Magazine article The Spectator

The Waste Land

Magazine article The Spectator

The Waste Land

Article excerpt

THE American victory over the Taleban and the subsequent arrival of peace-keepers and aid-workers have done little to heal Afghanistan's wounds. After more than 20 years of war - first against the Soviets, then among themselves Afghans remain a destitute people. Kabul itself is three quarters destroyed, and sewage runs along open gutters. The handful of tarmac roads that link the larger cities - Afghanistan is the size of Texas - are all but impassable, as a result of neglect, erosion and the effects of war. The water supply, once the pride of Afghanistan, flowing in underground canals and irrigating wheat fields, orchards and vineyards, has collapsed under mines and shelling. The towns have only sporadic electricity. There is no postal system and no telephone. Ariana, the state airline, has been left with two aeroplanes. There are calculated to be up to ten million unexploded landmines - down wells, in fields, among the ruined houses. Afghanistan was once self-sufficient; it is unlikely ever to be so again.

In the past six months 1.6 million refugees have come home. Their number is expected to reach two million by the winter. That would still leave something like 2.5 million Afghans outside the country, scattered between Iran, Western Europe, the Gulf and Pakistan, where they are being treated with growing hostility. With a quarter of its population in exile, Afghanistan has for many years held the record of having more refugees than any other nation in the world - half of whom were born outside the country. Families who left Afghanistan as a unit of ten people a quarter of a century ago are coming back as 50 or 60. President Hamid Karzai says he wants them all home by the end of his transitional government in six months' time.

Afghanistan holds another unhappy record. It lies close to the bottom of the world league for such economic indicators as literacy, child mortality and nutrition. One Afghan child in four dies before the age of five. Outside Kabul, the country may be as much as 90 per cent illiterate. Within the city, 50,000 children are said to work; many are carpet weavers.

It is not as if the West has done nothing. In Bonn, in December, the `international community' agreed to help rebuild Afghanistan and turn it into a democracy; in Tokyo, in January, the West pledged $1.8 billion for the first year, and $4.5 billion in the years thereafter. No one can say precisely how much of the pledged money has been received and spent - the best guess seems be about $1 billion - but it is clear that the sums are considered by the Afghans to be very disappointing. In offices around the city, civil servants complain that the cost-benefit ratio, dollars received to money actually spent on Afghanistan, is 30 to one. How true this is, whether the UN is as ineffectual as it is perceived to be, or whether it has simply become a scapegoat, the focus for general discontent, is impossible to say. But the perceptions, and the feelings, are intense.

There are few visible signs of major reconstruction. Ministries, seven months after the departure of the Taleban, remain derelict, with broken window-panes and large, bare rooms. The Ministry for Rural Redevelopment and Reconstruction has nine vehicles for 200 staff; there are no computers, not enough desks or chairs. To add to the overall sense of neglect and confusion, two mobile telephone systems have been introduced: one, the Eriksson, serves the UN and some government offices. The other, AWCC, is used by NGOs. The two are not compatible.

`Why isn't more of the promised money coming in?' asks Professor Nabi Farahi, the deputy minister of finance. `We need, desperately, roads, houses, schools. The days pass and nothing happens. …

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