The condition of Shah Bobo Jan Street, like the vast majority of streets in this city of 5 million people, is mostly the result of decades of neglect by successive regimes and a civil war in the 1990s that left Kabul a shambles. But only recently have international donors, including the United States, made the Afghan capital’s streets a priority: In the past two years, about 120 miles have been paved in a city that covers 100 square miles.
For many Kabul residents, that provides reason for even more cynicism about a U.S.-led nation-building venture. In their eyes, it has created a corrupt and indifferent government that leaves the common people literally in the dirt — with roads that generate choking dust in the summer and rivers of muck during winter’s snow melt and heavy rain.
“Fifty percent of the money that came here went into the pockets of specific, powerful people,” said Abdul Wakil, a metalworker who bicycled precariously down Shah Bobo Jan recently. “They can make such high buildings, but they can’t make a road in front of their building?”
As is the case across Afghanistan, though, progress in making Kabul more livable rests mainly on a negotiated peace with the Taliban. Without a settlement, many analysts foresee the country collapsing again into civil war after U.S. and foreign troops turn responsibility for security over to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
Economic aid is expected to drop, and development groups — including those that build roads — would be more likely to leave. International donors, betting on peace, have committed $16 billion to Afghanistan over the next four years, but the process for delivering the dollars has become stricter — and slower — given previous waste and checkered returns on investment.
Where did the billions go?
In a decade, the U.S. Agency for International Development spent nearly $1.6 billion in Kabul province on wide-ranging programs — health, education, business development and government reform — much of which benefited the capital.
But U.S. officials say they intentionally focused transportation improvement elsewhere, building national and regional highways to stitch together the country’s major cities. USAID says it spent $2 billion over 10 years since the 2001 fall of the Taliban to build 1,200 miles of road in Afghanistan, but not in the traffic-snarled capital.
“In Kabul, nothing was done,” said Mayor Muhammad Yunus Nawandish, an energetic engineer whom President Hamid Karzai appointed to office three years ago.