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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Kabul, Afghanistan, is more prosperous 10 years after the US invaded, but it still needs a lot of help with improving basic infrastructure - such as overcrowded roads.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Afghan National Police have set up checkpoints around the city where they make random stops of vehicles to check for anything suspicious.

There may be two years left on the clock for the war in Afghanistan, but NATO's ability to shape events has largely come to an end, with the fighting at a stalemate, stalled peace negotiations, and incidents of Afghan security forces turning against their international counterparts.

Officials say international war and aid efforts are ongoing, but there are few indications that they will yield different results.

Rather than asking what more the international community can do in Afghanistan, the question may now be, What kind of legacy will the past decade of international influence leave here, and how long can it last?

Since invading Afghanistan in October 2001, the United States has appropriated nearly $100 billion for reconstruction and development there. Despite problems with fraud, corruption, and mismanagement, Afghanistan is a different nation than it was 11 years ago. The investment has created a 352,000-strong Afghan security force and increased access to electricity from 6 percent to 18 percent of the population; 3.2 million girls are now in school, up from fewer than 5,000 during the Taliban regime.

Yet throughout the country there are numerous indicators that many Afghans have little faith in the future. An estimated $8 billion in cash was taken out of the country last year, and property dealers say Afghans have all but stopped buying land, the stalwart investment in this largely agrarian society.

The Soviet example 

To better understand the road ahead, a look back at the Soviet experience here may prove instructive.

"[The Soviets] were pretty active, and to a large degree effective, in urban-based development schemes, the paving of roads, the construction of buildings for government, and things of that nature," says Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Mr. Gouttierre first began working in Afghanistan in 1964. Unable to visit during the nine-year Russian war, he says he remembers returning shortly after it was over to find that many of the large cities such as Kabul, Jalalabad, and Herat had been noticeably changed by Soviet development projects. The power grid had improved, new roads were paved, and housing developments had been expanded.

Meanwhile, there were other changes not readily apparent. Russians had sent Afghans to study in the USSR and even launched an Afghan pilot into space.

"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.

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."

Rampant political corruption 

Even if Afghanistan escapes the type of violence it experienced in the wake of the Soviet pullout, it will still face rampant political corruption, which often fuels instability.

Despite international efforts to bolster the Afghan government and create a more transparent system, a number of questionable figures continue to populate the ranks of national decisionmakers.

Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, for example, is widely believed to have invited Osama bin Laden into Afghanistan in 1996 and to have maintained ties with Al Qaeda, yet he currently holds a seat in parliament here.

Another example: Shortly after the US-led invasion in 2001, Abdul Shakoor Muslim returned to Afghanistan after living in Pakistan as a refugee. When he arrived at his family's land he found a prominent local police official had claimed it as his own. Mr. Muslim confronted him about it, but the high-profile squatter threatened his life.

Muslim then took the case to court. In two separate rulings, the court sided in his favor, yet the squatter's family, which had gained more influence in the Afghan police and Ministry of Defense, still refused to leave.

Recognizing the sensitivity of the case, the Kabul municipality offered Muslim a plot of land as compensation about three years ago. But when Muslim arrived at the new plot, he says, it had already been stolen by the driver of the Afghan vice president.

"If the Americans leave a corrupt government behind, then there will be problems. But if the Americans, and the world, try to establish a strong government in the country that can implement the rules on everyone equally – a minister, a farmer, everyone should obey the same rules – there won't be any problems," Muslim says.

Although such abuses of power and corruption are a real concern, they may not be insurmountable, says Ken Yamashita, mission director in Afghanistan for the US Agency for International Development.

USAID and other government agencies have committed to work in Afghanistan. Democracies take time to develop, and the country only just ratified its Constitution eight years ago, Mr. Yamashita points out. "In 2024, what we hope to see is an improving process of governance, an improving electoral process, and an improving accountability of Afghan political leadership to its people," he says.

"Our sense is that as that accountability improves, then ... individuals who have had a record of various actions that are not consistent with what the people want will not get voted in."

• Olga Podolskaya in Moscow and Zubair Babakarkhail in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed.

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