US legacy in Afghanistan: What 11 years of war has accomplished

The lives of four Afghans provide a lens on how America's longest conflict has changed a nation – and the divisions and dangers that persist.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Young Afghans peer out from a popular overlook at Kabul. This is the cover story in the June 11 edition of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

It has become the longest war in US history – nearly 11 years. It has consumed $57 billion in American development aid. The US military has spent more than $517 billion trying to subdue and secure one of the most invaded countries in human history. What, in the end, has the United States achieved after all this time and treasury spent in Afghanistan?

It's a valid question to ask, especially in an election year. And it's a question that many Afghans themselves are asking in earnest, as the US considers withdrawing troops by 2014.

Answering this question is tricky. US military spokesmen point to the dismantling of Al Qaeda and the buildup of an Afghan National Army increasingly capable of protecting the country from its internal and external enemies. Aid donors point to increased political freedoms, improved economic opportunities, thousands of newly built girls' schools, and rising survival rates for newborn infants and their mothers.

Add all this up, though, and the whole is a bit less than the sum of its parts. Security is faltering, as support for insurgent groups like the Taliban grows in rural areas. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civil servants have received world-class training from the West, but corruption within government remains a huge problem. Women and girls have far more access to education, health care, and political rights than during Taliban times, but those rights could be diminished if the Taliban enter a coalition government with President Hamid Karzai.

Americans have become increasingly weary of the war. A Monitor/TIPP poll conducted in May found that 63 percent of Americans oppose a newly signed security pact that would keep many US soldiers in Afghanistan after the majority of combat troops are withdrawn in 2014. Many Afghans, including insurgents interviewed for this story, say that a swift pullout will lead to the collapse of the Afghan government, the breakup of the national army, and the spark of a new civil war. Still, the past decade hasn't been a waste, many Afghans say. At least it has created a window of relative peace in which Afghans can create institutions that are worth defending.

Success – defined by both the Americans and the Afghans as a stable, sustainable, and effective government – will largely depend on what happens in the next two years. If Americans correct past mistakes and build on achievements, they still have a chance to leave behind a country that can survive on its own. If past mistakes are repeated, the withdrawal could be a messy one indeed – and may prove an ignoble ending to one of the costlier ventures in modern American history.

To help gauge what has been accomplished, the Monitor followed four people from different dimensions of Afghan society – a female university student making her place in the business world, a militant supporter fighting the presence of foreign troops, an Afghan bureaucrat struggling with corruption, and an Afghan Army officer fighting internal ethnic divisions.


Don't try to tell Yalda Samih that nothing has improved since the Taliban left. As a young university student, studying business at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, she doesn't need to wear a head-to-toe burqa when she goes out on the streets of the capital city, as she did as a young girl growing up in Kandahar. While she is religiously conservative, refusing to shake a male stranger's hand, she rejects the narrow-mindedness of the Taliban, who refused to let her and other Afghan girls go to any school except a religious madrasa to learn the Holy Quran.

Secretly, her mother taught little Yalda at home, a risky step that prepared her well for when the Taliban government fell.

"I think we have a bright future," says Ms. Samih, a vivacious sophomore, speaking in clear American-accented English, which she polished as a yearlong exchange student in Fremont, Calif. "We should try our best so we can do more to change our country."

Few Afghans have seen their lives change over the past decade more dramatically than women. Once denied the right of education, Afghan girls now make up 35 percent of all the 8 million children enrolled in school. Once discouraged from leaving their homes, they now take up jobs in schools, government agencies, and aid organizations, and some even serve as members of parliament.

Social custom once made it difficult for male doctors to treat female patients – to even be in the same room with a woman who wasn't a personal relation – which helped give Afghanistan one of the highest mortality rates for mothers in childbirth in the world: 1,600 deaths for every 100,000 births. Though still high, that rate has dropped to 327 per 100,000 births.

As dramatic as these changes are, women's rights advocates say they could all be reversed if the government of President Karzai falls to the Taliban. They could even be reversed before that, some prominent Afghan women say, if Karzai makes social compromises to lure Taliban militants to peace talks, or to join a coalition government.

As a possible sop to Taliban conservatives, Karzai welcomed a March 2012 ruling by the country's Ulema Council – its top religious scholars – that women should not work in the same offices as men or travel alone without a male companion.

"This is a green light to the Taliban to return," says Fawzia Koofi, a prominent female member of parliament, who has survived two assassination attempts by the Taliban. "We can't give up now. We have to struggle. If we give up, then we will watch this country fall."

Masooda Jalal, a popular presidential candidate in the 2004 elections, applauds the support that Americans and other international donor nations have given to advance women's civic rights. But she warns that true gender equality is still a long way off.

"Since the Americans have come, we have gotten more literacy for women. We have gotten political rights, but we are still considered second-class citizens. Actually it is the same old slavery system – we are possessions," says Dr. Jalal. "Now the Americans are leaving. We are not objecting to that. But we didn't expect that our friends in the West would empower our enemies, the extremists" by encouraging them to rejoin the political process.

Still, the signs of progress are palpable. Since 2001, nearly $1.9 billion has been spent rebuilding thousands of Afghan public schools, and in every major city and town, girls in uniforms trek to classrooms. Samih remembers her first day in a real school, back in 2003.

"It was really exciting: I saw the schoolteacher; I saw the school uniform, with the white scarf, the white pants, and the black top; and I loved it when my mother bought them for me," she says. "I knew – these are mine."

Now in college, she shares a room with three other girls from different ethnic groups and provinces. None of them play on ethnic stereotypes; all are fierce defenders of a single Afghan nationhood. "We are all so optimistic," she says. "We want to do something for Afghanistan."

Zahra Khawari, a senior in English literature at Kabul University and simultaneously a freshman in business at the American University of Afghanistan, is an Afghan national who grew up as a refugee in Iran and didn't arrive here until 2005. But she's seen dramatic changes in the educational opportunities for women.

Like many Afghans, she worries the Taliban will return and reverse all of the gains Afghan women have made. But she thinks Afghans are more educated now and less tolerant of a backward and ill-educated government.

"All the people worry, but I won't leave," she says. "I want to do what I came here to do, and that is to serve my people. The Taliban won't be so successful with the new generation. [It is] very tired of war."


When the Taliban were in power, Abdul Bashir was a university student with few job prospects. The Kabul he lived in at that time was mainly an empty city of bullet-pocked homes, shabby mosques, and dusty unpaved streets. White sport utility vehicles dominated the roads, driven by foreign aid workers, although Taliban pickup trucks also spirited through town full of bearded soldiers heading off to war in the north.

Today, Mr. Bashir's Kabul is a city of newly built concrete mansions, even though the streets remain largely unpaved and muddy. There are new schools and medical clinics, and Western aid flows readily into Afghan government coffers. Yet sewage still flows freely in open ditches along roadways, serving as the city's ad hoc waste system. Kabul remains the largest capital city in the world (pop. 3 million) that doesn't have a modern sewage system.

These two sides of Kabul show how much progress has been made and how the city still has one sandal in a millenniums-old way of life. Bashir, a quietly intense senior civil servant in the Afghan Ministry of Health, notes that the lack of a sewer system alone creates many of the problems his department struggles with.

"In the hospitals, it is the same as it was during the Taliban times," says Bashir, whose name has been changed because he is concerned his comments could cost him his job. "They only changed the furniture and painted the walls and started to wear good neckties."

Bashir was grateful to see the Taliban leave. But this doesn't make him a fan of the Karzai government, which replaced the Taliban. "If anyone wants to improve themselves, they have to do it themselves," he says. "From the government, you can expect nothing. Only those who are relatives of some official receive any help. Otherwise, you have to pay a bribe."

Corruption may be the most talked-about subject in Afghanistan, and one that many see as the largest impediment to creating a country that can stand on its own. While corruption has existed in Afghanistan for centuries, it has become a full-scale industry since the arrival of American troops and Western aid dollars.

For many Afghans, the problem isn't corruption itself, but rather the sense that corrupt officials have ruined the country's best chance at rebuilding by siphoning off vast amounts of the money the US has spent here over the past decade. No paper trail exists, but Afghans can see where the funds have gone – and haven't.

In rich neighborhoods like Shirpoor and Wazir Akbar Khan, the politically well-connected live in glittery mansions, while the streets in front of these opulent homes remain unpaved. Hospitals have been built, but doctors are often off running lucrative private clinics. Schools have been erected, but many teachers don't show up for work because they are paid so little. Cabinet ministers have been linked to major drug scandals or bank collapses, but none have been charged with any crime.

The problem, says Yama Torabi, head of Integrity Afghanistan, an anticorruption watchdog group, is that Afghanistan's Western donors have a political incentive to support the Afghan government and show results for the billions of dollars that they spend. But for security reasons, Western donors are often unable to monitor how the aid groups and government agencies spend the funds. So much of it is simply pocketed by corrupt officials.

"Last year, when the USAID [US Agency for International Development] budget for Afghanistan was cut by 40 percent, that was good news for us," says Mr. Torabi. "The money created public corruption. The donors have to spend billions to develop this country, and they don't have the capability of overseeing how the money is spent. If there was less aid and more oversight, people would use it better."

Najib Manalai, an independent political analyst who is often sympathetic to the Karzai government, believes it's wrong to assume that the Afghan government has done nothing with the billions in foreign aid money it has received. Eight million children are now in public schools. Some 44,000 students have been accepted by universities. Maternal and infant mortality rates are dropping because of the 15,000 clinics that have been built. More than 12,000 miles of roads have been created.

Yet he sees corruption as a corroding force, chipping away at the Afghan people's faith in their government and their willingness to back the Karzai regime if it comes under attack.

"If the government doesn't do its job, it's corruption," says Mr. Manalai. "If it appoints incapable people to high positions of power, it's corruption. If elite people grab land, it's corruption. When Afghan people are trying to get their ID cards and you have to pay a small bribe, it's corruption. It may be small money, but it makes a lot of unhappy people."

No one knows how much of the $517 billion the US has cumulatively spent in Afghanistan has been misused. Statistics wouldn't tell the full picture, anyway, since corruption usually involves manipulating statistics to hide illicit gain. But if you add up the anecdotes of schools or clinics built with shoddy materials; of politicians who have used their positions to steal public land, siphon off money for personal use, or to protect criminal enterprises; and of civil servants who have taken bribes; you get a troubling view of Afghanistan's political culture.

Scandals, such as the near-collapse of Kabul Bank, perhaps symbolize how deep the corruption runs. Founded by major Afghan political players, such as Karzai's brother Mahmoud, Kabul Bank operated a virtual Ponzi scheme, Western diplomats say, with loans of hundreds of millions of dollars given out to friends with no paperwork and no accountability. The Afghan government finally moved in to guarantee investors' money and now says the institution's losses may total $900 million or more.

At the Ministry of Health, Bashir sees the effects of corruption everyday, and it costs lives. He points to a CT scanner bought for $200,000 that has rarely been used, and now sits broken. The funds for its repair have been requested and promised, but never delivered.

Bashir's brother, who lives in the US, has tried to persuade him to leave Afghanistan, but Bashir says he will stay and serve his people. "I was thinking about it," he admits. "But the next day I was driving, and I saw children playing in the road. They were poor; but they were happy, playing there in the road. And I started thinking what would happen if these children got hurt, and there were no educated people, no doctors there to care for them." He pauses.

"These people need me. I must be here."


When you shake the hand of Sultan Mahmud, a middle-aged man with a graying beard, you can feel the calluses of someone who has worked with his hands his entire life. Sometimes that work has been as a shopkeeper, sometimes as a farmer; and during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1991, Mr. Mahmud was a fighter with one of the most radical of Islamist mujahideen parties, the Hizb-e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Mahmud – not his real name – says he stopped fighting when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, and he didn't rejoin the war as many of his younger neighbors did when the Americans helped to push the Taliban out in January 2002.

But as a resident of Konar Province in the northeastern part of the country along the Pakistani border – a virtual no-go zone for most foreign aid groups, and site of some of the fiercest fights for American forces over the past decade – Mahmud is decidedly on the side of the insurgents. As a former warrior himself, he now sees a younger generation of Hizb-e-Islami fighters launching regular attacks against a nearby US military base. It's a fight he sees daily, because his farm is within sight of the military outpost.

"I see war from morning to night," he says, smiling grimly.

The people of Konar are now fed up, Mahmud says, both with their own government, which is unresponsive and corrupt, and with the continued presence of foreign troops, which many people see as an occupation force unfriendly to Islam and to Afghan tradition. The foreign troops haven't even bothered to create projects, such as a hydropower dam along the Konar River, that could have made a difference in people's lives, he adds.

"The problem is the existence of foreign soldiers on Afghan soil," he says. With their "night raids," in which Americans raid suspected militants' homes to capture fighters while sleeping, Mahmud says the Americans "attack our people. That is why people join the opposition."

If the goal of sending troops to Afghanistan was to uproot Al Qaeda and to stop its use of Afghanistan as a haven, then Operation Enduring Freedom has been a remarkable success. But if the goal is sustainable peace, and leaving behind an Afghan government with an army and security apparatus capable of defending the country from external and internal threats, then America and its allies have a long way to go. And Konar Province will be one of the places where the Afghan Army's capabilities will be put to the sternest test.

Statistics are inadequate to conclude whether the past decade has been a success or failure. Al Qaeda may have had just a few hundred members in 2001, when the war began. Many of its top leaders, including Osama bin Laden, have been killed, while others have been either captured or dispersed around the world. But that dispersal has created Al Qaeda franchises in the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere. As for the Taliban, who once controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan and numbered in the tens of thousands, they now have the ability to hold territory in places like Helmand in the south and Nooristan in the east, and to create a sense of insecurity in many rural areas that effectively weakens trust in the Afghan government.

"I don't think that the Taliban will effectively take over after the withdrawal of American troops in 2014 because they are now more fragmented, basically village militias," says Fabrizio Faschini, a security expert at the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. "But I am pessimistic about the capability of the Afghan National Army to take over security when the Americans leave. On paper, the Afghan security sector is increasing; but in reality the insurgents are better armed, better supplied, and they have local support."

The insurgents show no sign of giving up. A coordinated string of six separate attacks April 15, in Kabul and in the provinces of Logar and Nangarhar, showed the ability of militants to conduct well-planned strikes in urban centers where the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army conduct regular searches. Yet US military officials say that the Afghan forces proved their ability in the assaults, clearing out the insurgents without NATO assistance.

"Each attack was meant to send a message: that legitimate governance and Afghan sovereignty are in peril," NATO commander Gen. John Allen said after the attacks. "The ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] response itself is proof enough of that folly."

Across the border in Pakistan, where insurgents continue to find havens in the loosely governed tribal areas of Northern Waziristan; Bajaur district; and the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan; Taliban supporters say they won't stop fighting until the foreign troops leave.

"Everyone knows American power is fake, and they cannot win this war because they are fighting for no reason, no goals," says a Taliban supporter in Peshawar who refuses to give his real name. "Their soldiers are fighting for nothing; and our mujahideen are fighting because it is their religious duty, which they were created for."

As chief of security for Nangarhar Province – a crucial link in Kabul's attempts to control areas along the Pakistan border – Abdullah Stanekzai may have one of the hardest jobs in the country. Not only does he have to fight insurgent groups, such as the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami, but he also faces internal corruption and a new wave of kidnappings that leave the province increasingly uneasy about their security.

"When we fight the insurgents, we are successful in beating them," he says. "But when we return to the city, the Taliban come back to the villages because they have relationships with the people there."


Armies around the world have learned this lesson: Put together people from different ethnic and economic backgrounds, force them to fight together, and you build a common sense of purpose and identity.

It was true for the Anglo-Saxons, Italians, Boston Irish, Poles, Jews, Latinos, native Americans, and African-Americans who fought under the US flag during World War II. There is no reason it shouldn't have worked for the 180,000 men and women serving in the Afghan National Army. But it hasn't fully.

Ahmedullah, an Afghan Army major and an ethnic Pashtun, feels confident that the men under his command are getting better training and feel more of a sense of national purpose than any other Afghan soldiers have since King Ahmad Shah Durrani united Afghanistan in 1747. But if international donor support is withdrawn from Afghanistan when foreign troops leave in 2014, he says, his battalion will probably disintegrate without the discipline and cultural unity the Westerners help enforce.

"If foreign support is taken away after 2014, then things will go back to the days of civil war," says Ahmedullah, who agreed to talk on the condition that his name be changed. "If a man is Uzbek, he will run away to General [Rashid] Dostum. If he is Tajik, he will go to the Panshir. If he is Hazara, he will go to [Hazara politician Mohammad] Mohaqiq. And if he is Pashtun, he will go south."

This raises a question for many Afghans: If the Army disintegrates, who will defend the country from a return of the hated Taliban?

Of all Afghanistan's challenges – from security, to corruption, to social liberation – probably the most difficult is the task of creating a single Afghan identity. Afghanistan's population of 30 million people is made up of a dozen or more violently feuding ethnic groups. Karzai came to power promising ethnic reconciliation – even his clothes preached integration, from his silky green Northern chappan (cloak) to his Pashtun sandals – but his government has been characterized by ethnic rivalry. With Karzai reaching out to the mainly Pashtun Taliban for peace talks, and surrounding himself in the presidency with Pashtuns, many Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, and Hazaras are starting to look to their own ethnic groups for leadership.

Ethnic factionalism is one reason the International Crisis Group warned, in a May 2010 report, that the Afghan National Army is "incapable of fighting the insurgency on its own," the other reasons being drug addiction, illiteracy, and desertion.

On paper, the ethnic breakdown of soldiers within the Army closely matches that of the country, with 44 percent Pashtuns, 25 percent Tajiks, 10 percent Hazaras, 8 percent Uzbeks, and 13 percent members of other groups. But loyalties among these soldiers are divided, the Crisis Group report found, with Pashtun soldiers likely to favor Pashtun commanders and the Pashtun Defense Minister Rahim Wardak, and Tajiks favoring the Tajik commanding general Bismillah Khan.

That the Taliban was once made up primarily of ethnic Pashtuns has made it hard for many of them to feel trusted or welcome in their own country, says former Transport and Aviation Minister Hamidullah Farooqi, an ethnic Pashtun. "In the first year after the Taliban left, the rest of the people said that a Taliban equals a Pashtun, and the people of the north used that against the people of the south," says Mr. Farooqi. This discrimination "pushed Pashtuns into a corner; it pushed them to be Taliban. They didn't have any choice."

The problem has gotten worse, as Karzai fills his cabinet and immediate pool of advisers with those of his own ethnic groups, while other top politicians of other ethnic groups do the same. On one level, this is a matter of personal loyalty, but it reinforces ethnic division.

Part of the problem, says Hussein Yasa, a newspaper publisher in Kabul, is that Afghanistan has few institutions that can unify Afghans. The country has a single parliament, but there are so many political parties – 259 at last count – that none is able to speak for a majority of Afghans. Religion would seem to be a uniter; but while most Afghans are Muslim, the divide between the 80 percent who are Sunni Muslims and the 20 percent who are Shiites becomes a dangerous source of contention.

The solution is inclusion, Mr. Yasa says. "If you create a balance of power, so no group feels that they are out of play, then you can have a sense of peace."

Ms. Koofi, the liberal female parliamentarian who is of Tajik ethnicity, says that most Afghans are well ahead of their leaders when it comes to living an inclusive, tolerant daily life.

"You don't see this problem at the community level, because as communities we get together and solve problems. We handle food distribution for poor families of different ethnicities, different religions," says Koofi. "But at the national level, many politicians are putting their reliance on ethnic forces, and this is hurting us."

Koofi says she doesn't believe Afghans will allow themselves to be manipulated by ethnic divisions the way they were during the civil war of the 1990s. "You can't impose a government on the people when the people are educated, and when they remember the days of war," she says. "The hope I have is my people. They will not accept it."

• Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report from Kabul.

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