Going back nigh 30 years, I have always been deeply pained when people accuse me of being cynical about U.S. foreign aid. At least my breakfast was nicely spiced this morning by a Washington Post front page story – “After billions in U.S. investment, Afghan roads are falling apart.” The highways that the U.S. spent billions building roads in Afghanistan are deadly traps luring unwary drivers to their doom. I recall how Hillary Clinton promised to reform and redeem U.S. aid to Afghanistan shortly after she was sworn in as Secretary of State. Here’s a photo from the Post on how things worked out:
U.S. aid is supposedly going to generate the prosperity that leads to Afghan freedom. And yet, even within a couple years after the U.S. invasion, foreign aid was floundering in Afghanistan, just as it almost always does elsewhere.
On December 16, 2003, dignitaries from the U.S. government, the Afghan provisional government, the United Nations, and other organizations gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. President Bush issued a statement from Washington bragging that “the first phase of paving the Kabul-Kandahar leg of the highway is completed under budget and ahead of schedule. This new road reduces travel time between Kabul to Kandahar to five hours. It will promote political unity between Afghanistan’s provinces, facilitate commerce by making it easier to bring products to market, and provide the Afghan people with greater access to health care and educational opportunities.”
Though the announcement and the ceremony were widely portrayed in the U.S. media as a triumph for the Bush administration, the reality was less cheery. The Los Angeles Times reported that “it took hundreds of U.S. and Afghan troops, backed by attack helicopters, antitank weapons, snipers and bomb-sniffing dogs, to make it safe for President Hamid Karzai to cut the ribbon on the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway.” Prior to the signing ceremony, “troops set up roadblocks to stop traffic in both directions for more than three hours. That was just long enough for dignitaries to arrive in heavily guarded convoys and on Chinook helicopters, celebrate a job well done and rush back to safer ground in Kabul, the capital, 25 miles northeast.”
The trip from Kabul to Kanda-har is faster now — unless a person gets killed or kidnapped along the way. Andrew Natsios, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, bragged, “We built this road right through a war zone.” But the road is doing nothing to end the war. Though the road itself is a vast improvement over the horribly potholed road first built by the United States in the 1960s, the Chicago Tribune noted that “all but about 40 miles of it are off-limits to the United Nations agencies and international aid workers” because of the high risk of attacks. The soaring crime rate can make the road too perilous even for Afghan taxi drivers.
Despite the dismal failure of U.S. foreign aid to Afghanistan during the Bush administration, the Obama administration’s promises of redemptive aid are usually taken at face value by most of the American media. Neither the media nor the White House has shown a learning curve.
On Twitter @jimbovard