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Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan sees Positive Energy in Kabul

October 6, 2010

Compared to my last visit with my wife, Pat, to Kabul in 2004, the city today is roaring, with traffic filling the streets and crowds of people flocking to stores along the main streets. I saw no beggars. Women are greatly outnumbered by men on the streets, and from what I saw, a third or so of them were not wearing burqas.

Ambassador Ted Eliot in Afghanista

The Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University remains the only place in Afghanistan that provides a comprehensive collection of research materials. There is also an outreach component, which sends mobile libraries into the provinces to communities, high schools and provincial councils. Above, Ted Eliot visits the Centre's special archive section. Photo by Rafal Gerszak.

One has to look hard today to see rubble from the civil war of 1989-96, which still very much dominated the landscape in 2004. There are lots of children (estimates show that 50 percent of the population is under 15). Kabul’s population has grown from about 600,000 when we lived there in the 1970s to several million today.

At the same time, it is clear that this is still a city in a country at war. Ministries, hotels, public buildings, foreign embassies, and military facilities are barricaded behind high walls and guarded by gun-toting soldiers and police. Military helicopters fly overhead. Few foreigners walk the streets.

Kabul University's Women's Dormitory

Huge progress has been made in the last nine years in building and staffing schools for boys and girls in Afghanistan. Recognizing the barriers to women's enrollment, The Asia Foundation partnered with the Ministry of Education to build a Women's Dormitory at Kabul University. Photo by Rafal Gerszak.

But on my visit I also experienced a lot of positive energy among Afghan leaders and their foreign advisors and supporters, all trying to restore an Afghanistan traumatized by over 30 years of war. Huge progress has been made in the last nine years in building and staffing schools for boys and girls and in enlarging opportunities for higher education. On this trip, we didn’t visit health facilities but were told that they are increasingly available, although often rudimentary, even increasingly in rural areas. Computers and cell phones are ubiquitous. The economy is growing, and farmers are busy harvesting Afghanistan’s famous fruits and nuts for export markets. There are plans to develop Afghanistan’s mineral wealth – one contract has been signed with China for a copper mine. The second parliamentary election on September 18, although clearly flawed in a number of ways, was nevertheless symbolic of Afghan desires to control their future. Afghans working hard to help their country radiate determination to succeed.

A girl reads at the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University

A girl uses a computer at the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University's reading room. Photo by Rafal Gerszak.

Two huge negative stories still haunt Afghanistan, and unfortunately, these narratives are the most common in mainstream media coverage, and are also the most talked about. One is the continuing insurgency, which has worsened in the last few years.  U.S. Ambassador Eikenberry and General Petraeus assure us that they now have the military and civilian manpower to succeed in Afghanistan. This is the first time since 2001 that our military and civilian leaders have been able to say that. Their hope is that by next summer, it will be possible to turn a few provinces’ security over to a rapidly growing Afghan army. And, there is some scattered evidence that in some areas, progress is already being made. On September 28, Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed a council to work on a peace deal with the Taliban and, together with NATO, has made a few, tentative steps to inaugurate a peace process. This will be very difficult and complicated because many insurgents are fighting not for ideological reasons, but to settle local, tribal, or village quarrels, or simply to make money through the opium trade. The importance of revenge in Pushtun culture will make it extremely difficult and time-consuming to bring insurgents safely back into their communities. The important point is that the effort is beginning.

The second negative is the often corrupt and ineffective government of President Karzai. This problem plagues relations at the highest level between Karzai and NATO governments, including the United States. Karzai has legitimate complaints about NATO activities, ranging from contribution to corruption of huge NATO cash outlays, to arrests of some of Karzai’s close associates and civilian casualties. NATO has legitimate complaints about corruption and public criticism by him of what his supposed allies are doing. Both sides have come to realize how damaging this is to our mutual efforts, and steps are underway to find new ways to work cooperatively. President Obama and President Karzai this week held a video conference with their top aides, an encouraging sign that they are working hard to be on the same wavelength.

If we are to succeed in helping the Afghans right their ship of state, the Obama administration must speak with one voice and work to convince Karzai and the Afghan people that the United States’ commitment is long-term. Otherwise, Karzai and other Afghans will be constantly looking for safe havens elsewhere. Or worse, there remains the danger of Afghanistan once again collapsing into chaos.

Ted Eliot is a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 1973-1978 and is a member of The Asia Foundation’s board of trustees.

View all posts by Ted Eliot

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