When I tell an Afghan friend about my plans to travel to the Ghowr province, he laughs and says he'd once seen the provincial capital, Chaghcharan, from a plane. "There is nothing there," he says with a smirk. "It is nowhere."
For a province to be laughably remote to an Afghan says quite a bit, as the entire landlocked country, with its lack of paved roads or rail service, is nothing but isolated. It took an explanation of why I was going -- to take a look at rural poverty and whether it had improved since the advent of the new American-backed regime -- to wipe the incredulous look off his face. "You will see the poorest people who know nothing of the outside world there," he says.
Four years after the American invasion and the fall of the Taliban, and one year after the presidential election of Hamid Karzai, the massive international effort in Afghanistan has done little to improve the lives of ordinary people. While estimates of foreign aid run from $12 billion to $15 billion, the U.S. government ties all money for Afghanistan into the larger "global war on terrorism," which also covers operations in Iraq. What's clear in Kabul is that a lot of the money has ended up with commandos who can be seen driving around in expensive SUVs and living inside walled luxury compounds. Initial results from last Sunday's parliamentary election also suggest a disillusionment with reconstruction, as just over half of the country turned out to vote.
But cynicism toward international aid and relief efforts -- a favorite Afghan posture -- misses some major accomplishments. Many new schools, hospitals and clinics dot medium-size towns and cities. The security in large cities like Kabul and Kandahar is stable enough to spur significant economic development, and anyone who wants to start a local paper or radio station has a slew of NGOs to ask for assistance.
Outside the cities, with their educated citizens, Afghanistan poses massive problems for rebuilding. The single biggest hurdle -- well beyond the reach of the relief agencies -- is the basic lack of infrastructure: electricity, roads and clean water. Throw in stagnant education, widespread war damage, and a huge population of refugees fleeing decades of fighting in Pakistan and Iran, and it's clear reconstruction is beyond anyone's capability to achieve quickly.
With the end of a seven-year drought, some improvement has been seen in the lives of the rural farmers and animal herders. But one year of water cannot come close to repairing the damage of war and drought, and refugees are returning with levels of drug addiction never before seen in the country. Simply put, huge segments of the Afghan population receive almost no aid and face impoverished living conditions with few signs of improvement.
Short of scamming a ride on a U.N., NGO or military flight, the options for getting to Chaghcharan are limited to a 30-hour ride over brutal roads from Kabul, or an hour flight to Herat, followed by a 14-hour drive by 4x4. I take the latter.
Road construction is the most important political debate in the new democracy of Afghanistan. Mullah Abdel Khader Emami is running for a parliamentary seat in Ghowr based on his demand for a $35 million road that runs from Kabul to Herat, a key hub for trade with Iran, through Ghowr. The new road would allow drivers to bypass the current "ring road" that circles from Kabul to Kandahar, a critical commerce town. But Emami insists his plan has been derailed by politics. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, he says, "is a Pashtun and his people are from Kandahar, so the government will not build a road through here because Kandahar controls all the trade in Afghanistan."
For a political newcomer, Emami grasps that all politics are local and such a road might not transform Chaghcharan into a thriving metropolis but would bring a whiff of hope to an otherwise forlorn place. If 14 hours of driving over big rocks doesn't make this point, drive another 50 miles outside Chaghcharan -- four and half hours by car -- to the heartbreakingly poor village of Chavosh.
The people of Chavosh live in such a faraway place that they laugh when I ask how often they see U.S. or NATO troops. "Never. We have never seen anyone," says Abdullah, 35. He was originally from the village but now lives in Herat, where he is a solider in the new Afghan National Army (ANA). "Except for one truck that drove past and the men waved, I am the only ANA that this village has ever seen."
The villagers have literally never seen a Western foreigner before, and every man in the village, it seems, gathers around me as Abdullah explains just how remote the town is. "When the Taliban came to Ghowr, we fought them in Chaghcharan, not here," he recalls. "After they won, they only sent a Talib on a motorbike to tell the village that it was now controlled by the Taliban. Then he left and we never saw any Talib again."
The village farms wheat and raises sheep and cattle. Or it did before the drought forced farmers to sell the majority of their herds. Now they grow some wheat and occasionally kill a sheep for meat. Last winter saw significant snowfall for the first time in seven years, so there's currently water for crops and animals. But the only well dried up five years ago, and that leaves the runoff water as the only drinking supply. And this runoff is killing the village.
Mullah Nassir al-Afghani is the village elder, religious leader, schoolteacher and medical healer. He earned the latter title because he prays if you are sick, which is the only treatment you can receive short of a six-hour donkey ride to a neighboring village. In that lucky hamlet, you can find a mobile clinic staffed by an Afghan, who qualified for the job after a four-week course. And, being mobile, he's often not there. Without phones or electricity in the village, it's hard to check and make sure the clinic is there.
Mullah Nassir says that every year, in a village of 1,500 people, 50 children die from dysentery after drinking runoff water during the summer, or from respiratory illness in the winter. Pregnant? Complications of any kind? It's a 15-hour donkey ride to see a doctor in a hospital in the provincial capital. Unless you're due during the five months the mountain passes are filled with snow. In that case, the mullah prays for you. About 30 women a year die in childbirth.
Between the women and children alone, about 5 percent of the village dies each year. People have starved to death during severe droughts, but these days that's rare, although everyone in the village is supernaturally thin.
The men and I walk to the fields so they can show me how they harvest wheat. We pass a pile of bricks that have a blanket strung over the side of one clump. It doesn't quite make it to wall status.
One of the older men, who looks 80 but tentatively estimates his age at 50, points at the rubble. "This is my home," Said Mohammed tells me. "This is where I live in a very bad situation."
Unthinkable as that situation might be, it gets worse as family and friends gather outside the home of Abdul Qasem, 60, who has two wives and 10 children. They are celebrating the engagement of Abdul Qasem's daughter, Roshan, who he claims is 11 years old, to another Said Mohammed, 55, from a neighboring village. Roshan, who looks 8 years old, has to be called away from playing tag with other girls to attend her engagement to a 55-year-old man. When married, she'll join his other wife, three sons and a daughter about her age.
After Mullah Nassir leads 10 or so men in a five-minute prayer, Abdul Qasem drags a terrified lamb to the ground and cuts its throat with a small knife. Blood pools in front of his brick-and-manure home. He declares that this is a tradition to celebrate the engagement, as the lamb gurgles its final breath. I have seen such ritual slaughter throughout the Muslim world, but traditionally the meat of the sheep is donated to the poor. Today, the village will eat lamb.
"I am very poor and have many problems," Abdul Qasem tells me later, as we walk past his small patch of recently harvested poppy crops. "I need money and I have three other daughters," he says of the marriage. "Do you think I want to marry my daughter so young?"
Everyone in the village insists that it will be years before Mohammed can pay off the dowry, which Abdul Qasem claims is 100 sheep and 10 cows. Women in the village later admit that Said Mohammed will claim his bride within a year and pay far less than what I am told. As it stands, he is allowed to sleep in the same room and have relations that stop just short of intercourse.
When the subject of help from the international community comes up, the men of Chavosh laugh. They know of the World Food Program, which helps feed rural Afghans, but they've never seen an aid worker here. "They give the province food aid, this we know," one man tells me. "But it is kept by the warlord in another village. He has no relatives in this village. So he does not send us aid to live."
It is well known throughout the provinces that local warlords hoard and deny aid to villages. In general, the country's warlords are esteemed commanders from the anti-Soviet jihad who kept their foreign contacts, men and weapons. They wield enormous influence through tribal bonds, money and violence.
NGO and diplomatic sources refuse to discuss the subject of warlords. But several knowledgeable sources inside the international community agree that dealing with warlords is simply part of doing business in rural Afghanistan. They admit, too, that the majority of attacks on Western aid workers, contractors and journalists, blamed on the Taliban, actually arise from the warlords.
As Sunday's parliamentary votes are being tallied, many Afghan people remain deeply concerned that warlords' influence will only get stronger. Afghan human rights groups have identified at least 150 candidates that could be called warlords or jihadi commanders. In fact, regardless of the final vote, observers say that many of the powerful commanders will become members of the new Parliament.
While new construction is visible in Kabul, the city itself is pocketed with destitution. At a small clinic supported by Japanese and German NGOs, healthcare workers are fighting to help a wide population of desperately poor refugees from Pakistan and Iran who have been forced to return, some after more than a decade.
Despite its famous role as a worldwide supplier of opium and heroin, Afghanistan has lacked a domestic drug abuse problem, outside of hashish use by a Muslim population denied alcohol. But after millions of Afghans fled in the 1980s for the safety of neighboring countries, they came in contact with cultures more prone to drug use.
Dr. Tariq Suliman founded the Nejat Center, Afghanistan's only private drug rehabilitation center, in 1991 in Peshawar, Pakistan. After the fall of the Taliban, he was able to expand operations into Afghanistan with the help of the international community. He says almost all of his patients -- about 100 at a time -- are returning refugees who cultivated their opium or heroin addictions abroad. Suliman estimates there are 50,000 addicts in Kabul alone, and tens of thousands more returning each year from Iran and Pakistan.
He explains that Afghanistan's drug abuse problem stems from drug dealers in Pakistan trying to find a new market for heroin. "But it is also a variety of factors, including depression over 30 years of war," he says. "Some people were wounded in fighting. Others worked in carpet factories and were given opium. Others gave it to their children to keep them quiet while they worked. In Iran, many people are high-quality-opium users. As more Afghans became employed in domestic labor, the owners would slowly addict them to opium to make them more manageable. Employees would then ask for less money and more opium to work."
Thanks to Suliman, the Nejat Center has successfully adapted techniques from Western recovery programs, such as counseling and detox programs, to Afghan culture. The waiting list is 1,600 people. On this day, one of the lucky ones is Zamaad, 32, who started using heroin in Pakistan, where "it is everywhere and very easy to find." He is sitting on a carpet, watching hygiene videos with six other men. He's proud of his success in reducing his habit from about $8 a day to $2 a day. Considering that 80 percent of the world's heroin is grown and produced nearby, $8 a day buys a lot of nearly pure heroin.
"I have made a strong decision to stop destroying my body," he says. "When I talk to relatives and friends, none of them trust me because they know I am an addict. Everyone in my family is always looking at me with shame because I am an addict."
Zamaad wants to get married, but his parents won't give him their permission until he quits his eight-year habit. "They say, how can I be engaged when I spend all my money on drugs? They say when I quit and they trust me again, they will engage me to be married," he says.
Zamaad faces another harsh reality. The Taliban killed one of his brothers and other one died of cancer. His parents are getting older and he needs to take care of them. "I am now the only one to take care of my family," he says. "I have to leave those friends that turned me this way. I have decided on a new change and a fresh new life."
Change doesn't sound as good to Zainallah, 44, who came to the center from the eastern city of Jalalabad after a 24-year love affair with heroin, which he started using in Pakistan. He is angry about having to quit: He used two to three grams of pure heroin a day, costing about $14. He's down to a daily $3 habit, but seems to miss it.
"It is such a difficult life to use heroin and sell sheep," he says, referring to the fact that he can't afford heroin. "This drug is for rich people to play and have a good time. I have no money. My economic problems are too big to use heroin anymore."
Across town at the Kabul Weekly, an English-language paper, editor in chief Faheem Dashty acknowledges the litany of problems facing Afghanistan. He laments the baleful influence of the warlords on the country's burgeoning government. "People who suffered at the hands of the mujahedin don't want to see them in Parliament," he says. But those same people, he adds, "were strong in the fight against the Soviets, the Taliban and against al-Qaida. So considering all this country has gone through, the situation is not so bad. We've had a chance to elect representatives for the first time in our history."