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Afghanistan: Bullets vs. Ballots

By Craig Charney | New York Post | December 4, 2003 | 2 pages

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — A COUPLE of years ago, in the angry aftermath of 9/11, I wrote to a friend overseas, “Kabul will soon be ka-BOOM!” Sure enough, it soon was. Now, for my sins, I’ve spent two weeks in Kabul, trying to help pick up the pieces.

Flying in, Afghanistan’s barren, rough hills and valleys looked like a lunar landscape painted tan. I’d never seen a country with fewer of the spots of green patchwork that mark peasant farmland in developing nations. Then, suddenly, the city appeared, spilling across a valley under the right wing of the plane even as the left barely seemed to clear more empty hills.

Kabul is a mass of squat, square gray one- or two-story buildings. It is full of bustle, energy and activity — people are moving about, shops are open. Indeed, as security has improved in the city, they are even open at night now.

Every street is a colorful photo op — an old man in a turban here, kids in jeans there, a woman plodding down the street covered in a sky blue burka. A mass of traffic, colorful beat-up trucks, new aid agency cars and Land Rovers, German Army Hummers from the International Security Assistance Force, and people on incredibly rickety old bicycles swirl this way and that.

Inevitably, most of my time has been spent with other foreigners. Kabul is the new expatriate “scene,” the next stop on the Democracy Trail after Cambodia, South Africa, Bosnia, Indonesia, East Timor and Kosovo. Many veterans of those places are here. For a new generation of younger people interested in international humanitarian assistance, Kabul is the beginning.

Hundreds of idealistic young (and not so young) foreigners are trying to improve things. Their projects include legal reform, child protection, agricultural improvements, road building, girls’ education, women’s rights, de-mining, demobilizing militias and laying the groundwork for national elections next year. 

Because they offer hope, aid workers have become targets for the Taliban and al Qaeda. During the first 18 months after the fall of the Taliban, foreigners could have offered help anywhere in Afghanistan, but a distracted Bush administration and world community did not act while they could have.

While the reappearance of the Taliban in the country’s southeast finally forced them to loosen the purse strings, we face a resurgent enemy who is changing tactics.

There are fewer attacks on U.S. forces — who hit back — but since July, attacks against Afghans and foreigners working for NGOs (non-governmental organizations — international nonprofits) have risen exponentially. On a U.N. security map of the country, most of the southeast is blood red (a no-go area for foreign aid) while the rest of the region is yellow (U.N. staff allowed only with armed escorts).

One of the worst-hit areas is Zabol province, where recently a Turkish engineer leading a road crew was kidnapped and an attempt was made to kidnap two female journalists from the Christian Science Monitor staying at my guest house. In that incident, four al Qaeda men stopped the women’s driver and asked where they were, then beat him up and stole his car after learning they were back in Kabul.

In recent weeks, an Indian telephone contractor and a French aid worker have been shot dead, while there have been bombings in Kabul and Kandahar.

In Afghanistan, the War on Terror is very real.

Yet, though the conflict is growing, it’s far from hopeless. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is at last being expanded outside Kabul and changing tactics. Rather than garrisoning the towns, like the Russians, they are sending out a couple of hundred soldiers to each of several regions. These teams do some civic rebuilding, provide security to aid agencies, act as a tripwire when more force is needed and, most important, help resolve local factional disputes.

Reports from the north and center, where these military groups were first deployed, suggest they are having some success. Others will soon head south. They are called Provincial Reconstruction Teams. (I’d call the detachments the Taliban is sending in the Provincial Deconstruction Teams.)

Afghanistan today recalls Cambodia in the early ’90s, when the Khmer Rouge held part of the country and tried to play the spoiler against the international community with similar tactics. They failed. I believe the Taliban and al Qaeda also will fail.

The most important reason for hope is the determination of Afghans to rebuild their country, working with foreign help. Their desire is for peace and a chance to choose, not more war or the return of religious fanaticism. In their hands, the ballot is likely to prove mightier than the bullet.

Mr. Charney is President of Charney Research, a New York polling firm.

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