Impressions of Afghanistan

From reflecting on our, the American, problems, I went to pay a call on Dr. Sima Samar. She is the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and a highly articulate, intelligent and well informed person. She also must be physically and morally brave because the environment in which she operates is incredibly difficult and she has not real power.

As I was getting used to doing, I arrived at her office gate which, like so much of Kabul today, is massive and steel. A peep hole, like one might see on the cell door of violent prisoners in a jail, was pushed open several inches so I and my embassy guide could be scrutinized. Several minutes passed. Then a section of the massive gate was swung open to let the two of us inside. Once we were identified, the full gate was swung back to enable our embassy car, also identified, with suitable painted messages and a sort of inside license plate in place of a sun visor, to be driven in. Then the gate was rolled shut.

As in most of the other buildings, heavily armed – Kalashnikov automatic rifles, hand grenades, pistols, flak jackets, helmets, radios, etc. – guards eyed us balefully. They were Afghans. Then an unarmed civilian appeared, half bowed, shook hands and said hoda hafez. Turning, he led me, but not my Afghan companion Mr. A, up a narrow flight of stairs onto a non-descript and rather threadbare landing. It was in stunning contrast to the massive “security” outside. My first thought was ‘all this protection for so little!’

Then Dr. Samar emerged, seized my hand and led me into her crowded office. She is an impressive woman, bright eyed, with a ready smile, of (I guess) 60 years. She had somehow read about me so our preliminaries were very brief, just the mention of mutual friends, particularly the grand lady of Afghanistan, my friend Nancy Dupree, who had particularly urged me to see her. Then without the usual offer of tea (since it is Ramadan), we got down to business.

The situation here, she said, is really neither black nor white. In some ways it is better than it was a few years ago, but the real opportunity was missed in 2002 when the Taliban had been defeated. Had a relatively small American force been left here then, an acceptable level of security could have been created and maintained. Today, she went on -- as I found in most of my talks, everyone began on an optimistic note and soon this faded into a somber mood -- today, the real casualty is hope. People today do not believe that an acceptable level of security can be achieved. The fundamental problem, she said, is the warlords. They are so deep into the drug trade, are making so much money, and are so tied into the government at the very top that there is little hope for any sort of reform. Putting in more troops will not accomplish anything.

But, then, to my surprise, she went on to say that the Afghan army and police force are really improving. They need time. Will they get it? She asked me. I said that I doubted that, despite US government statements, the American commitment was open-ended. Indeed, America itself is so beset by financial problems that the mood is shifting. She nodded and sighed.

Then our conversation virtually began anew. From warlords and improvement of the security forces, she shifted to what obviously is the bottom line: the issue of corruption. Can the regime survive? Many people here -- but not she, she matter-of- factually said – have dual nationality. They send their children abroad, a son in England, another or a daughter in the US or Canada, etc. – and perhaps their wives as well. They also send along with them or at least to foreign banks as much money as they can. The reason why they do is simple, they have little trust in the existing government and less in the future. Why not? She asked. They have nothing to fall back on. What they are doing is personally prudent even if it is nationally disastrous.

As I listened, my mind went back to Vietnam. Afghanistan is in so many ways Vietnam redux. Everyone is preparing his bolt hole and wants to be sure that it is well padded with money. Afghan Minister of Finance Umar Zakhilwal admitted that during the last three years over $4 billion – billion -- in cash had been flown out of Afghanistan in suitcases and footlockers (like I thought only Mexican drug dealers used) destined for private accounts or persons abroad. While money in those amounts has a serious effect on the faltering Afghan economy, what is even more important is that it shows that commitment to this regime and to Afghanistan is fragile and declining among the inner circle, Afghanistan’s power elite. Back to Dr. Samar. What else, could she put her finger on? I asked.

“Foreign corruption,” she said. “Oh, of course, it is not the same kind. But when a contract is awarded to a foreign company and it then either does a bad job or does not finish its work and yet exports 80% or 90% of the contract funds, is that not also corruption? We would understand even 50% but few take that little. Is that not corruption too? But you Americans pay little attention to it; yet it serves as a model for our people.

“Even when corruption is not involved,” she continued, “there are two tendencies that undercut the benefit your actions might have brought. The first is the use of machines. Of course, I know,” she went on, “machines are faster and may even do a more beautiful job, but they displace labor. And unemployment is one of our most serious problems. It would be far better to use shovels and give people jobs.

“Also bad is the tendency of your contractors to draw on labor from outside the place where a project is undertaken. Of course, contractors draw on the cheapest source of labor. So they might use Tajiks to do a project in a Hazara area, for example. Then the local people have no sense that it is theirs. We see this often. But, if a road, for example, is built in a village by local people, they feel it is somehow theirs and will take care of it. But Americans show no sensitivity to Afghans and their way of living.”

Nothing was to be gained, she said, by adding more troops. There are already probably far too many. Each new soldier gives rise to a new Talib. And troops do not address the core issue.

But, she was not in favor of a total withdrawal at this time. Time , she said, must be given to enable the police force, at least, to improve. That, she agreed, was not much solace but it was the best that could realistically be offered from here.

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William R. Polk served as an advisor to President John F. Kennedy and later became a professor of history at the University of Chicago, where he established the Center for Eastern Studies. More

William R. Polk served in President John F. Kennedy's administration, where he was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for much of the Islamic world, including Afghanistan. He later became professor of history at the University of Chicago and president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of 17 books including Understanding Iraq, Violent Politics and Understanding Iran. He is now at work on a book on Afghanistan to be entitled The Cockpit of Asia. His website is

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