KABUL, Afghanistan—The carcasses of old military planes no longer litter the fields around the airport. Gone, too, are the unkempt men in windbreakers and camouflage pants who glanced at passports between drags on cigarettes. Now the immigration officers sit in glass booths, snapping headshots with tiny cameras mounted on the sides of their computers. There's electricity in the terminal, but on the day I arrived in November, the luggage belt wasn't working. As in earlier times, when power was scarce, men in blue coveralls hurled suitcases across the floor toward waiting passengers.
It was a bright, cool morning, and I was back in Afghanistan after three and a half years away. My Afghan friends and I had fallen into a rhythm of twice-yearly e-mails, and although some of what they wrote sounded ominous, I continued to believe that Afghanistan was pretty much as I had left it: a wounded place, fraught with political and economic difficulty, but with enough oxygen in its atmosphere to sustain a tenuous optimism. I soon learned that I had been wrong, and I spent my weeklong visit trying to understand what had changed.
Afghans have lived too long in the teeth of war to entertain many illusions about the durability of peace. But between 2002 and 2004, when I lived in the country as a reporter, I witnessed a stubborn kind of hope. This, it seemed to me, was the glue that held the Afghan project together.
Refugees streamed in from Pakistan and Iran before Afghanistan was ready, making their homes in the ruins of bombed-out buildings, freezing but grateful to be on their own soil. Ethnic divisions were marked, but so were efforts to blur them, both in new government ministries and on the streets. Progress was uneven, and the backward motion that accompanied it often stung, but for the time being, at least, Afghans suspended judgment. They were tired of fighting, tired of being subdued by tyrannical power. It was hard in those days to find anyone with happy memories of the Taliban, except those who had been on their payroll.
In the years I'd been away, opium cultivation had risen, as had suicide attacks and casualties from insurgent violence. But none of this prepared me for how differently someAfghans now speak about their government and their future.Among the people I met, the optimism I remembered had largely vanished.
"The people were very hopeful," said Daud Nazari, the soft-spoken surgeon who worked as my translator during the trip. "But now they've lost their hope."
Hope is hard to quantify, but I had reason to believe him. A BBC, ARD, and ABC News poll released Dec. 3 found that a slight majority—54 percent—of Afghans think the country is going in the right direction, but it also indicated that this number has been declining since 2004, the earliest year for which figures were available. The same poll found that support for U.S. efforts has fallen and that a significant number believe the Taliban has gotten stronger.
The morning after I arrived, my friend Farouq Samim stopped by my guesthouse. Trained as a doctor, Farouq had been my translator back when I worked for the Chicago Tribune, and he has been a full-time journalist ever since, traveling the country from end to end. In 2003, we had driven two days over dunes and streambeds to villages along the Pakistani border and taken shorter excursions to Wardak, an easy drive from Kabul, where we'd snapped goofy pictures of each other in poppy fields. Such trips would be impossible now without great risk, he told me. He talked about poorly paid Afghan soldiers fighting well-financed militants and about Musa Qala in Helmand Province, where the Taliban have a prison and a radio station. (A few days ago, Afghan and NATO forces launched an attack to recapture the town.)
"If international forces leave," Farouq said, "Afghans will eat Afghans first, and the Taliban will get control of the government by the second day."
I asked how it had come to this. Farouq answered with a parable about two government employees, each of whom is paid a monthly salary of 3,000 Afghanis (about $60). One is honest; the other takes bribes. After a while, the honest man grows frustrated by his colleague's behavior. "That poor guy who's doing good, he says, 'There's no encouragement for me, no punishment for him.' So, he becomes corrupt and starts taking bribes," Farouq explained.
The next day, I paid a visit to the Afghan counternarcotics ministry, where, over green tea, an official told me that although the number of poppy-free provinces was up this year, cultivation was rising in the south. The international community had spent tens of millions on anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan, but it wasn't enough, he said.
"How much more do you need?" I asked.
"Enormous," he said. "We need more and more and more."
On his desk lay several anti-poppy posters that could be seen hanging in tea shops around the country. Searching among the papers, he handed me a small, beaded cardboard circle that was meant to dangle from a car's rearview mirror. An artist had drawn a towering opium vine whose bulbs resembled the heads of monsters. The vines were attacking small figures: a farmer, an addict, a woman, a child, a soldier. The inscription said, "If we don't put an end to poppy, it will put an end to us." This, the official told me, was a quote from President Hamid Karzai.
When he left the room for a moment, Daud leaned over and stared at the inscription. One of the words had been crossed out, and another written in the margin. The message now read, "If we don't grow more poppy, it will put an end to us."
I made an appointment with Gen. Carlos Branco, spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, which has 40,000 troops in the country. He told me that the Taliban were weak, even in the south, and that international forces routinely defeated them in battle. Then he named seven areas in the south and west where, in the last two weeks, the Taliban had seized control for a few hours or a day. They held control in none of those areas now, he told me.
I nodded and wrote this down. I did not tell him that when I was last here, the Taliban seizing control of seven places in two weeks, for any length of time, would have been unthinkable.
One day before dawn, a friend and I set off in Daud's turquoise station wagon and headed north to Baghlan, which on Nov. 6 was the site of the deadliest suicide bombing in Afghanistan's history. It killed six members of parliament and more than 60 schoolboys who had gathered at a sugar factory to meet them. The Taliban denied responsibility, but most people thought they had done it. Others blamed members of militant group Hezb-i-Islami loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an exiled warlord with followers in Baghlan.
The road to the sugar factory ran between cotton fields and mud hills. That such a large attack had occurred in the north, where the Taliban was thought to be weakest, surprised me. I asked Daud about it. He said that even in Kabul, which had been one of the safest places in the country, he could feel the war closing in. A friend of his had recently arrived from a neighboring province once considered well within the capital's security bubble. The friend said that although the province was fine during the day, the Taliban controlled it at night. "Before long," Daud said, "you will see fighting inside Kabul city."
In a dusty lane, we met Sayed Basir, an 18-year-old in a denim jacket with leather patches on the sleeves. Two of his friends and several relatives had died in the attack. He pointed to the tree near where the bomb exploded. It had been covered with blood and "the meat of human," he said, until the municipality came to clean it. I looked at the tree. Its bark was black and wet; the trunks nearby were pale gray.
"I feel the government is so weak," Basir said. "There is no security, no government, no administration. Especially in this province, nothing exists."
This was supposed to be Afghanistan's industrial heartland, but most people were out of work. Basir had graduated third in his class from the local high school and had been accepted at a business school in Kabul, but his family couldn't afford to support him there, so he had come home. His father had worked as a driver but was now unemployed. Basir said he couldn't find a job, either. He had enrolled in a private math class to occupy his time, but he found it increasingly difficult to envision a future in Baghlan.
"If the situation is like this, I will not do anything," he said. "I will leave Afghanistan."