Not Even the Afghans Know How to Fix It

By Edward P. Joseph
Sunday, February 15, 2009

At the Jihad Museum in Herat, the ancient Afghan city not far from the Iranian border, the main attraction was just about ready: a 360-degree diorama showing mujaheddin being slaughtered by, and then slaughtering, the Soviet invaders of the 1980s.

I recently visited the exhibit during a seven-week mission to evaluate a U.S. program assisting local governments in Afghanistan. On our way out of the museum, we bumped into a prominent mujahed fighter and his entourage. When an American in our group told him that the United States would never forget the Afghan fighters' struggle against the Soviets, he smiled and nodded proudly. "And we also can never forget your fight against the Taliban now," the American added. With that, the mujahed's smile vanished -- and so did he, with all his people, after an awkward goodbye.

But why? One of the Afghans among us guessed that some of the men traveling with the mujahed were members of the Taliban -- who'd probably like the Jihad Museum's next diorama to show Americans in ignominious retreat. But no one was sure.

No one is sure about anything in Afghanistan these days. In contrast to other hot spots where I've worked -- Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo -- the debate in Afghanistan is not only over what to do, but whether to do anything at all.

The breadth of disagreement is startling: Some say that nation-building is a mistake; others believe that it is the only way to defeat the Taliban-led insurgency. One U.S. official told me that we should stop trying to push democratic institutions on a country with such a strong tribal culture, while an equally savvy Afghan American insisted just the opposite. Women's rights activists begged for our support, saying that they feared for their lives, but tribal leaders demanded that they be left alone to deal with their women as they see fit. "We are tribal people, and we don't need your women's programs," one declared. Unlike Iraqis and Bosnians, Afghans can't even agree on whether ethnic divisions still exist in their country or whether they are the invention of ferangi -- meddlesome foreigners.

All this confusion over such fundamental questions vastly complicates Washington's efforts at developing an effective policy toward Afghanistan.

Wherever we went, from chilly government offices to mud-walled village homes, I would bluntly ask Afghans what we foreigners are doing wrong. Some said that we were killing too many civilians. Others said that we were destroying too many villages and should really be guarding the border with Pakistan. Still others insisted that we'd "picked" the wrong people to run the country.

Dismissing the many roads, bridges and schools built with U.S. funds, the head of a non-governmental organization in Kabul, the capital, offered a particularly cutting comment. "The Russians, they built big things -- dams, tunnels, things that employed lots of people," he said. "You Americans don't have one project like this." You know you're in trouble when a failed Soviet invasion looks good by comparison.

Everywhere I went, people complained about corruption. "The government is corrupt from A to Z," said a road contractor working in one of the most dangerous provinces. The pressure, he explained, begins with "suggestions" that he hire officials' relatives and friends and rent vehicles only from certain providers; it ends with the officials telling him exactly how big a cut of his profits they'll take to let the project continue.

From high government officials to villagers in the countryside, Afghans are learning how to play the game and how to game the system. We met one provincial minister of economy who resorted to development jargon to evade allegations about his corruption. In halting English, he told us how important it was to "involve stakeholders" and "build capacity" so that the provincial government could "take ownership" of its development. He definitely seemed to have the desire to take ownership, but whether it extended beyond ownership of the aid funds was not so clear.

The economy minister of another impoverished province told me that his first priority was to build a university. "But Minister, most of the people in this province are illiterate," I said, incredulous. He changed the subject. Aid workers told me that officials routinely push for such big-ticket items because there's so much more room for graft.

Beyond that, many government officials lack even the most basic skills. An Afghan aid worker told me that 90 percent of local leaders in Kandahar province can't read, and a U.S. official said that she often saw thumbprints instead of signatures on important documents. Many of these officials don't venture out into their own districts because they're afraid of being attacked; others just can't be bothered to ever leave their offices.

I'll never forget a meeting with a brave but worried Afghan engineer. He described the terror of driving into remote areas, past Taliban checkpoints, as he attempted to build a small canal and a footbridge. He dressed in local garb, drove an inconspicuous vehicle and hid the fact that he worked for a U.S. contractor. In spite of those precautions, he had recently been shot at and narrowly escaped with his life.

I wondered why the villagers would attack him or permit the Taliban to do so. "If you are helping them build a bridge or dig a canal, don't they realize that if they shoot you, they will lose the project?" I asked. Perhaps, the engineer speculated, the shooters "come from outside." But then he shrugged and admitted: "I don't really know."

And there's the crux of the matter. Because if Afghans don't know, then neither do we.

Edward P. Joseph, a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has worked in conflict-affected countries for more than a dozen years.

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