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Afghanistan: Reconstruction Continues Amid Worries Over Donors' Long-Term Commitment

As Western politicians and experts discuss the future of postwar Iraq and the cost of its reconstruction, the rebuilding process in Afghanistan is far from complete. But Afghan officials say Washington has reassured them that the U.S. will not neglect Afghanistan despite its engagement in Iraq.

Prague, 11 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Mir Mohammad Amin Farhang says the rebuilding process in Afghanistan is going according to plan.

Farhang, Afghanistan's minister for reconstruction, says that some 3 million children are attending school, nearly 2 million refugees have returned home, a new national currency has been introduced, and thousands of jobs have been created.

"As a person responsible for reconstruction of the country, I am satisfied with the process of rebuilding in many areas, especially with political reforms. We created the new Loya Jirga, a special commission was established for preparing our new constitution, and the constitution will be completed soon. However, I acknowledge our shortcomings in rebuilding the economy and creating jobs and a source of income for ordinary people. The task was enormous, and we didn't have enough experience," Farhang said.

After more than two decades of war, Afghanistan's infrastructure is in a shambles. The country's road, communication, irrigation, and electricity systems, as well as its education, health, and security services, are in dire need of attention.

The international community has pledged $4.5 billion to rebuild Afghanistan's infrastructure, including $1.8 billion for 2002 alone. But according to Farhang, only 30 percent of that money was actually made available to Afghan authorities. Farhang said donor countries gave the rest of the funds to Western agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in Afghan reconstruction.

According to the minister, donors felt they could not trust Afghanistan's new leaders because of their inexperience and the possible mismanagement of the funds.

Anwar al-Haq Ahadi, the chief of the Afghan Central Bank, disputes this reasoning.

Ahadi told RFE/RL that foreign specialists and NGOs spend aid money needlessly. He says a Western NGO, for instance, spends $10 million for a road project that a local agency could accomplish for less than $3 million. "A general impression is that foreigners waste a lot of money for unnecessary consultations, bureaucracy, high salaries, etc. Sometimes they don't even tell us what they are doing. Local specialists can do the same job for half of the money foreigners spend," he said.

Ehsonulloh Oriyonzai works as an economic adviser for a Western company in Kabul. He blames Afghan authorities and their lack of knowledge and competence for the slow pace of reconstruction. Oriyonzai said the Afghan government wants to import electricity from neighboring countries while it would be much more convenient and less expensive to build hydropower plants in Afghanistan itself.

He criticized the Afghan government for failing to create jobs for ordinary Afghans. "I am not satisfied with the reconstruction that has been going on during the past 16 months. We expected that once foreign aid flowed to Afghanistan the process of fundamental reconstruction would start in the country, such as the rebuilding of the telecommunications system, hydropower stations, roads. But it did not happen," Oriyonzai said.

Oriyonzai said that both Afghans and foreign NGOs involved in the rebuilding process often do not distinguish between urgent tasks and those that can be put off. "Many works that are going on in and around Kabul do not help much for the rebuilding of the infrastructure. For instance, the reconstruction of Kabul streets, digging canals in the areas where no one actually lives and renovations of school buildings have taken place purely for propaganda proposes. A hospital building in Kabul was first painted by a UN agency, then by an NGO, then by a state firm. Then television cameramen filmed it. It is a kind of show-off," he said.

However, Reconstruction Minister Farhang insists that progress is not always immediately visible. According to him, the Afghan government is trying to attract foreign investment to the country to improve its communications system, hotel industry, the renovation of airports in four major cities, and the irrigation system. He said negotiations are under way to build a trans-Afghan pipeline for transporting Turkmen gas to Pakistan and India. The $3 billion project would create some 10,000 jobs for Afghans and provide around $300 million in annual transit fees.

However, a lack of security and the fact that the Afghan government's authority is largely limited only to the capital, Kabul, are hampering the reconstruction process and scaring away foreign investors. Oriyonzai says investors come to Afghanistan, study the situation, and return to their countries, but that very few actually take the risk and invest money in the country.

Afghan authorities say they are confident the country will not be forgotten, despite Washington's engagement in Iraq. They believe the successful reconstruction process in Afghanistan will serve as a good model for postwar Iraq. The U.S. Congress has authorized a new aid package for Afghanistan worth $3.3 billion. The U.S. has stationed some 8,000 troops in Afghanistan to fight remnants of the ousted Taliban and members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Afghan authorities note the U.S. did not decrease the number of its troops in the country, despite the war in Iraq. Farhang said Western troops should remain in Afghanistan until terrorist groups and their supporters are completely eliminated.

And he cautioned that the reconstruction period in Afghanistan will be lengthy, saying it might take up to 20 years. "Afghanistan will need foreign aid for many years to come. But we will try to use our own resources, too. Eventually, we will have to be able to stand on our own feet. It is not impossible. A country cannot be dependent on foreign aid forever," Farhang said.

Like most Afghans, Farhang insisted the future of Afghanistan should rest in Afghan hands. For the time being, however, Afghanistan's stability and security heavily depend on foreign aid.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.