In Afghanistan, the foreigners used to say, You gotta know a warlord. U.S. special forces arriving one year ago relied on the reconnaissance of longtime mujahideen fighters to defeat the Taliban and rout al-Qaeda terrorists.
After the U.S. military campaign, relief workers could not set up clinics and feeding stations without permission from dozens of ethnic militias controlling outlying regions. Journalists discovered they could not head out from their Kabul hotels without paying for warlord protection.
With the installation of an interim government led by Hamid Karzai and the injection of millions of Western dollars in aid, many believe that is no longer the case. But for those who are remaking Afghanistan, working the system remains at least as difficult as funding the work. Only a long-term commitment will sustain the past year's fledgling attempts at democratic government and reconstruction.
Congress this month is contemplating an extended commitment to Afghanistan: $2 billion in foreign aid over the next four years for rebuilding the country, plus another $1 billion for maintaining peacekeeping forces. But with war in Iraq looming, insiders worry that Afghanistan will become simply last year's war.
Earlier this month U.S. Ambassador Robert P. Finn and President Karzai presided over groundbreaking for a $250 million highway project. The United States will provide $80 million toward the construction of Highway 1, a 625-mile stretch from Kabul to Kandahar to Herat. Workers expect that the project will take three years to complete.
The route flanks central mountains through a waterless desert, a vital--if battered--artery linking the capital with the country's remote northwest. The existing roadway was built by the Russians in the 1950s but now stands rutted with tank tracks, cratered by bombs, and beset with landmines. Beyond the physical obstacles are the political hurdles to reconstruction: The road will traverse territory currently controlled by the central Karzai government, through the former headquarters of the Taliban in Kandahar, and wind up in Herat, the stronghold of Tajik warlord Ismael Khan.
Success under the circumstances requires staying power and large-scale cooperation. New highways, along with electricity and education, are the big-ticket items for Western donor states that pledged $4.5 billion in reconstruction aid at a January summit in Tokyo.
In addition to the United States, Japan and Saudi Arabia have together pledged $100 million to the Kabul-Herat project. Afghan Reconstruction Company will begin the first 30 miles of road outside Kabul. Additional work is contracted to Louis Berger Group, the New JerseyÐbased engineering firm that designed the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will contract with a UN agency to remove landmines as construction proceeds, much as the United States did in Bosnia after fighting ended there. Already U.S. forces have repaired more than 2,000 miles of highway since overthrowing the Taliban government last December.
Elsewhere, Italy has pledged $50 million to rebuild another key road from Kabul to the central city of Bamiyan, and the European Union is beginning work on a road from Kabul to Jalalabad in the east. Iran is rebuilding the road west from Herat toward the Iranian border, while the Asian Development Bank plans to finance a road from Kandahar to Spinboldak on the border with Pakistan.
Roadway projects are essential to opening the country to other development, but there are no shortcuts on the road to normalcy after 23 years of war. Relief efforts are prospering in the only way they prosper anywhere: when imported aid workers build good relations by demonstrating respect along with more than short-term commitment to local Afghans.
That is especially true for Christian organizations working in the country. The Taliban arrested and jailed Christian aid workers from the German relief group Shelter Now, including Americans Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, prior to the war for sharing Christian literature and videos with Afghans. Even with the Taliban ousted, Christian workers are careful not to provoke the country's Muslim leadership.
"When I'm asked about evangelism in Afghanistan, I stress instead the need to aggressively learn the language," said John Weaver, an American aid worker in Afghanistan since 1998. "Most relief groups are not doing that, even though it is essential to building bridges."
With the country "in survival mode," he said, Christian groups are welcomed--by warlords and transitional government leaders alike--if they can do good work. "Anyone who is in the country doing relief work should do it to the best of their ability. And they should share who they are, including their faith, because that is what is expected of them," he said.
Mr. Weaver heads Shelter for Life, a U.S.-based organization once affiliated with Shelter Now. He also authored the recent book Inside Afghanistan. Mr. Weaver lived in Northern Alliance areas under control of Ahmed Shah Massoud when al-Qaeda operatives killed the general, just a few miles from Mr. Weaver's home, in a Sept. 9, 2001, bomb attack. "On Sept. 11 we were considering evacuation because the Taliban was ready to take over Massoud territory. When we got news of the attacks in New York, we instantly knew it was all connected to Sept. 9." The Taliban was poised to take over the country, he said, "but the attack on the United States instead proved to be its downfall."
With support from USAID, Shelter for Life is rebuilding houses in Nahrin and nearby villages destroyed when an earthquake hit that region last March. The group is also involved in drought and war-relief efforts in northern and western Afghanistan. The work is succeeding, he said, "because we are working alongside the villagers. We are supplying the tools and materials, but they are doing the work."
Samaritan's Purse, the North Carolina agency headed by Franklin Graham, also is making headway with locals, including Uzbek warlords, by involving locals in hospital and school projects. One Afghan commander in Mazar-e-Sharif said the group "has shown more compassion to the people and done more work than all the UN and other NGO groups in the region combined."
Because of the total devastation in Afghanistan, most charities need government support for long-range development. Since the war began in October 2001, the U.S. government has provided $588 million for humanitarian aid and reconstruction projects. Nonmilitary aid efforts are shouldered largely by USAID operating under the State Department. Besides funding large public works, like highway construction, the agency subcontracts relief work to private, including faith-based, groups. Projects range from electricity-generating windmills to chairs, desks, and textbooks for newly reopened schools.
Dan Cooper, a Chicago investment broker working with International Foundation of Hope, says that even with proper government funding, most projects cannot succeed unless they "employ trusted Afghans who put the health of the country first." Plenty of warlords and ethnic leaders, he said, don't fit that definition.
With USAID backing, IF Hope is working to repair and rebuild a farm and canal system in eastern Afghanistan started under the Soviet Union prior to its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The farm once employed 10,000 people. Under war with the Soviets and then civil war, it fell into the hands of opium producers and eventually became defunct. "To build accountability and infrastructure, you must have people who are right and honest," said Mr. Cooper.
One of the results of U.S. military and CIA alignment with ethnic groups who fought the Taliban, according to Mr. Cooper, is that "we liberate Afghanistan but we continue to empower bad guys." That means U.S. special forces must serve as bodyguards around Mr. Karzai, protecting him not only from remnant al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, but also from rival factions. "We have to be willing to undertake a long commitment," said Mr. Cooper, "and that is something the United States has never been good at."
Mr. Weaver, on the other hand, sees signs that even the warlords are changing. "There may be some who rule with an iron fist," he said, "but many have been disarmed, and they are no longer taking territory." Those are important advances bought by the U.S. war against the Taliban and its ongoing military presence. But humanitarians agree that the road is long and winding on the way to making a lasting difference.