Rebuilding Afghanistan Remains Challenging Five Years After Invasion
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GWEN IFILL: Last week, peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan were officially handed over to 32,000 NATO troops, but things are not very peaceful. Among other things, the Taliban, once thought to be vanquished, is alive and fighting.
Pamela Constable of the Washington Post has been covering the conflict in Afghanistan for more than a decade. She joins us now for an update on the situation on the ground.
PAMELA CONSTABLE, Reporter, Washington Post: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: Start by talking about the Taliban. How much are they back?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: They’re very back. In certain parts of the country, the southern four provinces, they are putting up a very tough fight, tougher than I think either the American or the NATO commanders expected.
We don’t know how many there are. Certainly, they’re in the many hundreds, possibly even the thousands. They seem to be quite well-equipped and armed. And the question, of course, is: Where are they getting all that money and those weapons?
They started out doing a lot of hit-and-run kind of sabotage, ambushes. Now they are really trying to take and hold territory, as well as having introduced this horrific method of suicide bombings. There have now been dozens of them across the country.
GWEN IFILL: Now, that’s something that didn’t exist before?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: No, this is something very new for Afghanistan. In the previous conflicts, even including the Taliban, the conflict that overthrew the Taliban in 2001, this was unheard of. And that’s why many Afghans say, “Oh, it couldn’t be Afghans doing this.” Well, we don’t really know who’s doing it.
GWEN IFILL: How extensive is their control?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: The Taliban?
GWEN IFILL: Yes.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: They don’t really control territory, but they have the power to harass and do military assaults in fairly large areas of the country.
GWEN IFILL: So when we say “Taliban,” we’re not thinking about it in the way that we thought about it when the war began five years. The Taliban then controlled the government; it ran the country.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: That’s right.
GWEN IFILL: That’s not what we’re talking about.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: No. This is a renegade force, which, as you said in your introduction, everyone thought was vanquished a long time ago. But for the past year, they’ve been rebuilding their forces, they’ve been occupying the void left by inadequate government in many remote parts of the country, rebuilding their forces, and started coming back very strongly in a number of areas.
They’ve killed many, many people, both with suicide bombs and regular military assaults. And the situation is really very difficult.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about places like Kandahar, which for a while had rebounded and now seems to be sliding backward again. You've been there.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Yes. I was there about a month or so ago, and I was quite shocked, because, you know, over these five years, Kandahar had gone from being the birth place of the Taliban, where everything was, you know, very, very different, to slowly starting to come back.
A lot of construction going on. A lot of international aid groups. Women elected to parliament from there making a big splash. And things were looking really very good, until about six to nine months ago, when you started having much more serious violence there. And now it really is a ghost town.
I mean, this was a city that used to be so bustling that there were constant traffic jams. And when I was there a month or a month-and-a-half ago, there was no traffic at all. People simply were not in the streets.
Construction has really come to a halt. Many of the foreign aid groups are no longer operating there because it's too dangerous. And so the fear is that this second city of Afghanistan, which really was starting to make a comeback, may slide back into oblivion.
GWEN IFILL: There have been highways built, though, and bridges built. And isn't that at least symbolically a sign of progress?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, one of the great ironies is that the big highway from Kabul, the capital, down to Kandahar, the second city, was destroyed during the Russian occupation and also during the civil war. When I first went to Afghanistan in 1998, it took 22 hours to drive from Kabul to Kandahar.
Now, the Americans, with help from several other governments, made it a high priority to rebuild that road. And they did. And it was reopened with great fanfare a couple of years after the new government took power. And by the time it was reopened you could make that drive in seven hours. And the irony is that now much of the road is too dangerous to drive on at all.
GWEN IFILL: So, assuming that this danger is legitimate and extensive, who's in charge of suppressing this violence? Is it the Karzai government? Is it the NATO troops on the ground? Who is now in charge of trying to get this back right?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: It's a combination of forces. You know, until very recently, it was an American-led effort, which involved U.S. troops, NATO troops, and Afghan soldiers and Afghan police. The latter really eventually will be the most important component, but it's been very difficult. It's been hard for them to get particularly the police force up and running.
The army is doing well, but it's small. There are only 30,000 to 33,000 troops. It's a huge country. So that has taken some time. The police are really quite inadequate in most parts of the country.
So what you've got now with the handoff that you mentioned is NATO forces basically now in charge of security for the whole country, strongly backed by U.S. forces, who comprise, I think, the majority of troops, in any case, followed by the British and the Canadians, and then backed up more or less by the Afghan security forces.
GWEN IFILL: Has this dust-up between Pakistan and Afghanistan helped in some ways or exacerbated the problem that exists on the ground?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: I'm afraid it's exacerbated it. I mean, the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been quite bad for a long time. Some long, historical reasons for that, but the relationship also between the two leaders, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, is quite bad.
And as you know, President Bush tried to sort of patch it up recently. The three of them actually met in the White House, but I'm afraid he didn't get very far. The hostility is just too great. The suspicion on the part of Afghanistan that Pakistan is sheltering, harboring and even promoting this revived insurgency is just a very strong suspicion.
The future of Afghanistan
GWEN IFILL: On the occasion of this five-year anniversary and the handover to NATO, Secretary Rumsfeld wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post in which he concluded that the trajectory in Afghanistan is "hopeful and promising." Based on your reporting, what is he basing that on?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: There are a lot of positive things to say. It's not all bad news. The political process has continued more or less on schedule, as outlined by the United Nations, from the very beginning. The president was elected and then re-elected, in a sense, according to the process. A parliament was elected.
Institutions are being built. You know, billions of dollars of foreign aid has poured into the country. There is strong international support still for the government and military backing for the government. Many good things have happened: Schools have opened all over the country. Clinics are opening all over the country.
But what that piece did not say in the Post was that there has been backsliding in a number of areas. Take schools, for example. Yes, it's true that millions of schoolchildren were able to return after many, many years of there being no schools at all, through the effort of UNICEF and others, but what's happened over the past years is that hundreds of schools have had to close because of insecurity.
So, you know, it's been two steps forward and, in some cases, one step back. I mean, I'm still hopeful about the future of Afghanistan, but not as hopeful as I was a year ago.
GWEN IFILL: Pam Constable of the Washington Post, thanks for bringing it to us.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: You're very welcome.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you.