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Afghans Despair Over Slow Rebuilding Pace

July 23, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Laborer Mohammed Asif says the open sewer trickling through his Kabul slum sums up his lot.

``Life is so dirty,″ the father of two says.

Anger over the slow pace of reconstruction is palpable nearly five years since a U.S.-led invasion force toppled the Taliban.

Signs of progress are everywhere _ rising wages, girls attending school, spreading cell phone networks, a new cross-country highway. But then there’s the reality of a raging insurgency, weak governance and the extreme poverty faced by millions such as Asif.

``I am lucky to work one day a week and I don’t have enough money to feed my family,″ he says, his green overalls covered with the dust of a day’s labor, which earned him $3.40.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, visiting Afghanistan last week, said the alliance’s imminent takeover of security from U.S. forces in the insurgency-wracked south must be tied to improving people’s lives.

Ask an Afghan what his biggest problem is, and ``he will say I want to see development, a job, a school, security, electricity,″ de Hoop Scheffer said Friday.

Government and U.N. officials acknowledge that key public needs haven’t been met, but they say few notice the achievements.

``There is this mantra among Afghans that nothing has happened, but that is not true,″ said Ameerah Haq, the No. 2 U.N. official here. ``To get a direct benefit that resonates takes some time.″

Expectations are raised partly by international conferences promising billions for redevelopment, leading Afghans to think money will fall from the sky, she said.

President Hamid Karzai’s chief of staff, Jawad Ludin, said two decades of Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban rule had devastated Afghanistan.

``We have achieved more in some respects and less in others,″ he said. ``The most significant achievements have been achieving an inclusive and meaningful political process that has brought Afghans together within the framework of a democracy.″

Such talk means little to struggling Afghans in congested Kabul, which has grown fivefold to an estimated five million since 2001, and to poor farmers in remote areas, where fighting between Taliban holdouts and coalition troops hinders development.

Over half of Afghanistan’s 31 million people live below the poverty line and 40 percent are unemployed. Electricity and water shortages are acute, while illicit crops like opium represent up to one-third of the country’s GDP. Afghanistan relies on foreign aid, about $10.5 billion of which was pledged at February’s donor conference in London.

Dost Mohammed, a laborer who waits daily in a Kabul square with hundreds of others seeking work, asks where the aid has gone.

``Billions of dollars come into the country but Kabul’s face hasn’t changed,″ said the 35-year-old father of eight.

On a street corner, police Capt. Sayid Rafiq said security has worsened since the Taliban’s fall. That regime’s laws and punishments, though brutal, kept crime down.

Afghanistan’s police and army, which number about 90,000, are weak, he said, while salaries of $60 a month spur corruption.

The U.N.’s Haq said insecurity was the biggest impediment to development. The U.N. has moved staff from volatile southern regions to the safer north.

Changing the lives of Afghans will take years, she adds, but things have improved.

Over 3.5 million Afghan refugees have returned from Iran and Pakistan in the world’s largest repatriation. Female lawmakers sit in the new parliament, and girls who were kept out of school by the Taliban now make up roughly half of Afghanistan’s six million students.

Coca-Cola is opening a factory, while new mobile telephone operators serve much of Afghanistan. Gross domestic product per capita is projected to rise 13.8 percent in 2005/6 to about $1,440.

``I see more shops opening, more commercial activity and more bigger business coming,″ said V.P. Rajasekher, manager of Kabul’s upscale Safi Landmark hotel, which opened 10 months ago.

But Mohammed Ali Shah is not waiting. After receiving an Iranian visa, the 26-year-old is going to Tehran to find work.

``I returned from Iran three months ago thinking Afghanistan would be a new country, but for me it is worse than before,″ Shah said outside the Iranian Embassy where 200 other Afghans sought visas. ``I need food for my stomach.″

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