Kansas in Middle East? How US has – and hasn’t – changed Afghanistan

Why We Wrote This

The U.S. has spent more in Afghanistan than it did rebuilding Europe after World War II. The effort has produced a mixed record that will shape future nation-building efforts.

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
Afghan engineers work on a map of the ruined Darul Aman palace in Kabul, Afghanistan Oct. 2, 2016. Female engineers played a key role in the restoration of the palace. Inclusion of women in professional life has been a focus of U.S. efforts in the country.

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American troops remain locked in the longest war in U.S. history. Over the course of 18 years in Afghanistan, the United States has spent billions of dollars on the war and to rebuild there. The cumulative effect of the U.S. presence does not reflect the fortune spent, but it has changed the nation. 

Once-unthinkable strides have been made in women’s rights, education for girls, and the creation of a middle class with high expectations for a civil society. 

But there are contradictions in that progress. Infrastructure projects that were supposed to open doors have been tempered by corruption and mismanagement. And the U.S. presence and money did create a sense of dependency among Afghans.

In September, President Donald Trump ended nearly a year of controversial negotiations for a U.S. military pullout with the Taliban, as the talks were on the cusp of agreement. Last week, however, he announced during his first visit to the country that talks would resume. Whatever the U.S. presence remains from here, questions persist about one of the most ambitious nation-building efforts in the post-World War II era: Just how fragile is the change to Afghan society, and what has all that American taxpayer cash left behind?

On a crisp early winter day in late 2003, Afghan President Hamid Karzai took a pair of scissors from a tray offered by a schoolgirl – she was dressed for the ceremonial occasion in a purple velvet brocade dress with a reddish orange headscarf – and cut a ribbon to officially inaugurate the resurfaced Kabul-Kandahar highway.

On hand was then-U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who recalled in his speech how President George W. Bush had phoned him every other day to push for the first layer of asphalt to be laid on this flagship nation-building enterprise before winter snows set in. Even today, local Afghans call this vital 300-mile stretch of highway the “Mr. Bush Project.” 

“There were some problems that we pointed out, but they were ignored, because President Bush would say, ‘Before the snow falls, the black line should be connected to Kandahar,’” recalls an Afghan engineer who worked on the project for an American company. “The black line was the first priority; the second actually was quality,” the engineer says, noting how U.S. politics had driven the rebuilding timeline. “But in the next year, too many problems came out ... because of the speed. They pushed too fast.”

AIJAZ RAHI/AP/FILE
Then-President Hamid Karzai (center, in brown robe) inaugurates the Kabul-Kandahar highway in 2003. The road was central to U.S. nation-building efforts but has been wracked by problems.

The highway was portrayed as the symbol of the American commitment to rebuild Afghanistan after decades of war and after U.S. forces orchestrated the ousting of the archconservative Taliban and Al Qaeda in November 2001, following the 9/11 attacks. Mr. Bush promised the United States would succeed as nation builders. He noted the history of military conflicts in Afghanistan was “one of initial success followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure,” but vowed in April 2002 that America was “not going to repeat that mistake.” It would instead create a nation “free from this evil [that] is a better place in which to live.”

Yet the Kabul-Kandahar highway is emblematic of how America’s immense ambition in Afghanistan has yielded a mixed result of victories and defeats. The cumulative effect of the U.S. presence here does not reflect the fortune spent, but it clearly has changed the nation – often for the better. 

Despite the ribbon-cutting fanfare, this highway would eventually be crushed under the heavy weight of traffic it was not designed to carry. It would split with micro-cracks caused by explosions of roadside bombs and blown-up bridges and culverts. Insecurity also restricted maintenance, as it would hobble the entire U.S. effort.

Indeed, 18 years after they first arrived, U.S. troops remain locked in the longest war in American history, and the cost in blood and treasure has been high. More than 2,400 U.S. military personnel have died since 2001. And in the first nine months of 2019 alone, the United Nations counts 2,563 Afghan civilians killed.

The Taliban insurgency now controls or has influence across more than half of Afghanistan and is advancing. Yet the price of reconstruction paid by the U.S. has now topped $132 billion – never mind the far higher cost of the war itself, which is at least six times greater, official figures show. By comparison, the entire Marshall Plan to rebuild 16 European countries after World War II took some $100 billion in today’s dollars.

Despite the huge investment, Afghanistan’s streets are not paved with gold. There is little here, in fact, that looks like Western Europe: Poverty remains endemic, corruption is chronic, and much of the money poured into rebuilding has been lost, mismanaged, or spent on dubious projects. Persistent insecurity only highlights how the authority of the U.S.-backed government is diminishing.

JIM HUYLEBROEK/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES
A man sits at the top of Bibi Mahru Hill looking out at the commercial and residential buildings of Kabul, Afghanistan, which has modernized considerably after 18 years of U.S. reconstruction efforts.

Yet Afghans note that other, less quantifiable metrics of progress give more reason for optimism. Their nation and society have been irreversibly transformed by the American effort here. Once-unthinkable strides have been made in women’s rights, education for girls, and the creation of a middle class with high expectations for a civil society.

The U.S. presence and money, to be sure, did create a sense of dependency among Afghans. It enabled not only corruption, but also the “thinking that somebody else is going to do your job for you: The Americans are going to come, they are going to build my army, they are going to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they are going to fix my country,” says Masood Karokhail, director of The Liaison Office, a Kabul-based group that facilitates peace and rebuilding.

At the same time, however, he says that efforts by the U.S. and other donors instilled an Afghan version of the American dream. Afghans now demand more political rights and to live better lives. 

“Those thousands of workshops that happened across the country on women’s rights, on youth, freedom ... each of those have left something in our minds,” says Mr. Karokhail. “For a country that had been a very traditional, closed society, suddenly it was exploding not only with cash but also information.”

In September, President Donald Trump ended nearly a year of controversial negotiations for a U.S. military pullout with the Taliban, as the talks were on the cusp of agreement. Last week, however, he announced during his first visit to the country that talks would resume. Whatever U.S. presence remains from here, questions persist about one of the most ambitious nation-building efforts in the post-World War II era: Just how fragile is the change to Afghan society, especially in Kabul and other urban centers, and what has all that American taxpayer cash left behind?

In 2001, Afghanistan was certainly a different place. The country was coming out of five years of austere Taliban rule that forbade women from working outside the home, forbade schooling for girls, and even forbade photographic images of a human face. Taliban checkpoints were strewn with confiscated videotapes and music CDs.

Afghans describe their society then as a “desert” – hopeless and lost in time.

“Just the level of human flourishing since the arrival of American troops – you can actually talk about an influx of resources creating babies that don’t die, and kids that get educated,” says Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

The statistics charting such upward trends are impressive. But they are tempered by “waste, fraud and abuse” that U.S. auditors in 2017 said had tarnished 29% of the $52.7 billion in spending they examined.

“We can’t rebuild it into a little America,” John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, whose office produces voluminous quarterly reports and audits for Congress, told The Hill, a U.S. political website, in June 2018. “I think that was one of the problems. We wanted to turn this into Kansas.”

“We designed and funded a lot of programs that the Afghans didn’t even know about until we turned it over to them,” Mr. Sopko said. “Basically, dollar bills were falling from the sky.” 

The contradictions of progress in Afghanistan – and a lack of it – are evident at the Ariana Kabul Private High School in north Kabul, which teaches 350 students on a shoestring budget. It offers a 50% discount for girls, to encourage their attendance, and also takes in a number of street kids for free.

“Most women in our community are illiterate, so if a mother is educated, it will have a direct effect,” says Laila Dost, the school’s director. “Our policy is to pave the way for poor urban boys and girls.”

SCOTT PETERSON/GETTY IMAGES/THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
“The important things that changed are in people's minds. Those who prevented me, now they are proud of me and say, ‘your work is great.’” – Shogofa Sediqi, chief executive officer of Zan TV, an Afghan

They share the same classrooms and same desks up to the sixth grade. Boys and girls are separated at higher grades. Such a mixed school was impossible under the Taliban in the late 1990s, when one teacher here organized secret classes for girls.

“Officially it was a holy Quran course,” recalls Homira Kohi. “Every student carried a holy Quran in their hand, and their [regular] books in their backpack. If the Taliban came, they were to immediately take hold of the Quran.”

The official Taliban curriculum “was all about conflict, guns, and bombs,” she says. Students recited sentences like, “My father has a gun, and with his gun he goes on jihad.” Ms. Kohi was excited when the Taliban fell because Afghans thought the militants would be in the country “forever.”

“Every human is struggling for their desire; we struggled so much for education,” she says. “Now there is a huge difference in the desire of the people.”

SCOTT PETERSON/GETTY IMAGES/THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Afghan boys and girls attend mixed classes at the Ariana Kabul Private School in Kabul. The school is one of many changes to Afghan society since the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001.

But the continuing challenges of the Ariana school are evident in the deeply rutted dirt road in front of the school. A local member of Parliament lives on this street and – even though his son goes to the school – has prevented neighbors from taking up a collection to pave it. He worries that a better road will only make it easier for a suicide car bomber to attack. Ms. Dost herself has paid for gravel to be spread in front of the school when it rains and snows, because politicians “build big buildings, but only “think about themselves.”

In the school’s basement, no lighting exists in two classrooms, the library, and a science area where a large periodic table hangs from the wall along with models of the human body – their sexual organs modestly covered with tape.

The rooms are dark because Kabul and 16 provinces, nearly half of the country, were without power in mid-September for the third time in two years. The Taliban sabotaged transmission lines bringing electricity from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Power should be available from the vast $335 million Tarakhil Power Plant built by the U.S. to provide the capital city with energy. But the project, completed in 2010 and labeled the “white elephant of Kabul,” has proved unsustainable because it requires far more diesel fuel to operate than Afghanistan can afford.

DAVID GOLDMAN/AP/FILE
Sayed Rasoul, an engineer, works in the power station at the Kajaki Dam in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Large parts of the country are periodically without power because of disruptions caused by Taliban fighters and poor project choices made by U.S. and Afghan officials.

“Each hour, that plant uses 40,000 liters” of diesel, says an electrical engineer with a detailed understanding of the project, who asked not to be named. That would cost $35,000 or $40,000 per hour, and multiplied by 24 hours, “it’s a huge amount,” he says.

The Tarakhil plant, he adds, “was better for Dubai or Saudi Arabia, not for Afghanistan. Because of that, people ask: Why didn’t they build three dams with this money?” Indeed, the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in 2015 found that Tarakhil was severely underutilized, operated at less than 1% capacity, and risked becoming a “catastrophic failure.”

The U.S. should have known about the difficulty of finding a steady supply of diesel fuel. Soon after the American arrival, another U.S. program sought to bring diesel generators to every village in the country to provide electricity. But most of them were idle within months.

If half the families in a village don’t have “10 afghanis [13 cents] to buy bread, how do they pay 20 afghanis every night for fuel?” asks the Afghan road engineer. “Actually, 20 afghanis is very little. But for local village people they have no work, no resources, nothing.”

Stories abound of war profiteering. Afghan contractors and businesspeople have shipped ill-gotten gains to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and beyond, while ordinary people scratch for bread or risk their lives on the migrant routes to Europe. But such realities mask real positive change in Afghanistan.

“Donor countries have put blood and treasure into this country, and they have made a lot of sacrifice,” says Abdallah al-Dardari, the country representative of the United Nations Development Program in Kabul. “Afghanistan today is not the Afghanistan of 2001.”

One result, says Mr. al-Dardari, is that the country “has done a paradigm shift on the road to democracy,” which includes political and media freedom.

Another is the “resilience” of the society and its institutions. Even though illiteracy and poverty are high, he says, people are much more sophisticated about understanding the importance of development and aid. 

Still, U.S. nation builders “were very ambitious for a very long time,” says a veteran Western official in Kabul. “For the amount of money, they got very little. ... Their return on investment is very low, but they did achieve something.”

On the positive side, the official notes that without the money put into rebuilding the Afghan security forces – despite high casualty rates and corruption – “we would be worse off, and the Taliban would probably have taken over again by force.”

U.S. and other donor funding has been instrumental, too, in helping groups such as the Afghan Midwives Association (AMA). Since 2001, it has helped expand the number of trained Afghan midwives from 467 to 15,000. It has reduced maternal mortality from 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births to between 800 and 1,200 deaths.

The improvement is evident in the “stories” quilted on 3-by-4-foot cloth, presented by midwives from each province to the AMA, as part of an annual competition. One narrative depicts a woman pregnant with triplets who experienced abnormal bleeding. But she gets the care she needs – and all survive. Two decades ago, the mother and babies would likely have perished, says Farzana Darkhani, AMA’s executive director.

“Fortunately, these cases are [today] very easily managed by midwives,” says Ms. Darkhani. “Because community awareness has also been improved, they know about the danger signs and can bring mothers to health facilities to take care of them.”

SCOTT PETERSON/GETTY IMAGES/THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
“If you go to the same community now, even much more remote areas, people come and ask me to build schools for their girls. That is a transformation in the mindset of people, in society.” – Fawzia Koofi, a former lawmaker from Badakhshan province, speaking from her office in Kabul about changes in the country

Fawzia Koofi, a former lawmaker from the province of Badakhshan, has witnessed positive change in the country as well. When her father set up a local school four decades ago, girls had no chance to attend and families were even reluctant to send boys: The fear was they would be forced to serve in the army and learn something that contradicted their values.

“This is not something you can see because it’s not a building, it is not something measurable,” says Ms. Koofi. “But if you go to the same community now, even much more remote areas, people come and ask me to build schools for their girls. That is a transformation in the mindset of people, in society.”

Improving the status of women extends beyond the classroom. Zan TV, or “Women’s TV,” is a channel that broadcasts shows about women’s issues, with the aim of empowering Afghan women. “If there were still a Taliban regime, it’s clear: There would be no Zan TV, no freedom,” says Shogofa Sediqi, chief executive officer of Zan TV. She also points out that boys forced to wear turbans during the Taliban era are now professors and advisers to the president.

All this means that, as costly as the U.S. support of Afghanistan has been in the 18 years since the toppling of the Taliban, it has wrought significant change in a society gripped by war for decades.

“The important things that changed are in people’s minds,” says Ms. Sediqi, who notes that when she first chose to be a journalist, her uncles and other relatives were opposed. “Those who prevented me, now they are proud of me and say, ‘Your work is great,’” she says. “Changes start from my own family. From this, so many minds are changed.”

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