Helping a nation rebuild

Challenge: America should learn from Afghanistan -- it's easier said than done.

April 27, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Remember Afghanistan? Anybody?

This was the land the United States invaded from the air and by land to get rid of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida fighters and their Taliban hosts who ruled from Kabul.

But little is heard from the mountainous land these days. The news from Iraq, the latest place invaded by America and its allies, overwhelms practically all else. U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, the evil mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against America pops up by voice or image occasionally, spooking the civilized world. The Taliban still lurks somewhere. Warlords still fight for a piece of the action. People are still being killed there.

But attention should be paid because Afghanistan is rather like Iraq might be in the near future -- if the Shi'ites, the Kurds and the Sunnis were under control, if not happily, and some U.S.-designated Iraqi were in charge, at least of the capital. And work was genuinely under way to rebuild the land.

Two documentary films are appearing in Baltimore as part of the Maryland Film Festival that tell the story of what that's like in Afghanistan. They offer a cautionary tale about what the next stage might be like in Iraq, if it is ever reached.

Life After War actually is not about building a new nation, it's about building a new house.

One of the journalists working in Afghanistan during the fighting was National Public Radio reporter Sarah Chayes. When the war came to an end, Chayes decided to stay, to try to do something for the Afghans. She cast her lot with a charity organization run by Baltimore restaurateur Quayam Karzai, whose brother Hamid had just been named Afghanistan's interim president.

The hour-long documentary tells of many frustrations and few triumphs as Chayes struggles to get the first of seventeen houses built in a community near the Kandahar airport that had been bombed by U.S. planes.

Who gets the first house? A village meeting decides on a respected elder. How big should it be? Chayes' group budgeted for five-meter rooms. But the man wants seven-meter rooms. If you're going to build five-meter rooms, don't even bother, he says. For him, the walls aren't strong enough, their mud coating isn't thick enough.

"I think Sarah was taken aback that people weren't completely and quickly grateful for what she was bringing them," says Brian Knappenberger who filmed and directed Life After War. "Ultimately I see it as a question of identity, they want to have a say in what their place looks like, basically to make some of the decisions that determine their future."

Chayes' attempt to buy the stones for the house's foundation was another straightforward transaction that turned into a complicated problem. The local strongman, Gul Agha Shirzai, had essentially confiscated all the stones, planning to use them for cement and to make a lot of money when the United States would finance rebuilding the road to Kabul. Only a Byzantine series of negotiations -- amazingly all recorded by Knappenberger's camera -- procured the stones needed for Chayes' house.

"This imperial project that the United States has embarked upon is very complex," says Larry Goodson of the Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., speaking about the nation-building projects in both Afghanistan and Iraq. "If it is that hard to build one home, how hard is it to build a new society? A new government?"

Another documentary about Afghanistan tells a similar tale. Taran Davies traveled with Afghan expatriate Walied Osman from New York to visit other expatriates in Canada and Tajikistan before crossing over into northern Afghanistan in the first weeks of the U.S. bombing campaign in October 2001.

The varied experiences captured in Afghan Stories, which will be shown on the Sundance cable channel after its Baltimore premiere, again illustrates the complexity of these societies, crushed and crippled by decades of war and repression, but still functioning in a way that requires the United States to pay attention.

"The sense I got from the people I met -- the Afghans here in the U.S., in Canada, in Tajikistan and in Afghanistan -- was a feeling of, `Yes, we need your help. But let us do the job,'" Davies said. "The sense that I got was that there has been too much foreign intervention, and essentially Afghans want to be left alone. ... They want to be given the tools -- they need the tools -- but let them do the job."

One part of Afghan Stories shows an example of a larger debate over the future of Afghanistan, something that's analogous to what's going on in Iraq.

As Goodson explains it, Hamid Karzai favors a centralized government model with the country ruled from Kabul, essentially challenging the authority of the warlords who now control most of the country outside the capital. But others, including Goodson, prefer a federal model that would acknowledge those warlords' power and make them part of the new government.

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