The last time Sonali Kolhatkar was in Afghanistan, she was in a race to reach Kabul. With only 24 hours to catch her international flight, she threw on a burqa and jumped into a taxi with an escort and her colleague-who had grown a beard prior to the trip. "Whatever you do, don't appear non-Afghan and be prepared to make up a story about why you are here," they were told.
Armed groups halted their trek twice but they arrived safely in Kabul. That was in 2005. Today that same road, the Kabul-Kandahar highway, is even more risky, Kolhatkar said: "Taxi drivers will charge a thousand dollars cash to take you across it because it has become way too dangerous."
As the war in Iraq has snatched center stage, the war in Afghanistan is all but forgotten. A recent rise in violence has called attention to NATO's mission in the war-torn country-and to stepped-up U.S. regional initiatives to bring sucessful closure. During an unannounced visit to Afghanistan in February, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attempted to counter growing concerns: "If you look at the Afghanistan of 2001 and the Afghanistan of now, there is a remarkable difference for the better."
The Department of Defense has statistics to back up the claim: At least 4.7 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan, more than 500 schools have been built, 5 million students are enrolled in school, and 700,000 cases of malaria have been treated successfully since 2001.
But many people who work in Afghanistan-both locals and international non-governmental organization (NGO) workers-paint a bleaker picture of the state of affairs since the U.S-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime in 2001. Economic progress and democratic freedoms have arrived in painfully slow trickles. "Everything that is wrong in Iraq is wrong in Afghanistan-not in terms of the reasons for the wars and why we went to war in the first place, but the tactics of the war," Kolhatkar said.
Given the advances in Iraq, security in Afghanistan is heading the other way: The Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai controls just 30 percent of the country, director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 27. A resurgent Taliban controls 10 percent of the country, he said, with the majority of Afghanistan's population under local tribal control.
A faith-based NGO worker in Kabul, like many, asked to remain unnamed, citing the continuing danger and recent expulsions of those whose identities had been publicized in the press. One of very few foreigners who venture out at night, his beard, dark hair, tan complexion, and ability to speak some of the language help him blend in, but he claims his neck scarf is his best form of protection: "When they see a neck scarf, they figure you're not a foreigner."
Going incognito, however, has no guarantees. American aid worker Cydney Mizell was covered from head to toe in the traditional burqa when she was kidnapped along with driver Muhammad Hadi on the morning of Jan. 28 in Kandahar and confirmed dead a month later. The 50-year-old California native (who grew up in Washington state) had been working on income-generating projects for women and families, in addition to teaching English at a high school and embroidery at a girl's school. Mizell had been in Afghanistan for three years as an employee of the Asian Rural Life Development Foundation (ARLDF) and spoke fluent Pashto.
Spokesmen for ARLDF announced Feb. 27 they were "deeply grieved to report the apparent deaths." Spokesman Dan Whiting told WORLD, "I have to stick with the statement on the website," which reads: "We have received information over the past few days indicating that our two aid workers have been killed," in reference to Mizell and Hadi.
ARLDF has not said who may be behind their deaths, but Taliban militants kidnapped 23 South Korean Christian workers and two German workers last year, killing two of the Koreans and one German and releasing the rest of the captives. Back-to-back suicide bombings last month may be confirmation also that insurgents are stepping up attacks. More than 140 people died in the blasts, making it the deadliest round of attacks since 2001. Insurgent and drug-related violence continues to plague the south and southwestern parts of Afghanistan.
But milestones such as mostly fair elections are substantial strides forward in a predominantly Muslim country riddled with violence and oppression for more than 25 years.
Kolhatkar, the co-director of the U.S.-based Afghan Women's Mission, witnessed small triumphs when she was there before the 2005 parliamentary elections. Posters of Malalai Joya, an outspoken young woman, blanketed the streets of Afghanistan. Voters elected her to Parliament with the second-highest number of votes in her province.
But the terrain has been treacherous for Joya since: She has survived four assassination attempts and was suspended from Parliament in May 2007 for openly criticizing its members, many of whom she calls "warlords."
"They expelled me from Parliament, which is an illegal act. It's anti-freedom and anti-speech-integral parts of democracy," Joya told WORLD.
"Those men who are militia commanders, the former so-called mujahideen or warlords, were re-empowered by the United States after the fall of the Taliban and now occupy prominent positions in the government, most notably in the Parliament," Kolhatkar said. "They govern their provinces with an iron hand and are very Taliban-like in nature."
Groups such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) concur: "'War on terrorism' has removed the Taliban, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism which is the main cause of all our miseries," RAWA's website states. "In fact, by reinstalling the warlords in power in Afghanistan, the U.S. is ultimately replacing one fundamentalist regime with another."
At the same time, according to Kolhatkar, the general consensus is that President Hamid Karzai is weak: "They call him the mayor of Kabul rather than the president of the country."
Despite the millions of dollars being poured into the country, only small numbers of Afghans-primarily those in metropolitan areas-have experienced improvements. More than 1,600 NGOs, which came to Afghanistan with charitable contributions or government contracts or a combination of both, have left Afghanistan since 2001, according to the unnamed Kabul worker.
"Some [NGOs] came here without accountability and just blew a wad," he said. "It's a heartbreaking situation. There's a 60 percent unemployment rate. It's been a tough winter." Almost 1,000 Afghans have died from extreme temperatures and massive snowfall in one of the worst winters in 30 years. The loss of hundreds of thousands of cattle have further crippled the country's fledgling economy.
Kolhatkar said, "In Kabul things are definitely a little bit better, but that's one city in the entire country. Outside of Kabul, where the media doesn't really pay much attention, things are terrible. There are almost no schools, no health care and no employment." In some regions, sexual assaults against women are on the rise, as are cases of women burning themselves to death.
Kolhatkar said NGO groups have missed or abandoned opportunities to develop income-generating projects and employment alternatives to Afghanistan's rampant opium production: "This is hard work. It doesn't fit on a placard, and it doesn't fit in a slogan. It's a complex formula, but it's the only option."
Next month the United States plans to add 3,200 more Marines to its 28,000 soldiers already stationed in Afghanistan, but efforts to garner increased troop commitments from NATO allies have proved unsuccessful.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer claims recent mass-casualty suicide bombings are a propaganda tool used by militants to sway public opinion among NATO nations with troops in Afghanistan. He has called on the international community to exercise "patience with a capital 'P'" and is working on a "comprehensive military strategy" to be presented to President Bush and other leaders at an April NATO summit in Romania.
But with Afghanistan's problems entangled in a web of Islamic law, rampant poverty, and drugs, it will take more than patience to win this war.