop an economy that can feed its people without feeding the world's demand for drugs."

The report card on narco-trafficking, according to the United Nations and the World Bank, is a solid F. While poppy production has ceased in some provinces, the U.N. says the drug economy rivals the billions in aid still pouring into Afghanistan and threatens to dwarf the legitimate economy as donors draw down. The legitimate economy is also plagued by endemic corruption.

The U.S. inspector general for Afghan reconstruction concluded recently that high-ranking Afghan officials, including government ministers, are carrying out as much as $10 million per day through the Kabul airport.

At a windswept gravel pit on the outskirts of Kabul, a construction company owner agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

"There is no system to award the good people and to punish the bad. There is no incentive toward doing good things," he said.

The man said bribes start the moment a contract is won, with a huge fee to be paid directly to the ministry involved — 5 percent to 15 percent of the contract, which can work out to something like half the profit.

"The first day you go to the ministry of mines, to take a permission to have a mine, the corruption starts there the first day," he said.

The bribes continue, from local officials to tax collectors, even a few thousand dollars to get the fee. In Afghanistan, you have to pay a bribe to get paid, he said. He linked the corruption right to the top, to President Hamid Karzai, whom he voted for twice.

The construction company owner added that Karzai's attempts to make peace with the Taliban have ruined investors' confidence.

"The future seems very dark, because the president has played a dangerous game, and he has lost that game. Next three, four years, we have to leave again. Leave everything," he said.

Building Government

Bush: "Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government."

That final promise from the U.S., to bring a stable government to Afghanistan, is also an open question. Election observers say Afghan politics have grown more fraudulent over the years, and most consider Karzai's re-election in 2009 to be illegitimate. An equally questionable parliamentary election last year resulted in a near endless dispute, with Karzai trying to reinstate allies who had lost according to the official tally.

Still, among the warlords and government cronies, some new faces have emerged in the Afghan parliament — especially from the newly empowered Afghan media. Baktash Siawash, 27, was the country's youngest TV talk show host before he became the country's youngest member of parliament. Many Afghans are pinning their hopes on the next generation, a demographic that includes about half of the country. But Siawash says the American promise of reconstruction has been a failure.

"Forty-one countries came here. It was the golden chance. I do see some progresses, but it is not enough for spending billions of dollars. With the energy, the money and the blood of your brothers, sisters and your sons which have died for democracy-making in Afghanistan, it's nothing. We could have done more than what we have," he says.

Siawish says it's now up to Afghans to take charge and reshape their country. The son of a poor family with no political connections, Siawish himself is a symbol of budding democracy in Afghanistan. But he's not sure that democracy will survive the departure of U.S. troops.

"The life of this regime, this government or this democracy will end with the withdrawal of the last soldier from the international community," he says.

It's that projected date — the end of 2014 — that is preoccupying Afghans. At that time, they will again weigh the pledges made to them in 2001, and decide whether the promises have been kept.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

If you think the 9/11 attacks changed America, think about how they changed Afghanistan. In September of 2001, people living in Afghanistan had little electricity, few radios, and almost no televisions to alert them of the attacks in New York and Washington. The news did not really reach across the country until the American bombing campaign and invasion began a month later.

The fall of the Taliban and the flood of international aid raised hope in Afghanistan. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports this morning on how these hopes are faring, ten years on. And to do that, he turns to a speech.

QUIL LAWRENCE: With the Taliban apparently vanquished, and an American sponsored government setting up in Kabul, President George W. Bush spelled out America's pledge to Afghanistan in a speech at Virginia Military Institute, in April of 2002.

Bush invoked America's patron saint of nation building, George Marshall, the World War II general who oversaw the reconstruction of Germany.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall.

(Soundbite of applause)

LAWRENCE: To Afghans, this Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, sounded like a promise underwritten by the most powerful nation on earth. Bush listed how the U.S. would help

President BUSH: Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

LAWRENCE: Afghan commandos train with live ammunition inside a military base in the northern city of Mazar-i-sharif. American efforts are focused, now more than ever, on training up Afghan security forces, to face down an insurgency that is much stronger now than ten years ago. NATO trainers hope to reach 300,000 soldiers and police on the job this autumn.

But gunfights are less common in this war - the preferred weapon of the insurgency is the bomb and booby trap in military jargon, an improvised explosive device, or IED.

Mr. NOOR HAMEED (Senior Afghan instructor): To be honest, before this ten years we didn't have IED teams, even we didn't know, people of Afghanistan didn't know IED - what IED is.

LAWRENCE: Noor Hameed is the senior Afghan instructor at the counter-IED school on the base. Trainers like Hameed are just what the Afghan forces need - native sons to replace foreign experts. But it's a tall order.

After ten years of fitful training, and nearly $30 billion invested by the U.S. alone, the Afghan security forces have an abysmal record of acting without direct NATO assistance. Attrition is still a problem, as are fears of ethnic factionalism. Literacy is only 14 percent among security personnel, a huge obstacle to building a police force that can support an evidence-based justice system.

President BUSH: We're working hard in Afghanistan: We're clearing mine fields. We're rebuilding roads. We're improving medical care.

LAWRENCE: That holds up, according to Dr. Nadera Burhani, Afghanistan's deputy health minister. She cites huge improvements in basic health, thanks in large part to U.S. aid.

Dr. NADERA BURHANI (Deputy health minister, Afghanistan): Looking to the number of health facility in 2002, just we had 500 health facility in around the country. Now we have 2,019 health facility around the country. It has very direct impact on the influence of services to the very needy people in very rural area.

LAWRENCE: But she admits that, in some ways, Afghanistan is still behind where it was decades ago, before three successive wars destroyed the country.

Dr. BURHANI: Sometimes I disappointed, because when I was in 5th class the war start in my country. Now I am 43 years old, still the war is going on. I wish that my country become secure. No more than that.

LAWRENCE: Afghanistan has hundreds of miles of new roads, but fewer of them are safe to drive. On the day Dr. Burhani spoke with NPR, an insurgent suicide bomber leveled a heath center in Logar Province, killing dozens of patients, doctors and nurses.

The United Nations reported over the summer that civilian deaths from the war are at their worst level since the invasion the vast majority from insurgent bombs.

President BUSH: And we will work to help Afghanistan to develop an economy that can feed its people without feeding the world's demand for drugs.

LAWRENCE: The report card on narco-trafficking, according to the United Nations and the World Bank, is a solid F. While poppy production has ceased in some provinces, the U.N. says the drug economy rivals the billions in aid still pouring in to Afghanistan and threatens to dwarf the legitimate economy as donors draw-down.

That legitimate economy is also plagued by endemic corruption. The U.S. inspector general for Afghan reconstruction concluded recently, that high-ranking Afghan officials, including government ministers, are carrying as much as $10 million per day out through Kabul airport.

(Soundbite of constuction)

LAWRENCE: At a windswept gravel pit on the outskirts of Kabul, a construction company owner agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

Unidentified Man: There is no system to award the good people and to punish the bad people. There is no incentive towards doing good things.

LAWRENCE: The man said bribes start the moment a contract is won, with a huge fee to be paid directly to the ministry involved, five to 15 percent of the contract, which can work out to something like half the profit.

Unidentified Man: The first day you go to Ministry of Mines, to take a permission to have a mine, the corruption starts there, the first day.

LAWRENCE: The bribes continue from local officials to tax collectors, even a few thousand dollars to get the fee. In Afghanistan you have to pay a bribe to get paid, he says. He links the corruption right to the top, to President Karzai, whom he voted for twice. He adds that Karzai's attempts to make peace with the Taliban have ruined investors' confidence.

Unidentified Man: It is very dark. The future seems very dark because the president has played a very dangerous game, and he has lost that game. Next three, four years we have to leave again. Leave everything.

(Soundbite of applause)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.

LAWRENCE: That final promise from the U.S., to bring a stable government to Afghanistan, is also an open question. Election observers say politics here have gotten more fraudulent over the years, and most consider Karzai's re-election in 2009 to be illegitimate.

An equally questionable parliamentary election last year resulted in a near endless dispute, with Karzai trying to reinstate allies who had lost, according to the official tally.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

LAWRENCE: Still, among the warlords and government cronies, some new faces have emerged here in the Afghan parliament, especially from the newly-empowered Afghan media. Twenty-seven-year-old Baktash Siawash was the country's youngest TV talk show host, before he became the country's youngest member of parliament.

Many Afghans are pinning their hopes on the next generation, a demographic that includes about half the country. But Siawash says the American promise of reconstruction has been a failure.

Mr. BAKTASH SIAWASH (Afghani Parliamentarian): Forty-one country came here. It was the golden chance. I do see some progresses, but it is not enough for spending billions of dollar. With the energy, with the money, with blood of your brothers, sisters and your sons, which have been died for democracy making in Afghanistan - it's nothing. We could done more than what we have.

LAWRENCE: Siawish says it's now up to Afghans to take charge and reshape their country. The son of a poor, un-politically connected family, Siawash himself is a symbol of budding democracy in Afghanistan. But he's not sure that democracy will survive the departure of U.S. troops.

Mr. SIAWASH: The life of this regime, this government, or this democracy, will end with the withdrawal of the last soldier of the international community from Afghanistan.

LAWRENCE: It's that projected date, the end of 2014, which is preoccupying Afghans. At that time they will again weigh the pledges made to them in 2001, and decide whether the promises have been kept.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.

INSKEEP: As 9/11 approaches, our colleague Renee Montagne is on assignment in Afghanistan, talking with Afghans, Americans and others there about the future of the country and the conflict. We'll hear the first of her reports on Monday.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.