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Rebuilding Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan

The breeze that chilled Wahida Sadat’s home would normally have been welcome as Kabul’s warm weather extended into October. But on this particular day, Sadat was nursing a child with the flu, and the chilly air was just another distraction as she sat down on a cool floor to make a quilt. Her family’s sole income comes from a quilt-making project administered by a local Afghan relief organization.

Motioning toward the open windows (glass is too expensive and hard to come by in Kabul), Sadat said she could only imagine what it would be like during the coming winter.

Sadat, her husband and five children, ages 1 to 15, are among the 1.5 million refugees who returned this year to Afghanistan; Sadat’s family spent nearly six years in exile in Pakistan. The family’s original home in Kabul was destroyed during the 1996 Taliban takeover. Now the family lives with relatives in one of the poor hillside communities that jut through the center of the city.

Sadat, 35, a soft-spoken and dignified woman, said she is grateful for the temporary work but remains unsure about the future, saying she is particularly anxious that her husband start receiving his salary. He is a police officer who has yet to be paid. “Right now, we have no other income,” she said.

No single experience or life could encapsulate Afghan-istan’s reality at the end of 2002, little more than a year after the Northern Alliance seized Kabul and other major Afghan cities, forcing the Taliban into retreat. Still, Sadat’s story -- return from exile, uncertainty about work, unwelcome pressures -- would resonate with thousands of other Afghans doing their best to keep their families intact, even alive.

“Ordinary people are tired,” said Sima Samar, who heads the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and is director of the Shuhada Organization, an Afghan relief and development group with ties to a number of U.S. churches and relief agencies.

Surveying what has been, charitably, a challenging and difficult year, Samar -- Afghanistan’s former minister of women’s affairs and a participant in the June loya jirga (grand tribal council) -- said Afghanistan’s infrastructure remains depleted and in serious disrepair. The country’s civil society and central government remain fragile, she added, threatened by both a lack of strong international support and the continued strength of local warlords and religious fundamentalists.

“We are not in a position to sustain ourselves,” Samar said in an interview just weeks before the one-year anniversary of the November downfall of the Taliban. “We could go a week [without outside assistance].”

Police kill protesting students

This debilitating sense of uncertainty erupted into full public view in November, when students at Kabul University protested living conditions at the school. In an ensuing incident, police killed three students. Many of the officers were poorly trained and responded with guns rather than tear gas.

The shootings outraged students, who said the incident called into question the credibility of President Hamid Karzai’s government. Their public anger mirrored both private and public doubts by human rights activists and others about the long-term durability and strength of the new government, particularly since warlords remain such a potent force in Afghanistan.

“[Karzai] is in a very precarious situation,” said Paul Butler, who up until October served as country director in Afghanistan for Catholic Relief Services and was in Kandahar when Karzai narrowly escaped a September assassination attempt. “Unless the reliance on the warlord system is addressed and until [the warlords] are disarmed, Karzai’s hold on power will remain tenuous.”

Last month, Karzai took something of an initiative against the warlords when he announced the creation of a national army that his government hopes will supersede the warlords’ authority. Given the warlords’ continued power, it is anyone’s guess whether Karzai’s government will have the strength to enforce the ban against local militia forces.

For its part, the United States has denied that its ongoing military efforts in Afghanistan include resolving disputes between warring factions. B-52 bombings in western Afghanistan in early December, U.S. officials said, were due to attacks on U.S. special forces in the region and had nothing to do with fighting between forces loyal to Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat province and an ethnic Tajik, and Amanullah Khan, a rival warlord who is Pashtun.

But in November, New York-based Human Rights Watch charged that the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan support Khan and that he commands forces responsible for numerous human rights abuses. At the very least, Butler said, a number of Afghans are likely to view the U.S. bombing “cynically” as a show of support for Khan.

Given these and the other developments during 2002 -- the Karzai assassination attempt, a depleted economy, the ongoing U.S.-led war against al Qaeda and Taliban supporters, the return of refugees -- it is something of a miracle that, at year’s end, a kind of stubborn hope persists in Afghanistan: a belief that a country that survived 20 years of foreign domination, a brutal civil war and the rule of the Taliban may yet find its bearings.

Simple pleasures

“You can’t change everything overnight,” said Sarwar Hussaini, 40, who heads the Cooperation Center for Afghanistan, an Afghan human rights organization. In assessing the last year, Hussaini praised signs of a burgeoning media he said in some cities was more progressive than that found in neighboring Pakistan or Iran, as well as the hope and simple daily pleasures many enjoy now that the Taliban’s pernicious rule has ended.

However, Hussaini is not blind to the continued struggles faced by so many in society, perhaps most glaringly by women. Like Samar, an outspoken advocate for women who believes passionately that Afghanistan will never develop fully “until there is recognition of the rights of women.” Hussaini is concerned that “the many barriers” women continue to face, including barriers to education, will continue hobbling the country.

Take the issue of education. Girls may be more eager to learn. During my October visit to the central region of Hazarajat, girls seemed far more attentive than boys and several spoke about the need to catch up in the studies denied them by the Taliban. But many are studying in crowded classrooms, a legacy both of conservative social mores and the fact that in some areas determined girls are returning to classrooms in such large numbers.

Unfortunately, Afghan girls have been greeted with a backlash. In recent weeks, more than a dozen schools for women and girls have been firebombed or set ablaze, the result of anger over the Karzai government’s support of equal education. It is not surprising that “the girls feel the need to take advantage of what they have now,” said Habibullah Habib, a human rights activist with the Cooperation Center. “Who knows what the future may bring?”

That phrase is repeated with some dread about a host of issues, particularly as Afghans contemplate a US-led war against Iraq. Samar and Hussaini are not alone in saying that a war in Iraq could drive Afghanistan, once again, to the abyss it experienced in the 1990s when international neglect, they argue, was a major cause of the brutal civil war that ultimately led to the Taliban’s ascension.

Their fear stems from worry that a war in Iraq, as well as the subsequent reconstruction Iraq will require, will divert attention away from Afghanistan’s needs, which remain considerable and have not received the attention Afghans feel is the country’s due. Afghanistan has yet to see the full $2 billion in assistance that international donors had pledged earlier this year. Afghan representatives attending an international aid conference in Bonn, Germany, earlier this month said Afghanistan would require a minimum of $23 billion in reconstruction assistance during the next five years.

Long-term commitment needed

“The international community has to be serious about a long-term commitment,” Butler said. “The minute we forget about Afghanistan, we’ll be back to the 1990s.”

“Emergencies are event-driven, and determine how much a country is on the radar screen of the donor community and the U.S. government. There’s a real concern that there wouldn’t be many resources left (for Afghanistan),” he said.

It is almost a mantra, this worry about the world forgetting about the needs of Afghanistan -- Hussaini calls it the “the fear of being left alone again” --and it is spoken with a sense of almost raw urgency by those who have seen firsthand what happens when governments and international institutions desert a war-ruined country.

“Afghans have been abandoned several times,” said Marvin Parvez, director of the Afghanistan program for Church World Service, the New York-based Protestant relief and development agency that is sponsoring the Kabul quilt-making project. “They are justifiably afraid that if a war in Iraq takes place, the West will once again abandon Afghanistan.” (Prior to the recent Bonn meeting, the Bush administration said a war in Iraq would not alter the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s reconstruction.)

Even with these worries, however, there has been at least one bright development, relief officials say: the recent congressional approval of a $2.3 billion U.S. reconstruction assistance package, which includes funding for an expansion of the international security forces.

Surveying the last year and looking ahead to 2003, Butler said that aside from strengthening the central government, the most important challenge for Afghanistan is developing a “workable rehabilitation strategy.”

As it is now, most refugees returning from Pakistan, many of them without work or means of support, are congregating in Kabul, taxing a city already burdened with a host of social problems. The city’s population has doubled in the last year to nearly 3 million; traffic is worsening; and the city’s brittle, even shattered, infrastructure is not up to the task of new pressures. Electricity is still rationed, and power outages are common.

The strain on Kabul will continue, Parvez said, as the drought now in its sixth year continues to cause migrations across Afghanistan, with many arriving in Kabul with hopes of finding work.

And while signs of day-to-day pleasures denied during the Taliban era -- flying a kite, listening to music, watching a movie, attending a loud, boisterous Afghan wedding -- are now evident on the streets, a cold, stubborn reality undergirds life in Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan: Most people still have little, if any, sustainable income.

“There may be more in the bazaar, but people still can’t buy food,” said Parvez of Church World Service.

Even with these daunting problems, however, those committed to rebuilding say they are not giving up on Afghanistan. “The government and the process [of nation-building] have survived,” Butler said. “Those are considerable achievements. There was a fear that the country wouldn’t even get through the loya jirga phase. We’ve passed that point.”

Another signpost? A little more than a year ago, Afghan human rights activists like Sarwar Hussaini and Habibullah Habib felt the Taliban might stay in power indefinitely. “We felt trapped, as if there was no solution,” Hussaini said.

“I didn’t feel like a human being,” Habib recalled. “The price of human blood was very cheap. It was the cheapest thing in Afghanistan.”

Chris Herlinger, a free-lance journalist in New York and a communications officer for Church World Service, was recently on assignment in Afghanistan, reporting on the humanitarian situation there.

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 2003