Rebuilding a devastated nation

SUN JOURNAL

Afghanistan: A conference next week in Tokyo will address the daunting task of reconstructing a country torn by two decades of war.

January 17, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The government has no money - the Taliban stuffed the country's last $7 million into flour sacks and ran away with it.

When the new president wants to confer with his Cabinet, he can't pick up one of the phones. They don't work, so his ministers communicate by courier. Civil servants depend on foreign aid for their salaries, because the government hasn't paid them in eight months. The United Nations is footing the bill for the new bureaucracy's computers, desks and paper clips, but officials need much more - like glass in their building windows and doors for their offices.

Beyond Kabul, the state of affairs is no better. Truck drivers moving food and crucial supplies are charged $100 at checkpoints run by warlords. Farmers hoping for a new beginning in spring fear predictions of continued drought, and lack the seeds and tools they need anyway.

As the world community turns its attention toward reconstruction in Afghanistan, it finds a country so ravaged by 20 years of war that the damage done by a fierce U.S. air campaign seems to pale in comparison.

"I don't know that there is any country where the needs have been quite this great and where the country has been quite so destroyed," says Nancy Lindborg, a senior vice president at Mercy Corps, an international relief agency. "There's a rule of thumb that it takes as long to recover from conflict as it takes to get into conflict. For Afghanistan, that's 20 years."

These troubles will take center stage Monday when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell joins about 60 foreign ministers and international organizations in Tokyo for a conference on Afghan reconstruction. The participants will commit their support to a rebuilding effort that the United Nations Development Programme says will cost $15 billion over 10 years.

The United States pledged $320 million in aid to Afghanistan last year, but that money does not stretch far. More than half of it has already been spent, prompting concerns about the next influx of cash.

Critics worry that the United Nations is moving so slowly that by the time it begins Afghan reconstruction, the country will have fallen into the same disarray that made it a spawning ground for terrorists.

"There's a dangerous gap in the delivery of immediate and substantial short-term assistance to the regime in Kabul," says Peter Tomsen, the last senior U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, from 1989 to 1992. "Afghans are going to move to other alternatives - slipping into chaos and warlordism - because the U.N. and U.S. and European aid operations move too slowly."

The United States could have stopped terror networks from taking root in Afghanistan in the first place, critics say, if it had kept its embassy open and come to the country's aid as the nation dissolved into civil war at the end of the 10-year Soviet occupation.

The Bush administration has not announced how much money it will devote to the effort, and relief agencies worry the United States won't deliver the 25 percent it traditionally offers for major global relief efforts. Aid groups hope for at least a $2.5 billion U.S. contribution to Afghanistan over five years - a generous example for other nations - but worry that the White House will balk because it has spent more than $2 billion on the war.

Humanitarian groups worry that while the United States is the largest single source of aid to Afghanistan, if the Bush administration does not dedicate billions of dollars to Afghan reconstruction it will fuel the argument that it was attacking the people of Afghanistan, not the Taliban.

"The U.S. is obligated to do its very best to help Afghanistan get back on its feet and to send the message that this really was a war against terrorism, and not a war against Islam or Muslims," says Kenneth Bacon, head of Refugees International, an advocacy group based in Washington. "If the United States says, `Well, we paid for the war, we're going to do much less in reconstruction,' that doesn't send a good message to Afghanistan or to the rest of the world. It makes the United States look like a hired army."

Aid groups argue that in the 2000 fiscal year, the United States spent 16 cents of every federal tax dollar on the Pentagon and less than a half-penny on international aid. But opposition to multibillion-dollar appropriations is likely at a time of when the government is projecting budget deficits.

Relief workers say almost every facet of Afghan life is in turmoil, after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and years of infighting that brought the Taliban to power in the mid-1990s. The Afghan infrastructure is stuck in the 1970s, at best, with limited phone networks, dilapidated roads and a crippled banking system. The Afghan people are living on the edge, threatened by sky-high infant mortality, homelessness and hunger.

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