Winning the Peace for Afghans

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

October 3, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan My quest to help President Bush find Osama bin Laden has taken me into Afghanistan, where I've offended the locals by scrutinizing every unusually tall woman in a burka. But so far, no sign of Osama.

What I do see, though, is an Afghanistan that shows real promise in the north - but is falling apart in the rural areas of the south. The result is more terrorism and narcotics, and more Americans coming home in body bags.

Right after the war, an American could travel virtually everywhere in Afghanistan. These days, much of the south is a killing ground.

Before Mr. Bush claims again that Afghanistan is a shining success, he should talk to Nyamatullah, a 33-year-old tribal leader from Zabul, one of the most dangerous provinces.

"At first, people were very hopeful, and they thought America would help us," said Mr. Nyamatullah, who initially was an enthusiastic supporter of the American invasion. "The [new Afghan] government promised us new schools, district offices, clinics, water pumps, but it has done nothing at all. People are so disappointed. ... At least the Taliban would grade roads, build madrassas, while this government has done nothing."

Mr. Nyamatullah still hates the Taliban, but he added, "If the situation continues and America does the same things, I definitely will pick up a gun and fight the Americans."

Our failure in the south is tragic because it is so unnecessary. Much of Afghanistan - the north, and even the cities in the south - is flourishing, demonstrating what would have been possible if we had only tried as hard to win the peace as we did to win the war.

One measure of the boom in Kabul is the way a street haircut has moved upmarket.

Three years ago, I had my hair cut on a Kabul sidewalk by a street barber who used rusty scissors and charged me the equivalent of 7 U.S. cents. This time, I wound through a Kabul traffic jam and found someone in the same group of street barbers to cut my hair again. But the barber, Muhammad Yasin, had clippers as well as scissors, and he even had a bowl of water to wet my hair before cutting it. And the price had soared to 38 cents.

The boom could have spread across Afghanistan and Central Asia, if only President Bush had provided Afghans with security and more reconstruction assistance. Instead, he was distracted by Iraq, and our attention-deficit-disorder foreign policy lurched on.

In a recent column, I compared President Bush to King Henry V, who was presented by Shakespeare as the great English warrior. King Henry was so determined to consolidate his military victories over France that he married a French princess; Mr. Bush didn't need to go that far (although people here sure would have been impressed if he had taken an Afghan as a second wife), but some follow-up was essential.

"The powers that be have not made any significant progress at addressing the security problems that affect ordinary Afghans, and there is no coherent strategy for addressing the narcotics-related problems," said Paul Barker, the head of Care in Afghanistan. "While Afghanistan is in far better shape than Iraq, it is very far from a success story."

Haji Muhammad Ayoub, the deputy police chief in now-perilous Helmand Province, acknowledged that crime had gotten much worse across Afghanistan, and he blames corruption. He said that he had captured 120 robbers and murderers in the last two years, but that most of them had bought their freedom with bribes. In one case, he said, two murderers paid $8,000 to a prison official to be freed, then resumed their rampages.

A government official from Uruzgan put it bluntly: "The Taliban is much stronger than before. The American and Afghan governments were saying that things would get better, and they didn't. So people turned to the Taliban."

I'm still optimistic about the north of Afghanistan, and I give Mr. Bush credit for liberating the Afghan people from the Taliban in 2001. But the image he presents of Afghanistan is unrecognizable on the ground, and his failure to win the peace has given Osama even more places to hide.