The South Asia Channel

The Afghan phoenix

By Peter Bergen, Afghanistan The first surprise is the Kabul airport. The new terminal — “a gift of the people of Japan” — appears to have been airlifted in from a small American city; light-filled, modern and staffed by young men in uniforms of khaki pants and blue shirts who politely answer travelers’ questions as ...

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By Peter Bergen, Afghanistan

The first surprise is the Kabul airport. The new terminal — “a gift of the people of Japan” — appears to have been airlifted in from a small American city; light-filled, modern and staffed by young men in uniforms of khaki pants and blue shirts who politely answer travelers’ questions as they direct traffic through the quiet, marble halls of the terminal.

This is quite a change from the old Kabul airport terminal, which was not much more than a big shed that broiled in summer and froze in winter with one wheezing baggage belt disgorging luggage to a chaotic press of travelers.

I have visited the Kabul airport since 1993 and it has been an accurate barometer of Afghanistan’s shifting fortunes. In the mid-90s the country was in the grip of a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died and the airport of the capital was littered with the carcasses of airplanes large and small that had crashed on landing or takeoff during the past decade-plus of war.

Under the Taliban — whose fantasies about establishing a 7th century utopia here on earth did not extend to the simplest acts of real governance — no effort was made to clear up this mess. Once their regime fell in 2001, gradually the rusting hulks of the crashed planes were cleared from the runways.

Then came the mine sweepers. Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world and the strategically significant Kabul airport was mined particularly heavily. It took years for the mine sweepers to clear the airport runways but now they are long gone, as they are from much of the country.

Lost in the deluge of the recent media coverage of the rising violence and the flawed presidential election in Afghanistan are the markers of real progress over the past eight years, which in a small but important way is exemplified by the turnaround at Kabul airport.

Consider that:

  • More than five million refugees have returned home since the fall of the Taliban. This is one of the most substantial refugee repatriations in history, yet it is little remarked upon because it has largely gone so smoothly.
  • One in six Afghans now has a cell phone. Under the Taliban there was no phone system.
  • Millions of kids are now in school, including many girls. Under the Taliban girls were not allowed to be educated.
  • In 2008, Afghanistan’s real GDP growth was 7.5 percent. Under the Taliban the economy was in free fall.
  • You were more likely to be murdered in the United States in 1991 than an Afghan civilian is to be killed in the war today.

Some reading this may be thinking — can this really be right? But do the math: In 1991, almost 25,000 people were murdered in the United States at a time when the American population was approximately 260 million. In Afghanistan today some 2,000 Afghan civilians are killed each year by the Taliban and coalition forces out of a population of around 30 million.

A comparison with Iraq is also instructive. As the violence peaked in Iraq in early 2007 more than 3,500 Iraqi civilians were being killed every month. Adjusting for population sizes, civilians in Iraq were 20 times more likely to be killed two years ago than they are today in Afghanistan.

Of course none of this is to deny the existence of epic corruption in Afghanistan, the massive drug trade, the scandal of billions of dollars of aid wasted on failed aid projects that have principally enriched giant American contractors like DynCorp, and the resurgence of the Taliban.

These are all too real, but they are only part of the story, and for Afghans who have lived through an invasion by a totalitarian superpower that killed one in ten of their family members, then a civil war that killed many more, and then the Taliban who brought security at the price of living in a completely failed theocratic state, the most important fact is that history is now behind them and that the future promises something better.

Peter Bergen, the editor of the AfPak Channel, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and at New York University’s Center on Law and Security, and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader. He is CNN’s national security analyst, where this was originally published.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

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