Why Afghanistan is far from hopeless

In winter, a noxious fog sometimes descends on Kabul that is so acrid, you can actually taste it. It’s a toxic brew of fumes from traffic jams and thousands of charcoal fires, and it’s a testament to the fact that in the decade since the fall of the Taliban, Kabul’s population has gone up sixfold, ...

ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images

In winter, a noxious fog sometimes descends on Kabul that is so acrid, you can actually taste it. It's a toxic brew of fumes from traffic jams and thousands of charcoal fires, and it's a testament to the fact that in the decade since the fall of the Taliban, Kabul's population has gone up sixfold, from 500,000 to about 3 million.

This gets to the paradox of Afghanistan today: despite the enormous level of government corruption and the Taliban's resurgence in parts of the country, there is another story here - of Afghan recovery and progress. But this story is not well understood by many Americans, 6 out of 10 of whom now oppose the war in Afghanistan.

Consider that under Taliban rule there were only a million children in school. Now there are 6 million, many of them girls. During the Taliban era, the phone system barely existed; now 1 in 3 Afghans owns a cell phone. Basic health care has gone from being a luxury to being available to most of the population, and annual economic growth is over 20%.

In winter, a noxious fog sometimes descends on Kabul that is so acrid, you can actually taste it. It’s a toxic brew of fumes from traffic jams and thousands of charcoal fires, and it’s a testament to the fact that in the decade since the fall of the Taliban, Kabul’s population has gone up sixfold, from 500,000 to about 3 million.

This gets to the paradox of Afghanistan today: despite the enormous level of government corruption and the Taliban’s resurgence in parts of the country, there is another story here – of Afghan recovery and progress. But this story is not well understood by many Americans, 6 out of 10 of whom now oppose the war in Afghanistan.

Consider that under Taliban rule there were only a million children in school. Now there are 6 million, many of them girls. During the Taliban era, the phone system barely existed; now 1 in 3 Afghans owns a cell phone. Basic health care has gone from being a luxury to being available to most of the population, and annual economic growth is over 20%.

These kinds of advances explain why 6 in 10 Afghans in a poll last fall said their country is going in the right direction. The positive feelings Afghans have about the trajectory of their country seem counterintuitive given Afghanistan’s deep poverty and feckless government, but they become more explicable when you recall what life under the Taliban was like. The Taliban incarcerated half the population in their homes, massacred thousands of Shi’ites, hosted pretty much every Islamist terrorist and insurgent group in the world and were pariahs on the international stage. Simultaneously, they presided over the collapse of what remained of the economy. And before the Taliban, there was civil war and rule by warlords; before that, a communist dictatorship; and before that, brutal Soviet occupation.

 

To read the rest of this article, visit TIME.com, where this was originally published.

Peter Bergen, the editor of the AfPak Channel, is the Director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, a senior fellow at New York University’s Center on Law and Security, and the author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda. He is a national security analyst for CNN.

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