Life is better, but Afghans still need help

Afghan men pick through the rubble of a destroyed house looking for materials with which to rebuild it Feb. 4 in Kabul.Ed Wray / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

Mohammed Sakhi looked on as his 20-year-old son worked the family field. He stood on a board pulled by a pair of oxen, flattening out the soil tilled a day earlier. The 16 family members were getting ready to sow the fields for the spring crop of wheat.

"Life is good," Sakhi said. The gaunt 66-year-old tugged at his thick gray beard, then pointed up at a large mud-walled compound on a nearby hill. "We rebuilt our houses and have found a better life here now."

His family left for Pakistan during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, only returning to Afghanistan two years ago, after the fall of the Taliban.

The decades of war have left him with the belief that whatever improvements there are to his life come from peace, hard work and Allah, certainly not from man. He shrugged and then asked rhetorically, "Money comes from abroad, but do we see it?"

Tough to see the benefits
Sakhi was clearly unaware that the newly resurfaced highway in front of his home, linking the capital, Kabul, with the southern city of Kandahar, was paid for by the United States.

International aid also pays for the training of the new Afghan National Army and a 20,000-man police force. It's also underwriting the cost of rebuilding schools — more than 400 will be opened nationwide within the next six months.

But even so, current aid levels are only half of what the government says it needs to survive.

While Kabul is an oasis of peace and progress compared with much of the country, even here, per capita income is about $65 a year.

Raw sewage oozes down gutters in the center of dirt alleys. Most homes get about two hours of electricity daily.

CARE Country Director Paul Barker notes that two years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan remains one of the three poorest nations on the planet.

"It's in an appalling state, and to build from that up to even a decent level of poverty is a challenge. And that's what the government is trying to do over the next seven years — reach a level of dignified poverty," Barker said.

Barker questioned global aid priorities, making a comparison to Iraq. Afghanistan has a larger population and has comparatively no infrastructure, yet it receives a fraction of the attention and the funding provided to Iraq.

"It's an incredibly small drop in the bucket, especially when you compare it with other reconstruction efforts. I mean Iraq is an obvious example where America is spending 10-20 times more on reconstruction, than in Afghanistan."

Aid agencies here are particularly disturbed by the fact that while Washington is spending $1 billion a month posting 11,000 troops here (2,000 more Marines are en route) to fight the still troublesome Taliban, U.S. aid to Afghanistan is one-quarter of that amount.

Berlin donors conference
Afghanistan's Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani is hoping for more support at a donors conference in Berlin starting Wednesday.

The 54-nation conference has been called to hasten the process of democratic reform with greater funding and help the country progress to the next stage of development.

It is expected to garner a great deal of attention as a number of high-ranking officials will attend including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Bush administration officials said Powell was likely to offer $1 billion on top of the $1.2 billion the United States has pledged for this year.

“This is a very important year for them,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. “We’ve seen an awful lot of progress in so many areas in Afghanistan. But there remains more to be done.”

Donors worldwide have pledged $4.2 billion through this year. Ghani said last month his government would seek $28.5 billion in aid and reconstruction financing for the next seven years.

In a move that is expected to go over positively with donor countries, President Hamid Karzai postponed Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban national elections by three months until September. 

The United Nations had said for months that the elections, originally slated for June, might have to be delayed because officials, security forces and candidates were ill-prepared for the massive task of registering up to 10.5 million eligible Afghans and organizing the vote in time.

The U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, Jean Arnault, welcomed the decision, saying it also would allow more time for NATO to expand its peacekeeping operations beyond Kabul.

Ghani will make the case to the international community that money well-spent now could save the international community later in terms of soldiers' lives lost and still more long-term financial support.

"The point we are making is that assisting Afghanistan is actually a cost saving, not an expenditure," said Ghani.