THE BLOG

Afghan Hope For Better Life Replaced By Hope Life Doesn't Get Worse

Three years ago, Afghans were disappointed and frustrated. In Kabul, they would ask me:

"Why are there still open sewers in our capital?"

"Why are there still no jobs?"

"Why are our lives not better after billons of US foreign aid dollars?"

Kabul, capital of one of the poorest countries on the planet, in 2006 was overflowing with thousands of international development specialists and humanitarian workers. Yet, it had precious few development and humanitarian projects, outside the capital there were even fewer. This privileged army of foreign aid workers would zip around Kabul in expensive SUVs, their white faces barely visible through the darkened windows. Roar down the dusty city streets to their fortified, comfortable offices; back to their guarded, relatively lavish quarters. Then whiz off to private restaurants, often to jovial dinner parties, with meals costing more than an average Afghan's monthly salary. Finally to night clubs, some with swimming pools surrounded by palm trees, the booze flowing heavy. I know, because I was there. And desperately impoverished Afghans who had nowhere to go would ask me:

"You foreigners live very good life here, why can't our life get better?"

That was 2006 when Afghanistan was the "forgotten war." The situation is different today, different yet the same. Afghanistan is now an American front-page war, yet in Afghanistan public disillusion remains high. Pamela Constable, in the Washington Post, writes:

The additional 17,000 troops the Obama administration is preparing to send to Afghanistan will face both an aggressive, well-armed Taliban insurgency and an unarmed but equally daunting foe: public opinion.

In more than a dozen interviews across the capital this week, Afghans said that instead of helping to defeat the insurgents and quell the violence that has engulfed their country, more foreign troops will exacerbate the problem.

The comments echoed a recent survey by the BBC and ABC News that found that although 90 percent of Afghans oppose the Taliban, less than half view the United States favorably, a sharp drop from a year ago, and a quarter say attacks on U.S. troops can be justified.

An overwhelming number of Afghans fear the harshness and brutality of the Taliban, yet most remain opposed to more US troops to battle this increasingly powerful, feared Taliban. Contradictory? Not really. Afghans believe more US troops will mean more US air strikes resulting in more civilian casualties. And more troops will mean more middle-of-the-night home-invasions terrorizing even more Afghan families. Afghans feel squeezed, with fear coming from both sides.

"Bringing in another foreign army is not going to help. They always come here for their own interests, and they always lose. Better to let everyone sit down with the elders and find a way for peace," said Ibrahim Khan, 40, a cargo truck driver from Paktia province. "People are feeling hopeless and afraid, but nobody knows who the enemy is anymore."

Three years ago, the Taliban was supposedly defeated and Afghans were increasingly impatient to receive the fruits of foreign aid that promised to resurrect their economy and deliver jobs. The Taliban, however, was not crushed, and the jobs never came. Instead, the Taliban regrouped and security has steadily deteriorated. Recently the Taliban attacked three government buildings inside Kabul. In the volatile South the insurgency continues to grow stronger and now it controls provinces just outside the capital.

For most Afghans, then, hope for a better life has been replaced by hope that life doesn't get worse.

This phrasing is awkward/confusing - I would change to: "Public disillusionment is fueled by the dismal economy, escalating war, and a third force."

It is the dismal economy and the escalating fighting that is fueling the public disillusionment, and a third force. These are many small fires invisible from afar yet intensely powerful when personally experienced. What are these fires? They are cultural clashes within a context of unbalanced power. They are actions that foreign troops view as necessary, but Afghans see as arrogant and excessive.

"I was driving on the road from Jalalabad last month, and an American military convoy came from the other direction," recalled Mahmad Humayun, who has a small shop that sells women's garments. "They started flashing their lights at us to slow down, and then they started firing their guns at the road in front of us. This is our country, and these are our roads," he said angrily. "Don't we have the right to drive in peace?"

When foreign troops are stationed in a country, insults and indignities always result. The skin of national dignity is easily pricked. No people want a foreign army in their country -- not Americans, not Afghans. Yet, Afghans know that a foreign army is better than returning to total chaos and a mad civil war. Constable writes:

They may not be happy with the troops' behavior, the argument goes, but they realize that the alternative would be worse.