Dispatch from Afghanistan.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 12 2007 7:39 AM

Losing Hope

What happened to Afghans' stubborn optimism?

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.

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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.