On the surface, a fragile normalcy has returned to the streets of Kabul. Afghan men are shedding the beards that signaled piety under the Taliban theocracy. Music wafts from long-hidden radios, and crowds flock to a reopened cinema showing a long-banned film. Most symbolic of all are broadcasts of the national TV station, back on the air after a four-year blackout. The inaugural newscast was delivered by a woman--minus the burqa mandated by the Taliban's virtue police.
These scenes of liberation provide a psychological boost to the U.S. and its allies as they wage the war on terror. But while the campaign on the battlefield is going better than many expected, with hard-core Taliban fighters isolated in a few pockets of resistance and terrorist leader Osama bin Laden on the run, the images tell only part of the story.
That's because Afghanistan is an economic and political basket case that will take years, if not decades, to sort out. So the U.S. and its allies will have to remain engaged if they are to translate military victory into a peace that will in turn raise America's standing among the millions in the Islamic world who resent what they deem Western intrusion.
Long before the rebuilding of Afghanistan begins, however, the global community will have to find a way to bring the nation's warring parties together. If history is any guide, that won't be easy. Still, there are signs that the U.S. and its allies, using a mixture of diplomacy and arm-twisting, have at least managed to get the various Afghan factions to agree to sit down in one room. At a conclave to be convened Nov. 26 in Berlin, United Nations representatives hope to lay the foundations of a government that would include the plurality Pashtuns from the South and the Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance, which has taken control of Kabul. And to make sure tribal daggers stay sheathed for a while, the U.N. wants Turkey or another Islamic coalition member to deploy troops for a two-year peacekeeping stint, à la Kosovo.
Assuming that a grand tribal conclave can agree on a formula for power-sharing--and that remains a big if--the U.N. can then turn to reconstruction without worrying about aid workers getting caught in a crossfire. Meantime, the agency will convene the first of many international meetings aimed at assembling a financial coalition to underwrite economic aid. Spearheaded by the U.S. and Japan, and including other wealthy nations, the donor group will consider a mini-Marshall Plan for the cratered Afghan economy.
It's a reconstruction job that could dwarf the current military operation, which costs more than $25 million a day. One proposal would provide upwards of $10 billion over 5 to 10 years. But it is a mission Bush Administration planners realize they cannot slough off, even if bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization is shattered. Walking away from the region might cause the country to implode, producing a maelstrom of tribal intrigue, partition--and a breeding ground for a new terror group.
Hence, the U.S. and its allies are girding for the long haul. At a Nov. 20 meeting with representatives of Allied nations and international financial organizations in Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made clear that this exercise in nation-building will require financial angels to dig deep and dig often. "The international community must be prepared to sustain a reconstruction program that will take many years," he said. "This must be a global effort involving East Asia, Europe, the Americas, the Islamic world, and countries in the region."
Moreover, most experts agree that the rebuilding effort cannot stop at Afghanistan's borders. The country sits at the epicenter of one of the world's most volatile regions. Neighboring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan share many of the ailments afflicting Afghanistan: civil unrest, poverty, and despair--a deadly brew that helped spawn the Taliban. Without jobs, thousands of young men could continue to seek solace from the region's warlords and mullahs. Already, Washington has vowed to provide debt relief, improved market access, and other goodies to Pakistan. And the U.S., Japan, and other rich nations are offering similar incentives to the rest of Central Asia.
HUNGER. The reconstruction effort starts with Afghanistan, a nation reeling from 20 years of war. Even before U.S. bombing began, roads, bridges, and irrigation systems were in ruins. Secular education is virtually nonexistent. The U.N. has been delivering 52,000 tons of food a month since October, but much of the population is still malnourished. According to the World Bank, 7 million are at risk of famine. Some 2 million huddle in Pakistan refugee camps.
The first priority is getting food into the country. Branching out from captured cities such as Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, the U.S. hopes that German, British, and French soldiers can quickly establish bases from which supplies can be doled out. But even that will be tricky in a country that, literally and politically, is best viewed as one big minefield. Many Afghanis remain wary of outsiders, mindful of last century's Great Game, in which the major powers routinely redrew the region's borders to create buffer zones. That's one reason the U.S. hopes to keep a low profile and use Islamic peacemaking contingents and international aid groups.
The White House aims to avoid Southeast Asian images of "the ugly American" by following a new model: "the invisible American." A stable Afghanistan "is not going to be achieved by the American military, and it's not even going to be achieved primarily by outsiders," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said on Nov. 18. "If you're a foreigner, try not to go in. And if you go in, don't stay too long."
Apparently, that suits George W. Bush just fine. The President is committed to the pursuit of terrorist networks long after Al Qaeda is crushed. Although such an escalating campaign could lead to the doors of Saddam Hussein's Presidential palace, one top adviser to the White House says Bush is eager "to pursue terrorists outside of Afghanistan and let others take the lead in rebuilding" it.
There may be a price to be paid for this detachment, however. An endless series of U.N. donor meetings could slow the crisis response. Rich Gulf states might refuse to pony up without public pressure from the U.S. And, of course, corruption, a fact of life in Afghanistan, could become an even worse problem if money suddenly showers down on village elders. "If you [just] pump money in, a lot of it ends up where you don't want it to go," says Stephen F. Rasmussen, general manager of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in Islamabad. "It takes a long-term commitment to rebuild a society."
NATIVE TALENT. For the moment, the U.N. is upbeat. "The pool of Afghans we can deploy to begin to move things forward is enormous," says Mark Malloch Brown, administrator for the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), which hopes to entice highly skilled exiles back to the country. "Foreigners will be playing a more subdued role."
The model: a greatly expanded version of the five-year, $6.5 billion U.N. program to aid Mozambique. The project is credited with helping that country recover from a brutal civil war. Afghanistan, with a far bigger pool of doctors, lawyers, and teachers to potentially draw on, seems like a good bet for a reprise. To limit aid ripoffs, the World Bank plans to set up a trust fund to oversee Afghan disbursements.
Still, when the U.N. gets its act together on a donor coalition and starts turning aid chits into real money, relief workers will face a mind-boggling job. Mainly agrarian Afghanistan's gross domestic product has languished at about $2 billion for years, while per capita income, at less than $80 a head, has steadily fallen.
That's a stark contrast with the Afghanistan of 1979. While still poor, back then, the country had verdant orchards and vineyards in the Kandahar plain, plantings that accounted for 35% of export earnings. Indeed, Afghan grapes and melons are still considered the finest in South Asia. Kabul was once a bustling city of wide, tree-lined boulevards. Women comprised 70% of the nation's teachers, and female students accounted for 50% of the enrollment of Kabul University, where they studied side by side with males.
Today, the nation is in ruins, and the professionals needed to staff reopened ministries of education, transportation, and health have mostly fled. One hope is that the return of exiled King Mohammed Zahir Shah will lure them back.
The U.N. will focus first on critical infrastructure. According to the UNDP, an interim program of public-works spending alone would run in excess of $650 million and then mushroom to far more. Kamal Matinuddin, former director of the Islamabad Institute of Strategic Studies, reckons it could ultimately cost as much as $10 billion just to rebuild roads and bridges.
The U.N. is also expected to resume an alternative-crop program designed to persuade Afghan farmers to restore ruined agricultural plots--and to grow wheat rather than opium poppies. The Taliban intermittently banned poppy cultivation, but with regional warlords swaggering around the countryside again, large-scale planting could resume soon. Even before U.S. bombs began falling on Afghanistan, the UNDP was working with farmers to improve agricultural productivity. And that kind of work will need to be expanded manyfold once the situation is stabilized. "A lot of the social glue is at the village level," notes a World Bank official. By targeting the grass roots, "you can achieve a lot."
Afghanistan's schools pose another headache. Apart from a few run covertly, only madrassahs, or religious academies, have flourished. Many schools have been shuttered or turned into arms depots. As a result, the illiteracy rate is now 80%. That grim statistic, plus the brain drain of professional elites, has left a populace more willing than able to lift itself by its bootstraps. "You have a whole generation [that's] not educated," laments Knut Ostby, the UNDP's senior deputy representative to Afghanistan. "It's going to take almost a whole generation [to restore society] again."
With the shape of a post-Taliban regime murky, few Afghans in Pakistan are ready to rush home. Consider Zahar Zaba, a 27-year-old women's-rights activist who left Jalalabad 20 years ago with her family. She claims former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is back in Kabul angling for influence, has a track record of repressing women that is scarcely better than the Taliban's. "Now, there are a few women on TV," she says. "But this isn't the reality."
Members of the anti-terror coalition realize that Afghanistan's list of woes seems as endless as the nation's tribal intrigue. But they're determined to give reconstruction a go--if only to show that there are tangible rewards to be earned in resisting terrorists. Still, the U.N. has a ways to go to turn the Allies' clucks of concern into hard cash. In October, the agency sought $664 million for a six-month Afghan-relief effort. To date, only $279 million has been received.
Although the drive for financial support grinds slowly, headway is being made. Japan has pledged $37 million in food aid for refugees and just announced that it will extend an additional $300 million over two years to help coalition partner Pakistan with health and education needs. In late November, Japan was to co-host a meeting of 35 nations to discuss long-term aid for Afghanistan. Britain and France are expected to make major new commitments as well.
To the White House, assembling a mega-aid package is the surest way to win over Afghan warlords. "We will use that postwar aid as leverage to ensure that a coalition government is formed that meets our expectations," says a Bush adviser. "One reason we got into trouble here in the first place was our laissez-faire attitude toward the mujahideen" after Russia's Afghan invasion.
To some Central Asia hands, though, the Administration's game plan--while sober, subtle, and financially ambitious--still represents a monumental commitment for a coalition that may lose momentum if Osama bin Laden is laid low and the military campaign moves on. In that case, "attention may switch to other parts of the world," frets Paula R. Newberg, former special U.N. adviser on Afghanistan. While the Allies are vowing to rebuild the nation's shattered economy, she adds, "recent history suggests that has never been a high priority."
Newberg has a point. But it's also true that the world has seldom seen the kind of concerted international action that the U.S. has mustered to combat the terrorist threat. What remains to be seen is whether all that energy will translate into the kind of sustained aid that would put Afghanistan back on its feet--and boost Washington's credibility in a largely hostile world.
By Lee Walczak and Stan Crock in Washington and Frederik Balfour in Islamabad, with bureau reports