Dateline: Kabul

by Jonathan Foreman
A visit to the Panjshir valley shows how very much the U.S.-led coalition has accomplished.

Afghanistan’s famously beautiful Panjshir valley saw some of the worst fighting between Soviet forces and the Afghan mujahedeen. More than two decades on, it is still littered with wrecked Red Army tanks and rusting armored vehicles.

The Panjshir was the home of the great Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks. The Panjshir’s people (who are Tajiks and other ethnic minorities rather than Pashtuns) successfully resisted first the Soviets and then the Taliban, who never got further than the valley’s entrance.  But these days the area is one of the most peaceful and secure regions in the whole country.

Many Kabulis come here for a day’s fishing or lounging by the river.

Thanks to a smooth new (Coalition-sponsored) highway, it takes only two and a half hours to drive here from the capital (instead of all day, as it used to) — although, in a testament to the security and prosperity of this part of the country, there can be bad traffic jams, especially before the weekend.

But in a stunning change from my last visit, seven years ago, Afghan highways and main roads in the big cities are often superior to their counterparts in India and Pakistan.The main road through the Panjshir is also new and smooth. This has long been one of the wealthier regions of the country, thanks to its fertile soil (Panjshir potatoes, grapes, and mulberries are all famously good), and the local economy has benefited from the speed of transport in and out of the valley. The road, like so many improvements here, was the work of the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), which operated here from 2002 until 2011. 

The PRTs were very different in different provinces, depending on which country had the lead and on the security situation of the province. (You can see videos of the Panshjir PRT’s activities here.) The Panjshir PRT was the only American-run PRT in which personnel were allowed to forgo body armor and helmets and to move around unarmed. (Even in Kabul today, elaborate force-protection restrictions mean that U.S. civilian and military personnel have to wear body armor at all times when going beyond embassy or base gates — a rule that some would argue has tended to undermine the mission as a whole.)

Every time I passed one of the bridges crossing the river that runs through the Panjshir valley — some of which are footbridges, others suitable for vehicles — I asked who had built them and the reply came back “PRT.”

The Panjshir PRT was one of the first to be closed down by the NATO coalition. Its facilities on the main highway through the valley have been transferred to the Afghan National Police.

Of course not every project of the Panjshir PRT was a success. The PRT relied on contacts in the provincial and national governments to recommend Afghan contractors, and some of the latter did a better job than others. On the other hand, the PRT worked hard to ensure that it was not, pace President Karzai’s complaints about PRTs, building a kind of parallel administration that would, by being more efficient, better funded, and less corrupt, undermine local-government structures. It partnered as much as it could with the provincial and local governments while trying to hold itself to Western standards of performance.

I have included these photographs because the idea that “we have achieved nothing” in Afghanistan has become so dominant on both sides of the Atlantic. But if you are actually in Afghanistan, it is hard to ignore the abundant visual evidence of the Western reconstruction effort and the enormous economic progress made by so many Afghan communities.

One reason why that bleak notion of total failure is so prevalent is President Karzai’s eccentric and unpleasant habit of attacking the NATO coalition and claiming that the countries that subsidize his government and armed forces to the tune of billions of dollars per year have contributed nothing but trouble to Afghanistan. (More recently and even more absurdly, he claimed in November that the International Security Assistance Force is deliberately prolonging the war and secretly sending arms to the Taliban to that end!)

As offensive and deluded as Karzai’s vocal ingratitude may sound, it makes sense for him politically. After all, with the U.S. on its way out of Afghanistan and American influence rapidly declining, Islamabad rather than Washington is the foreign capital Afghan leaders will have to look to for patronage.

The PRTs, like every other part of the civilian and military aid efforts in Afghanistan, were not magic; they have not fixed the vast problems that afflict this country. It might take decades of development under conditions of peace and better governance to do that. But they have helped close some of the great developmental gaps between Afghanistan and its neighbors, and they have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Along with the millions of children educated thanks to the U.S.-led coalition, the millions who now have access to mobile telephony and even the Internet (more than a third of the population), as well as the roads that connect Afghanistan’s cities, their achievements are something that America and the West should know about and be proud of.

— Jonathan Foreman is a writer, researcher, and editor based in London and New Delhi.

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