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What will the Afghanistan war legacy be?

Much of the Soviets' development work got wiped out by a civil war in the 1990s. But the scope of the effort then was limited compared with the work today.

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"We built agricultural enterprises, industrial projects, schools, and universities," says Makhmut Gareev, a former Soviet general who advised former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah. He says Afghans remember the Soviet period with warmth, though many others would dispute that assessment.

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Shortly after the Russians withdrew in 1989, however, the country erupted into a violent civil war that undid most of the Soviets' work. When the Taliban took over in 1996, they brutally executed Mr. Najibullah, the last vestige of Soviet attempts to improve governance, and Afghanistan was left in near total ruin.

"Everything got completely destroyed during the civil war. Markets were looted, power lines were cut, the roads were destroyed, everything," says Rahmatullah, a Kabul shopkeeper who, like many Afghans, only uses one name.

The difference - funding

Today, those Afghans inclined to speak warmly of the Soviets' development work concede that the scope of the effort was limited compared with the work now being done by international donors.

Indeed, the US has spent $100 billion in reconstruction alone in Afghanistan, whereas the Soviet Union spent a maximum of an estimated $21 billion annually, accounting for inflation, on their entire war effort here, including both fighting and development.

The massive influx of international spending fueled corruption and created other problems, but it also allowed for a wider range of work than under the Soviets.

Just outside Rahmatullah's shop, a construction crew finishes paving the road. It's one of the many development projects he's seen that have transformed Kabul, he says. Aside from internationally funded development, Afghans who have become millionaires working with foreign donors and militaries have invested in large-scale construction projects, even building several small skyscrapers that Kabul had not seen before.

Though the NATO combat mission will end in 2014, American troops are expected to remain in Afghanistan in some capacity until 2024, unlike the Soviets who withdrew entirely.

"Only God knows what will happen, but I am not worried about a civil war like there was in the past, because the people are more educated now, and they know how much destruction fighting brings," says Rahmatullah, echoing a common sentiment among Afghans.

The same influx of foreign money that has helped develop Kabul may also protect it from civil war. Following the Soviet war, militias that had been heavily armed by the US turned their weapons against each other, destroying much of the country.

Now these commanders have benefited financially from foreign development contracts and security spending. Other younger Afghans who have risen to prominence and raised their own militias, in some cases becoming millionaires, now have something to lose if there were to be a full-scale war here.

And the warlords and militants who are most likely to challenge the government lack the firepower of militia commanders at the end of the Soviet war.

"If [warlords] re-create the situation we had in the 1990s, they will lose what they have gained. Their very selfish interest will prevent them from breaking what has been built," says Najib Mamalai, an independent political analyst in Kabul. "Fifteen years ago when they bombed Kabul, nothing belonged to those who were bombing. Now everything belongs to those who can bomb."


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