On October 7th, 2001, the first NATO airstrikes hit Kabul. A correspondent reflects on how the war has changed Afghanistan and its occupiers, and whether it was worth it

AS A general rule, the longer outsiders spend in Afghanistan the more depressed they become about the place. Though there are not many foreigners who can boast of more than a few years’ experience here, the West’s decade-long adventure has made the army of diplomats, aid workers and development people positively funereal.

Hardly a conversation starts without a dark-humoured joke about the ultimate failure of the NATO mission. Everyone has their own particular reason to be glum. NGO types are disinclined to see glimmers of hope as they struggle to get anything done in a country where year after year the Taliban-led insurgency has strengthened and expanded, making it progressively harder to move staff around safely. There is rarely a week when human-rights officials don’t have some cause to tear their hair out—perhaps a Taliban stoning video or the discovery that the Afghan government is viciously abusing prisoners. And the diplomatic corps must deal with the daily frustrations of doing business with a government led by Hamid Karzai. It was his behaviour during the 2009 presidential election that seemed to tip many people towards despair: a million of fake ballots cast and a messy post-polling dispute that dragged on for months. The country’s four post-2001 elections have seen increasing fraud and falling participation. Western electoral experts are usually the most despairing of the lot.

Many Afghans too are disinclined to see anything but a bleak future. The vast change that the last decade has brought to Kabul, a city that has experienced a ten-year boom and which now enjoys almost round-the-clock electricity, will not last, says the manager of a high-end shop selling office computer supplies. He points out that when the torrent of money flowing through the Afghan capital in the wake of the foreigners stops, so too will the mad construction of grandiose concrete palaces that now encroach on almost every neighbourhood. Ditto the ludicrous rents and high prices for almost everything that has to be hauled up to this mountaintop plateau, making Kabul one of most expensive cities in the poor world. “The 9/11 kids,” he says, pointing to a gaggle of male teens sporting spiky gelled hair, the hippest of threads and flaunting mobile-phone technology that would have given the Taliban regime’s vice and virtue police heart palpitations. “They will all go back to wearing shalwar kameez.”

His business, which has thrived off contracts with commercial development companies who need computers and printer toners, is already feeling the squeeze as aid budgets are cut. He is resigned to having to do something rather more humble in the future. “I will sell bolani,” he suggests, picturing himself as a roadside vendor of greasy, potato-filled bread—which is what he was doing as a refugee in Peshawar in 2001 before the war started.

Although foreign soldiers tend to be much more upbeat, in recent years there has been a noticeable fading of their zeal. These days it is not hard to find American soldiers simultaneously doing some of the most ambitious and sophisticated counter-insurgency operations ever attempted, while failing to see the point of them. Read more…

As published in www.economist.com on October 6, 2011


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