A year after Taliban, little change

The US pledged more aid to Kabul, but Iraq may distract from rebuilding efforts.

It has been a year since the Taliban disappeared from Afghanistan's capital. But in the red-rimmed eyes of Delawar Selab, little has changed.

Squatting on a staircase outside Kabul University, Mr. Selab, a senior, explains how a cousin and a friend were shot and killed by police last week during a demonstration demanding food and electricity for their dormitories. "There is no difference between then and now," says Selab, a medical student. "The only difference is that under the Taliban, we had to wear a turban and a beard."

That may be an aggrieved and not-quite-accurate assessment of how much has changed in the year since US-led allied forces teamed up with the Northern Alliance and drove the world's most fundamentalist Islamic regime from power. But it does reveal the frustration many here feel over the pace of change - and a certain disenchantment with both Afghanistan's leadership and the world's promises of massive reconstruction aid. And while much of the $4.5 billion pledged at a Tokyo donor conference in January has been trickling in, America's foreign policy focus - which was Kabul this time last year - is clearly Baghdad.

"The situation in Iraq has done no good whatsoever for the situation in Afghanistan," says Charles Heyman, a defense analyst and editor of Jane's World Armies in London, referring to a waning interest in solving the problems of this war-tattered nation. "Afghanistan is beginning to be put in the 'too-difficult' box."

Instead, the country's competing ethnic groups, the enduring power of local warlords, and a reluctance on the part of participating nations to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond the capital has led to an approach Mr. Heyman defines as "covering over some patches when its possible, until anyone has some time to sort it out properly."

The unrest at Kabul University is a case in point. A dormitory built for 800 and reserved for out-of-town students now houses 3,000. Windows shattered by last year's fighting have been repaired, but on most nights the dorm is freezing and dark, lit only by a few gas lamps.

The students have complained about the lack of electricity - which Kabul residents usually get for about six hours each evening - and the lack of food. Last week, when the late afternoon meals - which mark a day of fasting for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan - ran out, 500 unfed students protested. Their numbers grew to between 1,000 and 2,000, and they tried to march toward the presidential palace.

"We thought this was a real democracy," Gulbeddin Fazli, an engineering student, complains in perfect English. "We didn't know we could be killed for demonstrating. Otherwise, we wouldn't have done it."

In addition to Selab's cousin and friend, three other students were killed at the demonstration, and several were injured, according to students. The students say that when they went to the hospital to visit their friends, they were turned away by doctors who warned them that the police would be watching and would later arrest them.

Area Police Chief Mohammed Sadiq says his men had orders to fire only in the air in order to turn back students. According to Mr. Sadiq, two other forces, including a division of the Afghan Army, were responsible for the shootings - an explanation confirmed by Western officials. The shootings are under investigation.

"The police don't know how to deal with people," Selab scoffs. "Their only experience is that they were fighters in the jihad, with the warlords. So when they see a big crowd, they can only shoot."

Many others point to another layer of tension: Most of the dormitory students are Pashtuns, while the police are Tajiks from the Northern Alliance.

But among the greatest disappointments for the students was the absence of the 22-country ISAF during the clashes. Though some of the 4,500 peacekeepers stationed in Kabul normally patrol the area, when trouble started, they stayed away. The ISAF says its mandate is to assist the Afghan administration. "It's really not our role to intervene in Afghan security issues unless asked to," says Commander Geoff Wintle, a British officer in charge of media operations at ISAF.

He adds: "There is every indication that people in Kabul feel happier and safer than they did a year ago."

But that does not say much for the rest of Afghanistan, still plagued by factional violence. Congress recently passed the Afghanistan Freedom of Support Act of 2002 which calls for $1 billion to be put toward expanding the ISAF beyond Kabul. But the act has no appropriation language attached to it, making it unclear whether the funds will actually be allocated.

To be sure, most Afghans see the year since the Taliban's fall as one that has brought positive change.

Millions of girls and women - kept at home for five years - have returned to school and work. International aid agencies, unable to work under the vehemently anti-Western Taliban, have returned to major cities. A project to create a desperately needed highway linking Kabul and Herat was launched last week - with aid from the US, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. And with enough relative calm in Kabul, security officials decided last week to lift a nighttime curfew that had been in place since the 1979 Soviet invasion.

At the same time, however, other changes threaten to undermine these improvements. Late last month, four Afghan girls' schools were attacked overnight; the culprits are suspected to be Taliban remnants disgruntled with the country's new orientation. A female Supreme Court judge was recently fired for being photographed without a veil on - in a picture at the White House with President Bush. And the famed Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is back - though in strictly advisory capacity - while a conservative judge known to favor sharia, or Islamic law, is heading a commission to form a new Constitution.

Among the biggest questions here is whether President Hamid Karzai will, in time, be able to expand the authority of his rule to the rest of the country. Mr. Karzai has made strides to reassert his power, most recently by firing 20 officials in various provinces whom he suspected of involvement in corruption and drug smuggling. But one of his greatest challenges remains bringing the Afghan army under one big, multiethnic tent, an enormous task that, to many here, still seems far from finished.

Analysts say that challenge - along with remaining deeply involved in reconstruction - is a goal on which Washington must and will stay focused, all the more so with so much of the Muslim world skeptically eyeing the Bush administration's plans for "regime change" in Iraq.

"There has been an American tendency to view things as a quick in and out, and then after that, leave the locals to do the rest. This time, that cannot be," says Elie Krakowski, senior fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.

"We have to remain involved and we have to be less afraid to do things," such as getting more of the US military in Afghanistan involved in reconstruction work. "One needs to take things into perspective," he adds. "One year is not a very long time."

US official talks money in Kabul

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - US Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill made a day trip to Kabul yesterday, meeting with top financial officials and bearing a promise that "the US will be there for the people of Afghanistan."

Mr. O'Neill's visit comes at a time when many Afghans have been voicing disappointment with the slow inflow of promised funds from donor countries, and the sense that much of the aid earmarked for reconstruction ends up going to foreign nongovermental organizations rather than to Afghans themselves.

The US, in addition, has faced criticism that plans for war with Iraq are diverting resources and attention away from Afghanistan. O'Neill deflected such suggestions from reporters. Only the news media, one US Embassy official here mused, is completely focused on Iraq.

Far from shrinking from its pledges to help Afghanistan, says Alberto Fernandez, a counselor for press and cultural affairs at the Embassy, the US has delivered more than it promised, dedicating $835.1 million in the 2002 fiscal year. "If anything, I think America's commitment has broadened in Afghanistan."

After meeting with the central bank governor and the finance minister, O'Neill promised that more funds would flow directly through Afghanistan's government. "As time goes on, it is important that the people of the country see the connection between their government and their country's development," he said.

"We also talked about the important elements which are necessary for economic growth - developing the rule of law, enforceable contracts, and the everyday fight against corruption," he added. "Money that actually belongs to Afghans will come out of the mattresses and out of other countries and will help to fuel the development of the private sector."

One of the largest projects O'Neill discussed with officials here is a "five-star hotel in Kabul, which would be a useful addition to the economy." He was not more specific, but government sources said it would be a Hyatt Hotel - a major chain that would be a welcome addition in a city in which the only large Western-style hotel is a war-rattled ex-Intercontinental that has not been renovated for decades.

O'Neill also applauded the overhaul of the afghani, the currency which now stands at 60,000 to the US dollar, as he watched old bills shredded by workers at the Central Bank. The new afghani, which is already in circulation and which will replace the old currency by January, is about 60 to the dollar.

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