Afghanistan is a country that is effectively a ward of the state — the United States, and the man the Bush administration installed here to bring this country through its difficult years of rebirth is facing serious challenges on every front.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a colorful, charismatic leader, but now he needs more than charisma and celebrity.
Afghanistan is still a wreck after years of Russian occupation, civil war and Taliban rule. And the challenge is to rebuild it so al-Qaida can never return.
Street urchins, like 10-year-old Wais, are happy to earn 60 cents a day helping widows carry food. He’s one of an estimated 37,000 Afghan kids working the streets of Kabul every day.
On the brighter side, construction is booming to meet the needs of a flood of Afghan refugees returning home after years of turmoil.
The United States will send Afghanistan more than $2 billion for this year alone, for everything from roads to schools to the establishment of the Afghan army.
Analysts figure it will take $28 billion over the next seven years to build up Afghanistan’s poor economy and to compete against this country’s criminal economy — the production of poppy plants, which fuel the world’s heroin trade that is ready cash for the small farmers in the countryside. It is also a major source of cash for the terrorist movement.
President Karzai’s other major challenge is keeping his country secure.
Not even the presence of more than 5,000 multinational troops in the capital could prevent back-to-back suicide attacks last month.
The United States is leading a 10,000-man international force, which will expand into Afghanistan’s remote areas beginning this spring.
There are many reports of a major spring offensive against al-Qaida.
“We will continue to work against them. Especially when the snows melt, especially when we have a possibility to identify them better…. And we will continue this operation in spring and summer and autumn, till we are sure that they have gone,” Karzai said.
In the middle of all this, Karzai is trying to establish a political democracy in a country with a long history of warlords, kings and occupiers. After a considerable struggle, a loya jirga, a kind of national assembly, agreed to hold elections in June, but that may slip to July or even later.
“The Afghan people will stand behind a civilized, legitimate government chosen by the Afghan people through fair and free elections, and not the warlords. The warlords’ era is over,” Karzai said.
The United States has a very large investment and a very big commitment here. Is there a danger that Afghanistan will look like a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States and that that will arouse anti-American and anti-Karzai feelings?
President Karzai said, “The help that the world community has given us, the help that the United States has given us, in terms of the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban and terrorism has brought back to the Afghan people their country.”
“If we can stand Afghanistan on its own feet, from a taxpayer’s point of view, we could be saving money in the long term,” said U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad.
But democracy doesn’t pay the bills for these Afghan refugees or reassure the Afghans, who know that a quarter of the children in this country will die before their fifth birthday, mostly because of inadequate health care.
One Afghan woman, Mrs. Mahbuba, is feeling better about her future. She is part of a program to train widows to raise chickens and eggs, which brings her $40 a month.
The future of President Karzai’s Afghanistan will depend on a lot more than the chicken and egg business — but for one Afghan woman, it’s a start.