By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
PAGHMAN, Afghanistan -- When pledges of foreign aid began pouring into Afghanistan after the collapse of Taliban rule in late 2001, Mohammed Latif Kokan was sure he would soon be rid of the artillery shell fragments that had lodged in his shoulder during the Soviet military occupation of the 1980s.
More than four years later, the shrapnel is still there; no physician in Afghanistan has the facilities or expertise to remove it. Likewise, Kokan said this week, few of the promises made then for rebuilding schools, hospitals and public works have materialized.
"When it gets cold, I feel the pain," said the grizzled truck driver, 50, who lives in this hillside village about 25 miles west of Kabul, the capital. "We had been very hopeful. But in the past four years, nothing has happened at all. Our leaders get the money, and they put it in their pockets."
As Afghan officials and representatives of more than 60 other nations gather Tuesday in London to forge a new compact for rebuilding Afghanistan over the next five years, they are expected to point to the progress that has begun to remake Afghanistan: new highways, disarmed militias, an elected president and parliament, and schools open to both boys and girls.
But they will also need to respond to criticism from people like Kokan, whose perception of a wide gap between promises and results is shared by many Afghans. Although billions of dollars have been spent, sentiment is growing that much of the aid has benefited officials and a small, wealthy elite, leaving scraps for the millions who remain in dire poverty.
More than a third of rural families lack enough food for at least part of the year. Life expectancy is only 45; infant and maternal mortality are as high as in the poorest African countries. And the female literacy rate -- below 20 percent nationwide, less than 1 percent in some provinces -- remains the world's lowest.
But there are reasons for optimism. The legal economy has grown by 85 percent since the extremist Taliban regime was forced from power. School enrollments have quadrupled to 6 million pupils, a third of whom are girls. Inflation has fallen, the currency is stable and urban commerce is booming. Warring factional militias have been replaced by a national army and police force.
"What has happened here the last few years is a major success story. But we're not under any illusion that it's in the bag," said Richard B. Norland, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. "We recognize fully that there are still major, major problems to be resolved. And it could slide backwards."
The two-day conference in London is a chance for the world to recommit to Afghanistan. Several senior international figures are expected to speak, including U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
It will also be an opportunity to chart a road map for the country's future. In December, the seating of the new parliament successfully completed the plan, outlined at a 2001 conference in Bonn, for a U.N.-supervised transition to democracy.
While the Bonn accord was primarily a political document, the Afghanistan Compact slated for approval in London is much more focused on economic development. It will lay out specific benchmarks for growth in the next five years and will detail how international donors and the Afghan government should work together. A commission composed of Afghan and international officials will be created to make sure aid money is well spent.
One expected change is that Afghan officials will be given more control over the management and disbursement of aid funds. The World Bank reported last week that only 25 percent of aid to Afghanistan was flowing through the government, hindering its ability to budget and plan reconstruction.
At a breakfast with reporters in Kabul this month, President Hamid Karzai criticized aid organizations for wasting funds, saying that his government could manage them better and that too much was spent "on high salaries, on overhead charges, on luxury vehicles, on luxury houses and lots of other luxuries that Afghanistan cannot afford."
But the Afghan government has been criticized, too. Many Afghans say they believe corrupt officials are doling out the spoils of reconstruction -- from building contracts to highly paid office jobs -- to friends and relatives, while people without connections struggle to make ends meet and even skilled public employees such as teachers and doctors earn less than $40 a month.
"I don't have a home of my own," said Mohammed Ibrahim, 27, a porter in Logar City, about an hour's drive south of Kabul. "The governor distributed a lot of land, but he gave it to his own people. Not to the poor people who need it."
Ibrahim acknowledged that at least one thing has gotten better: The rocky dirt road that once ran between Logar and Kabul has been replaced by a smooth asphalt highway. In Paghman, too, a new blacktop path has helped spark business as it becomes easier for tourists to drive here and take in the picturesque mountain views.
Ishaq Nadiri, Karzai's senior economic adviser, said the new roads improve security by giving insurgents fewer places to hide. He said they also undermine Afghan poppy production -- which now supplies 87 percent of the world's opium and employs hundreds of thousands of people -- by making it easier for farmers to get such crops as melons or wheat to market.
Nadiri said a major focus of the London meeting will be eliminating the narco-economy and replacing it with legal crops that allow farmers to earn a decent living. Karzai and others have said recently that unless Afghanistan gets control of the drug problem, all redevelopment efforts here could be for naught.
"Development so far has been urban-centric, unfortunately. And that's exactly what we want to avoid," Nadiri said. "Afghanistan's economy has been and will be dependent on the growth of agriculture and our rural areas. That's where most of our poor live. That's where most of our people live. So we can make a big dent by changing the nature of our agriculture."