News

5 years after U.S. invasion, Afghanistan unsettled

Phillip O'Connor
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Children gather outside of the Pachakhyel mosque located on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, after finishing their afternoon prayers. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

KABUL, Afghanistan--On a recent morning, Maj. Mark Roper and a squad of National Guard soldiers moved out through the security barricades that protect Camp Phoenix, a major U.S. military base here. Roper, a civil affairs officer, planned to visit a handful of U.S.-funded reconstruction projects in the surrounding town of Udh Kheyl and figure out what else America can do to help rebuild a country devastated by three decades of war.

Over the next three hours, Roper, 48, a tall, broad-chested Oklahoman with close-cropped hair, visited two mosques, a power plant and a school.

The inspection tour provided evidence that in the five years since American and other coalition forces toppled the Taliban government, some progress is being made to rebuild the nation's shattered infrastructure.

But the tour also revealed that despite more than $4.3 billion in U.S. reconstruction aid, efforts to make the kind of tangible improvements that U.S. military and government officials believe are crucial to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people are hampered by cultural barriers, corruption, red tape, shoddy work and deteriorating security.

Afghans, too, are frustrated. While many are thankful for the ongoing improvements, some express dissatisfaction about the slow pace of progress and about promises they believe have not been kept. Some worry that Americans will leave Afghanistan before the work is finished. Several said they fear that without improved security, their country once again will fall under the influence of a resurgent Taliban.

The United States made a good deal of progress in reconstruction after the Taliban was overthrown but it since has run into problems, says Rick Barton, who is completing a study of Afghanistan for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"What it did was get Afghanistan out of a hole," Barton said. "Now that they're out of that hole, their expectations are greater." Those raised expectations aren't being met, in part because the United States hasn't adjusted its approach, Barton said.

"We're not in as many places in the country as we should be," he said, adding that reconstruction now needs to focus on "human capital" -- such as helping to pay the salaries of teachers and judges to fill the classrooms and courthouses that have been built.

Udh Kheyl (ood-KEEL) is a town of 35,000 a few miles east of Kabul, and well within that city's sprawl. Most of the people live in mud huts. Electricity is sporadic, where it exists at all.

Roper is a member of the Oklahoma National Guard, charged with building relationships with people who live near the base. One of his main tools is U.S. reconstruction money, which he can dole out as he sees fit.

At the Suliaman Khail mosque, his first inspection stop, Roper looked over a recent $22,000 renovation that included a fresh coat of paint, a new roof, shade porch, water well and other improvements. Roper was unhappy with some of the work. He told his interpreter that the Afghan contractor needed to come back and put on more paint.

Maroof, a thin young man with wispy whiskers, complained that the building lacked electricity.

Roper tried to explain that no one had asked for electricity. "I only do what I'm told. I'm not a mind reader," Roper told the man.

"They always want more," Roper said as he walked away.

Roper next stopped at the Hotkhyel power station, where the plant manager, Mohammadi Zaman, said the Afghan government still had not delivered a 20-megawatt transformer that had been promised. Homes and shops in the area receive electricity only for six to eight hours a day, he said.

Zaman said he also needed a new control station, switchboards and new transmission wire to increase the amount of electricity available to the surrounding community. As the plant manager's wish list grew, Roper cut Zaman off, told him to put his request in writing and said he would forward the information to the government's electricity minister.

Zaman, who tugged at his long black beard during the conversation, later said: "Whoever comes to Afghanistan to help, they have to be fast enough. They have to give jobs to a lot of people, reopen the factories, and that will prevent a lot of suicide attacks and anti-government and anti-U.S. (sentiment). If the people have something to do and have work, the country will be stable."

On down the rutted and sewage-splattered road at the Ali Ahmad Khan Popal High School, Roper was miffed to find that 14 wooden buildings erected in the past two years at a cost of $60,000 had fallen into disrepair. Window screens were torn, and paint peeled from the temporary structures built to replace tents that had served as classrooms.

"These all looked great six months ago," Roper said.

More than 3,700 students attend the school, the only one in Udh Kheyl.

Roper expects to soon receive $400,000 to build two new schools, and he wants to make sure he gets the best use out of the money. He wants to build a school on the opposite side of busy Jalalabad Road to reduce overcrowding, get children out of the open air and prevent them from having to cross the highway. About 20 people, including children, die each year trying to cross the busy thoroughfare, Roper said. Some parents refuse to send their children to school because of the dangerous traffic, he said.

Roper also wants to build a separate school for girls, who were denied the opportunity for education under the Taliban. School officials told Roper that 700 girls attend the school. But on this day, not a single girl is visible among the hundreds of children who scamper across the dusty courtyard, although Roper says they are present.

The Afghans argued against Roper's plan. They wanted the money spent at the current school site.

After 15 minutes of back and forth, Roper's jaw tightened and his lips thinned as he grew more frustrated.

"Part of the problem is figuring out exactly what they need," Roper said. "Depending on who you talk to, you get different stories. They're very territorial. They want immediate gratification for their area. They don't think about the needs of the village or the needs of the province or the needs of the country. That's where I've got to come in and try to figure out, `Well, I see you have needs. What can I do to help you out?' But how can I also help big picture things? That slows progress."

Mohammad Nazir, 45, the school's headmaster, said he appreciated the American help but complained about corrupt aid organizations and Afghan government offices that he believes are diverting money into their own pockets.

He said that the United States must provide peace and stability and that many Afghans once again are fleeing the country to escape the escalating violence.

"We need security," Nazir said.

Clearly, there are success stories. Across the country, highways, schools, clinics, hospitals, orphanages and other projects have been built or refurbished by American troops and other U.S. assistance.

One bright spot is Rabia Balkhi Hospital, one of only two government-run women's hospitals in Afghanistan. It sits in the center of Kabul, just off Froshga Street and down a darkened alley barely wide enough for an SUV to pass through.

Outside the hospital's locked gate recently, Afghans lined the walls, some waiting to be admitted, others to learn the fate of relatives being treated inside. Each month, the hospital treats about 3,000 patients.

Hospital director Najia Tariq told how just a few years ago, wood stoves used for heat would sometimes fill the building with smoke. Power blackouts cast operating rooms into darkness in the middle of surgeries, she said. Decrepit water and sewage systems made infection control almost impossible. The hospital often lacked medicines. Dust, soot and dried blood covered filthy halls and patient rooms.

Today, thanks to a $1.9 million renovation overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the hospital's buildings have fresh paint, a consistent power and heat source, refurbished plumbing and other improvements. Doctors now perform hysterectomies and gallbladder and kidney surgeries once considered too dangerous. Aid organizations also have contributed medicines.

"Now when our patients come, they don't wait," Tariq said.

The improvements are having a measurable impact. In 2004, the hospital's newborn mortality rate was 11 per 1,000. Today, the figure is less than 6 per 1,000.

Dr. Anis Azizi, a pediatrician, noted the opening of schools, clinics, road improvements and other development projects.

"Not only in hospital, but in all of Afghanistan the situation has become very better," he said.

Azizi, 55, a short man with a trimmed white beard and owlish eyes, said the recent increase in violence, especially the suicide attacks that have begun to plague Kabul, are not the tactics of a resurgent Taliban, but of a defeated enemy.

"A person who wants to kill himself, it means that they are at their last point. It means they are very weak," he said.

Although the United States and NATO have not said they will be leaving Afghanistan any time soon, Azizi is one of many here who worry about the departure of foreign forces. If that happened, he said, it would plunge his hospital and his nation back into appalling conditions.

"The terrorists will come back, and it will be dangerous for the people of Afghanistan and dangerous for other people of the world," he said.

Tariq agreed.

"We need your help," she said.

She knows she could be a target for the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who filter into the city to launch attacks and kidnap and kill collaborators.

"It is not important to me," she said. "We want peace, we want our kids to go to school, we want educated people and in the future to be in the line of developed countries."

She said, "I worry about my security, about my safety, but I'm helping my people and helping my country."

Roper finished his tour of Udh Kheyl at the Pachakhyel mosque, which the Americans spent $87,000 to build. The mosque's white walls still look fresh. Roses and other flowers bloom in a newly planted garden in the enclosed courtyard. Roper said he considers the project an unqualified success.

"All the people with influence attend the mosque," Roper said. "If we give them a nice place to gather and get the word out that we helped build it, it helps us. It's a win-win."

He said he'd received nothing but positive feedback from the community about the new building.

Omar Khan, the town elder, agreed.

"The most important thing is that they helped us," Khan said. "They are good people. That they build Islamic things for us is so important. We are Muslims, and they help us. We don't forget this for a hundred, hundred, thousand, thousand years."

As he walked back toward Camp Phoenix, sweat pouring from beneath his Kevlar helmet, Roper said the work he is doing here is the most frustrating yet rewarding of his 30-year military career. He said he might retire from his civilian job as a systems analyst for Texas Instruments in Dallas and seek to return to Afghanistan as a United Nations employee or aid worker.

"Yeah there's frustration, but I wouldn't trade it for anything," he said. "When you see a project completed, no matter what the project is, you get satisfaction because you see the joy in the faces of people you do it for."

___

HELPING AFGHANISTAN

Total aid: $3.7 billion

Includes:

EDUCATION -- $258 million

524 schools built or refurbished

10,500 teachers trained

HEALTH -- $293 million

7.4 million Afghans with improved access to basic health services

539 clinics or other health facilities built or refurbished

7,575 health workers trained

INFRASTRUCTURE -- $1.3 billion

1,000 km. of provincial, district and rural roads completed or under construction

Kajakai hydroelectric dam rehabbed

AGRICULTURE -- $192 million

28,000 loans to small businesses, 75 percent to women

28 million livestock vaccinated/treated

1.2 million acres of land got improved irrigation

___

(St. Louis Post-Dispatch correspondent Philip Dine contributed to this report.)

___

NOTE: Five years ago, U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban in what would be the first battleground in the war on terror. Since then, thousands of troops have remained on the ground in Afghanistan and the United States has poured in billions of dollars to build democracy, increase security, and rebuild roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. Post-Dispatch reporter Phillip O'Connor traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 to chronicle the hardship and the hope of Afghans caught in the crossfire. On Oct. 5, O'Connor and Post-Dispatch photographer David Carson returned to Afghanistan to find out how U.S. efforts are progressing. This is the first in a series of reports.

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