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Digging in

Afghanistan | With the other war dominating the headlines, the armies of compassion in Afghanistan battle to sustain the good work they have begun. They know there are no shortcuts on the road to normalcy

Issue: "Unions: Dues and don'ts," Nov. 30, 2002

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.

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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.

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