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A Once and Future Nation

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By ROGER COHEN
The New York Times
October 22, 2007

QALAT, Afghanistan

Once upon a time there was a country, more a space than a nation, landlocked, mountainous, impoverished and windblown.

There resided many peoples, including Pashtuns and Tajiks and Uzbeks and Turkmen, and a new tribe called the Americans.

They had come, the Americans, after 30 years of bloodshed, to bring peace to this land called Afghanistan. But what did they know — what could they know — of life behind burkas, or on the other side of mud walls, or inside minds made mad by war?

Past goat herds and yellowing almond trees, the helmeted Americans drove armored Humvees. Beside lurching stacks of battered tires children gathered in villages and, unlike those in another broken land called Iraq, they smiled and waved.

The Americans talked about empowering Afghans. Sometimes they took to Blackhawk choppers and swooped along the dun-colored river beds and sent goats scurrying for cover.

The 26,000 U.S. troops meant well. They wielded billions of dollars. They calculated “metrics” of progress. They had learned, to their cost, how this faraway place — invaded and used and at last abandoned to pile rubble upon rubble — could nurture danger.

Not only was it once home to the American-financed Islamists who humbled the Soviet empire. It also housed their jihadist offspring, who, like sorcerers’ apprentices, turned on a distracted sponsor and brought the dust of two fallen towers to Manhattan.

To help forge a better Afghanistan — or merely an Afghanistan — the Americans involved their NATO friends. An alliance forged to defend the West against the Soviets was transformed into an agent of democratic change in southwest Asia.

How strange! The enemy now was Taliban Islamofascists rather than Kremlin totalitarians. On a hillside in south-eastern Afghanistan rose “Camp Dracula,” a garrison of 700 Romanian soldiers on this NATO mission.

It would take a great fabulist to make up such stories. Yet they wrote themselves after reports that the cold war’s conclusion marked the end of history proved greatly exaggerated.

And so, one recent morning, Lt. Col. James Bramble, a reservist from El Paso, Tex., with a job there as a pharmaceuticals executive, found himself visiting the Romanian forces and then going to the nearby village of Morad Khan Kalay.

Nations are built one village at a time. Or so Colonel Bramble has come to believe. He is a thoughtful man, commanding a NATO provincial reconstruction team, one of 25 across the country, at a base in Qalat, between Kandahar and Kabul. His team is supposed to deliver the development and good governance that will marginalize the Taliban.

That’s the theory. The practice looks like this. Seven armored U.S. Humvees form a “perimeter” on the edge of the village and newly trained members of the Afghan police — the “Afghan face” on this mission — are dispatched to bring out village elders.

Looking apprehensive, the Afghans appear swathed in robes and headgear whose bold colors mock dreary U.S. Army camouflage. Staff Sgt. Marco Villalta, of San Mateo, Calif., steps forward: “We would like to ask you some questions about your village.”

The following is elicited: There are 300 families using 25 wells. Their irrigation ditches get washed away in winter. A small bridge keeps collapsing. They send their children to a school in nearby Shajoy, but it’s often closed because of Taliban threats to teachers.

Sergeant Villalta takes notes. “We’ll share this information with the governor and make sure that something is done.”

“No! No!,” says Sardar Mohammed. “We don’t trust the governor. If he gets food, he gives it to 10 families. He puts money in his pocket. We trust you more than him. Bring aid directly to us.”

Bramble’s view is that the governor is as good as officials get around here. The U.S. officer, like his country and NATO, is caught in the hall of mirrors of contested nation-building. The exchange at the village has traversed cultures, civilizations and centuries. For Western soldiers trained to kill, and now in the business of hoisting an Islamic country from nothing as fighting continues, that’s challenging.

Still, Bramble thinks this first contact will lead to others and perhaps he can arrange for the bridge to be bolstered soon. Another community will be brought around in “the good war” against death-to-the-West Islamists.

This process will be very slow. The West’s stomach for investing blood and treasure here for another decade is unclear. But I see no alternative if Afghanistan is to move from its destructive gyre and the global threat that brings.

The children’s smiles suggest hope still flickers. To lose Afghanistan by way of smile-free Iraq — and do so on the border of a turbulent nuclear-armed Pakistan — would be a terrible betrayal and an unacceptable risk.

That, alas, is no fairy tale.

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Written by afghandevnews

October 23, 2007 at 1:58 pm

Posted in Aid, Development

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