If the U.S. Can’t Help Afghanistan, Who Can?

DO AB, AFGHANISTAN–Afghanistan has more infrastructure than it did in 2001. But Afghans also have less soul.

In many ways, Afghanistan was a more dangerous country nine years ago. There were more mines, more random acts of violence, warlordism everywhere. U.S. warplanes were bombing everything that moved. But, particularly in the Tajik-dominated north, there was also boundless optimism, a feeling that anything was possible. Good times might not be right around the corner–not exactly. But soon.

If anyone could fix Afghanistan, people thought, the United States could. The superpower colossus! A nation so rich that Afghans couldn’t begin to measure, much less really understand it. Rebuilding Afghanistan from the ground up would be chump change for mighty America.

The U.S. media did nothing to temper Afghan optimism. An October 2001 piece for Slate was typical: “Terrorism, the most ardent proponents of intervention argue, can’t be defeated without a complete reconstruction of Afghanistan’s government, infrastructure and society,” wrote Damien Cave. “In effect, what is needed is a 21st century version of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II.” (Cave’s piece now reads like Cassandra. If only we’d followed the advice of a certain Joe Biden back then.) Nation building? We were all for it. Everyone–especially right-wing media types–promoted the “Marshall Plan for Afghanistan” meme.

Back then, Afghans were brave. When I needed a driver to take me to the front–the front! where bombs were falling by the thousands! where the Taliban were shooting at us from a hundred yards away!–I’d have a dozen guys vying for the job.

Now, alas, Afghans are utterly demoralized. The Taliban, in bands from 40 to 400 each, terrorize whole provinces. No one–not even the cops–dare travel outside the major cities. Where the suburbs begin, so does fear. Whenever I go somewhere, Afghan officials ask me: Where are my bodyguards? Where is my body armor? Why am I outside Kabul? “If you were a real journalist,” a police official told me, typically, “you’d be traveling in a truck full of U.S. soldiers with big guns.” (Funny me, I thought it was the other way around.)

I’m not afraid. But Afghans, those bad-ass Afghans, are. I looked for drivers everywhere–at taxi stands, through personal contacts, the UN and even the military. No one would take me outside a city. Price didn’t matter. In a country where a civil servant earns $30 a month, I offered drivers $500 a day–and got turned down. “It’s just too dangerous,” people kept saying–too dangerous to be seen with foreigners, and too dangerous without them too. (Messing with Westerners can cause trouble. In Afghanistan in 2010, everything causes trouble.)

Even allowing for the risk of Taliban attacks, Afghan highways are safer than they were in 2001. Thanks to paved roads, you can go faster and evade ambushes if need be. There are government gun nests every few kilometers. Unlike ’01, you don’t have American jets bombing everything that moves on Afghan highways. Yet Afghans are far less willing to take chances now than they were then. What happened?

The Afghan sense of what was possible has narrowed. When it came to bombs and high-tech gadgets for killing Afghans, the U.S. spent like there was no tomorrow. Meanwhile, the construction budget was less than one-half of one percent. Of which most was never spent. And what actually did get spent got stolen. For a while, Afghans concocted elaborate conspiracy theories to explain this insane set of misplaced priorities. They couldn’t believe that America the Superpower was so stupid, incompetent and/or corrupt.

They believe it now. And the effect has been devastating. “If America, with its unchallenged military power and massive material wealth, cannot or will not help Afghanistan,” a college student named Mohammed told me at the Friday Mosque in Herat, “who can? If they can’t build houses, who can? Why can’t they catch the Taliban?”

I have been hearing this a lot: from NGO workers who have been here for years, Western journalists, and Afghan citizens. We were Afghanistan’s last hope, and we blew it.

Now that political support for the war is waning in the U.S., the Obama Administration is looking to start pulling out next year. Actually, that isn’t adding to Afghans’ sense of hopelessness. They gave up on the U.S. years ago. Even if we were to stick around, people here say, they don’t believe that we’d suddenly start helping ordinary Afghans or lift a finger to provide basic security.

They’re screwed and they know it.

Killing Afghans’ hope for a better future may be an even more vile crime than the hundreds of thousands of Afghans the U.S. has murdered with bombs and bullets. As the U.S. stands by and watches, the security and economic situations continue to deteriorate. So Afghan psychology is reverting to survival skills learned during the Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban period. People are keeping their heads down, not taking chances.

Without optimism, after all, courage is illogical.

(Ted Rall is in Afghanistan to cover the war and research a book. He is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto,” which will be published in September by Seven Stories Press. His website is