By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The U.S. has delivered only a small fraction of the amount the Afghan government says it needs to have a chance at stability, and it doesn’t even come close to approaching the World Bank’s more modest estimate ($10 billion to $15 billion over five years), but Kunder assures me that “there is only so much foreign aid that the institutions of this country will absorb on a sustainable basis. It is not an excuse, it is a fact of life in this environment to know that there is only so much aid you can dump in without distorting the economy or spurring corruption.”
This is likely true, but Afghans would insist that it is precisely why they need more resources to help create functioning institutions. That said, the U.S. is doing a lot in Afghanistan. The administration has pumped millions of dollars into rebuilding the country’s ring-road system. USAID is building 1,000 elementary schools around the country and 550 rural health clinics, and plans to spend over $100 million on an agricultural reconstruction project. The problem is, almost everyone outside the embassy walls will agree, it’s not nearly enough.
Kunder insists that though Afghanistan has dropped out of the headlines, the administration’s commitment has never waned: “Behind the scenes, people have been working very hard. Progress has been steady, effort has been sustained, resources have been forthcoming.” I don’t remind him that, though the Bush administration authorized over $3 billion in aid to Afghanistan for 2003, when Bush got around to submitting his budget to Congress, he requested exactly zero dollars. Congress ultimately approved about $350 million, which would have been all Afghanistan received if Bush hadn’t promised another billion, which, though Kunder denies it, he presumably did because, given our entanglement in Iraq, he couldn’t afford further embarrassment in Afghanistan.
Before I leave Kunder, I ask him if USAID really plans to let CARE’s funding for Kabul’s water project expire. “Bitter experience” with past legal trouble, he tells me, has taught him not to talk to the media about grant contracts. Two days before it was set to expire, after months of lobbying by CARE, USAID agreed to renew the project’s funding.
The road leading southeast from Kabul looks fairly unremarkable — an unpainted ribbon of asphalt no wider than an L.A. side street. A few miles southeast of here it gives way to a rutted dirt track that leads all the way to Kandahar, about 300 miles away. Here, the highway sits at the base of a wide, flat valley, surrounded on all sides by craggy mountains the same color as the crumbling mud ruins that line the road, so heavily bombed that they more resemble geologic formations than any structures conceived by humans. Alongside the highway are all the usual features of the central Afghan landscape: hillside cemeteries bristling with the green flags that mark the graves of martyrs, the occasional herd of camels or rusted Russian tank, the low-slung tents of Kuchi nomads, rocks painted red to warn of minefields. Electric poles stretch along the valley floor, but no wires hang between them.
Today, though, this narrow stretch of tar and stone will be the excuse for a grand and intricately staged performance: The president is coming.
Standing in a small paved enclosure with 18 journalists and a guard of half a dozen Afghans armed with M-16s, Roy Glover, a plump, friendly public affairs officer from the American Embassy, explains why we’re all here. Bush promised Karzai that the Kandahar leg of the ring road would be paved by the end of the year; USAID is now devoting about 30 percent of its budget to getting the job done. “This is just to show that there has been progress on the road,” Glover says. “There’s an impression in the international media that nothing is happening here.”
Several hundred Afghan police officers with Kalashnikovs fan out into the hills. Some line the road, others disappear behind rocks and clumps of trees. Another couple dozen Afghans — better fed and much better equipped than the policemen — loiter nearby. About 100 flak-jacketed Americans with assault rifles are scattered about as well, a combination of Special Forces, the State Department’s elite security unit, and Karzai’s personal bodyguards — private sector mercenaries contracted by the State Department to protect the president.
After a two-hour wait, a helicopter appears from behind the mountains, a Black Hawk. It circles the valley twice before five more helicopters appear behind it. In each one, a gunner leans out the open door. All of them land but the Black Hawk, which flies low and menacing around the perimeter of the valley. If this is a show of progress, it is also a show of something else.
The journalists are bused a couple miles down the road to the work site, where a dump truck filled with asphalt, a couple steamrollers and a few laborers in orange vests await. Karzai follows in a convoy of Land Cruisers, two of them with Americans on their roofs clutching heavy machine guns. Police armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades line the road. The tar is still wet, and sticks to the journalists’ shoes.