On the Road to Jalalabad

BY ANN MARLOWE

Sen. Hillary Clinton has cynically charged that we are “losing the fight to al Qaeda and bin Laden” in Afghanistan. But on my eighth trip to Afghanistan (last month) I saw that the trend lines are up, not down.

The first encouraging sign came in Dubai as I boarded my flight for Kabul. Afghanistan’s main private air carrier, Kam Air, has recently added a second daily round trip between Kabul and Dubai.

Once in Kabul I bought a new SIM card for my mobile phone and found that what would have cost me $40 a few years ago and $9 in September last year now cost only $3. Not surprisingly, mobile phones have spread to a broad section of Afghanistan’s 24 million people, with the two major providers, AWCC and Roshan, claiming a total of three million subscribers, up from two million in September last year. Amin Ramin, managing director of AWCC, estimates that his company alone will count two million subscribers by the end of 2007 and three million by the end of 2008.

I spotted similarly hopeful trends in three heavily Pashtun provinces — Nangarhar, Laghman and Khost — in eastern Afghanistan.

But first, it’s important to note that to talk about “reconstruction” is the biggest lie in Afghanistan. Before the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan was long one of the poorest countries in the world and has never had a lot of infrastructure. There are ruins in the country, of course, but 95% of them are in or near Kabul itself. Most of Afghanistan lives much as it always has, subsisting on small-scale farming and trading.

We can do nothing about many of Afghanistan’s barriers to development. For starters, 86% of its land area is non-arable. It has also never had a broad distribution of income or land. According to Afghan-Australian historian Amin Saikal, up until the early 1920s when King Amanullah gave crown lands to the poor, only 20% of peasants worked their own properties.

This is why many foreign development experts working in Kabul say privately that if in a couple of decades Afghanistan reaches the level of Bangladesh — which in 2006 had a per capita GDP of about $419 per year, one of the lowest in the world — then they will judge their time in the country a success.

But I am more optimistic. Jalalabad, the largest city of eastern Afghanistan, with 400,000 people, is now just a three-hour drive to Kabul on a good road recently built by the European Union. Another hour’s drive brings you to Mehtar Lam, capital of Afghanistan’s Laghman province, on another good road funded by USAID.

The U.S. is now planning to start a second provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Nangarhar Province, and it will be staffed by military reservists who are farmers and ranchers in civilian life. This second PRT will work with local farmers in Nangahar’s lush river valley, while also building infrastructure to get crops to market — cold storage facilities and local roads. Air Force Lt. Col. Gordon Phillips, the commander of the existing PRT, says that blacktop roads will link all district centers in the province to the main road to Kabul by the end of this year.

“Every day we open 15 to 20 new accounts,” says Maseh Arifi, the 24-year-old manager of the Jalalabad branch of Azizi Bank, one of Afghanistan’s two homegrown consumer banks. The branch opened at the end of last August and has 18,000 accounts. Next door, rival Kabul Bank has opened 9,400 accounts totaling $7 million in two years. The 27,000 bank accounts represent about 15% of 660,000 adults of Jalalabad — and doesn’t count some of the most prosperous locals, who commute to Peshawar to do their banking. In Nangarhar, AWCC and Roshan together have about 206,000 mobile phone customers, 31% of the adults.

Further south is Khost, a province that received little help from the central government in recent decades. Now construction cranes hover over Khost City, with modern five- and six-story office buildings and shopping centers rising amid grimy two-story concrete bazaars. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently finished building a new university in the city. And this month the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, an investment-facilitating agency, is inviting 300 overseas Khostis to come discuss building an industrial park.

Both Kabul Bank and Azizi Bank opened their Khost branches in the summer of 2006, and each have about 3,000 accounts. Both branch managers expect their numbers to double this year. The numbers are low because some local residents view even non-interest bearing accounts as un-Islamic. (Competing fatwas have been issued by various mullahs on the topic.) About 65,000 people have mobile phones in the province.

Many of its men emigrated to the UAE and Saudi Arabia and did well for themselves as merchants. As many as 200,000 overseas Khostis (about a million people live in the province) send $6 million to $12 million annually to their families at home. USAID spent just $10 million in the province from 2002-2006.

Culturally, Khost has always been an outward-looking place. It’s not an opium-producing province. In the 1970s and ’80s it was a stronghold of the Khalq Communist party, as the party provided a vehicle for the Ghilzai Pashtun to challenge leaders from other tribes. The 99% Pashtun population is also about 70% literate, according to Babaker Khil, a member of parliament from Khost.

Khost should really take off when it’s linked to Kabul by a blacktop road. Construction of a $70 million, 103-kilometer long Khost-Gardez road is slated to begin next spring (it will be built by USAID) and is supposed to be finished in September 2009. The U.S. Army, which moves at a much faster pace than USAID, expects to link 90% of the population of Khost to the main provincial road by the end of this year.

There have been no conventional attacks on Coalition or Afghan security forces in 2007 so far, but the long border with Pakistan makes suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices (IED) an ongoing threat.

The insurgents are seeking “soft targets” such as civilians. There have been at least 67 IED explosions this year, killing more than two-dozen Afghans and wounding one American. But, encouragingly, 51 IEDs were found and reported by locals before detonating in Khost. Twelve other devices were turned in by locals looking for reward money.

“We’ve got the wholehearted support of 85%-90% of the population here,” Major Timothy Kohn of the 82nd Airborne told me. “The mullahs have put out fatwas against suicide bombers, saying that the victims of these bombings are the martyrs, not the extremists. Thousands of people attended peace rallies in the city.”

The most economically backward of the eastern provinces I visited is Laghman. Its 400,000 people eke out a living by working rice paddies and wheat fields along the Alingar and Alishang Rivers. Even the provincial capital, Mehtar Lam, is so small you could miss it driving by. It has only a couple of two-story buildings in the bazaar. Still, an astonishing 77% of Laghman’s 176,000 adults have mobile phones — also implying that a good percentage of the women have phones, too.

Nangarhar and Laghman are also known for relatively high levels of education, and in the eastern region overall, UNICEF reports that this year 737,975 children were enrolled in school, up 17,000 from 2006 and six times the figure for 2003.

Laghman is never going to be rich, but Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Ricci, the Mehtar Lam PRT commander, points out that the district of Qarghayi had Afghanistan’s highest per-hectare wheat production last year. The new Nangarhar PRT will help the local farmers here, too, while Mr. Ricci’s team fixes the roads so that farmers in remote areas can bring their crop to the provincial capital, and from there to Kabul. The PRT is planning to blacktop the dirt road from Mehtar Lam to the most remote district capital, Daulat Shah, 47 kilometers away, at a cost of around $16 million.

Security in Laghman is better than in the frontier provinces, but there is a well-established route for al Qaeda, Taliban and other fighters to cross from Pakistan and make their way north through Laghman. A suicide bombing in April seems to have been a turning point in Laghman. The bomber killed a mullah and several schoolgirls, and according to Mr. Ricci, local residents were so angry that they left the bomber’s body parts on the road, refusing him burial. Since then, just nine IEDs have been detonated in Laghman, while 25 were turned in by locals.

Of course, one suicide bombing or IED is one too many, but every society is violent in its own way. The 58 killed by IEDs and suicide bombers in Khost could be compared with the 2006 murders in some American cities with around Khost’s one-million population: There were 29 murders in San Jose, 108 in Indianapolis, and 373 in Detroit.

Afghanistan is still a poor rural country with a mainly illiterate population, but it’s improving rapidly, and with the exception of Helmand Province and a few bad districts in Uruzgun, Kandahar and Loghar, it’s much like any number of developing countries in terms of security. We can’t give every country everything they’d like, and it will take decades for the rule of law to be as firmly established here as it is in the West. But we can and are helping the Afghans pull themselves up to the next rung on the development ladder.

Ms. Marlowe is author of “The Book of Trouble” (Harcourt, 2006), a memoir.

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