The posters pasted everywhere at Kabul International Airport depict an architect's computer-generated image of a gleaming new terminal replete with potted palms and ficuses. Nattily dressed travelers move through the terminal rolling their Tumi cases behind them.
Beneath the picture in block letters, a note reads: "We apologize for any inconvenience the refurbishing might cause."
And it is in those few words that the theoretical Afghanistan, the one into which the United States, the European Union and other countries poured billions of dollars (the United States has thrown in $16 billion) clashes with the decrepit reality.
Kabul airport is one of the more wretched places I've ever seen. It's a squat building, cheerlessly Soviet in design. Its two runways are surrounded by the war-torn ghosts of old barracks. Beyond is an expanse of mud flats that spill into Kabul City to the north.
Inside, a throng of urchins and baggage handlers vie with police to solicit bribes from guileless travelers. They hum a chorus of "baksheesh, baksheesh" -- bribes, in English.
The purview of these "skycaps" is often from your cart to the sooty floor, what I call the "hoist and dump." The cops do even less for their perfunctory shakedowns. At least they come cheap. A few bucks will do, or barter. I stood beside an Afghan traveler who stuffed a bag full of Twix along with his passport into the slot for the border control guard.
The ceilings are leaking concrete. It's dark and cold inside. Duty free? Souvenirs? Forget about it. One U.S. contractor leaving the country complained that the bribery is inefficient. At least in the former Soviet republics, a single well-placed bribe will get you through the whole process.
Afghanistan boasts a strange cohabitation of the spanking-new and the decayed. The bribed border guard operates a webcam and pays little mind to the images that pop up on his plasma monitor a la IBM. Afghan snipers on the roof await President Hamid Karzai's return with the newest killing instruments Colt can churn out.
And it's that clash of what Afghanistan, with its not insignificant resources, could be and what it is that so dismays locals. For a people who've managed to eject history's greatest superpowers, from the Mongols to Queen Victoria's Tommies to the Soviets, they seem defeated by the corruption.
That defeat is etched on the face of Gen. Kamal Sadat, Afghanistan's drug czar. His office is in another of the Soviet-style buildings that survived the weather and 30 years of war, clumped onto the interior ministry compound. Plaques line the mantle behind his desk like a series of taxidermied hunting trophies. There's one from the U.S. Department of Defense, another from the DEA. His brushed mustache and hair are dyed. The white creeping out from the roots seems to show that he's given up on maintaining the illusion of youth.
Sadat would have a fair fight in the war against the country's booming narcotics trade if his own government ministers -- his bosses -- weren't in the thick of it, he said. Their huge compounds and security details, the manicured green lawns of imported grass in their yards (including volleyball nets -- very big in Afghanistan), their plush French furniture, all paid for by smoothing over the drug trade.
Here's how it works. Narcotics smugglers pay farmers up front to plant poppy and supply the seeds. Farmers get about $75 an acre for their toil -- about 10 times the amount they'd get for wheat.
The farmers reap the poppy and hand it over to the Taliban-affiliated drug smugglers. They swap the drugs to Afghanistan's warlords for pickups, surplus weapons, explosives and whatever else is sitting in stores fattened by the U.S. campaign against the Taliban. The government ministers facilitate the export of the drugs to Iran or Pakistan for a slice of the profits. The higher-ups get rich, the farmers feed their families and the Taliban has all the weapons it needs to fuel its insurgency.
And it's that culture of corruption that Afghans say has helped squander the billions donated to Afghanistan. A ride along the potholed streets of Kabul, the capital, requires a follow-up chiropractor visit. The spine-jarring streets disappear into a puff of dust and diesel fumes. Maintenance is dismal.
It's a source of supreme frustration for them. They know this country should be better off than it is.
U.S. embassy press attache Joe Melott says Afghans want everything now. That's not possible, he said. Kabul's population was 300,000 during the Taliban. It now hovers around 3 million people, who have access to electrical appliances they never could have dreamed of under the yoke of the previous regime. They are working on building a new power plant, but that is years off. Afghans, he intimates, will have to suffer in silence.
They demand better roads. But Melott said there's not a single Afghan company that produces asphalt on a scale large enough to build a highway.
Everyone in Kabul seems frustrated. The guys who opened Afghan Fried Chicken, a knockoff of KFC, with the technology stolen from another chain, the Pakistani King Burger, are still waiting for customers. Their fried chicken, which isn't bad, costs 10 times more than street food does.
Aziz, the manager of the guest house I stayed in, is in the same boat. He's 23 and has the looks of a Bollywood movie star, complete with manicured eyebrow -- yes, a single well-trimmed hedge above perfectly shaped almond eyes.
He recently bought a Mac laptop, and couldn't get the software he needed for it. So one day he went in one of his client's rooms and downloaded all he needed from her computer. Mission accomplished.
But surfing the Web isn't enough for Aziz. He wants to have a disco in Kabul, with the option of having a drink if he so chooses. He'd like to have a girlfriend, and he'd like to take her out on a walk before they're married without risking being murdered by her father.
But some things are going well. I visited a school, of the Afghans for Tomorrow system, which provides classes to girls who were forbidden to go to school under the Taliban. We met Aynebad Turan, a 20-year-old fourth grader. The crow's feet stretching out from her Coke bottle glasses added a generation of age to those 20 years. Now she's plowing through two grades a year. She hoped to become the first female news broadcaster from her ultraconservative Turkmen tribe. But first, she's got to get to the fifth grade.
Marriage, she said, would have to come after schooling. In a society where women's primary role is childbearing and housekeeping, and where being seen flirting with a male can get you killed, just uttering those words was an act of unparalleled courage. I had to ask her twice, to make sure nothing was mixed up in the translation.
But the expectations of what Afghanistan could be, and what it is for me, crystallized in the mud fort that's the police HQ in the northeastern town of Nichigan. Capt. Todd Polk of the 3-71 Cavalry strides into the fort. He ducks his head as he enters a creaking door to the chief's office. Like everywhere in this far-flung province that's never had a paved road, electricity, running water or a telephone, the air is heavy with woodsmoke and cooking oil.
It's a dirt floor office and the police chief, a white-bearded, portly fellow, presides behind a creaky desk. The ceiling's made of cardboard. I glance around, and found that the walls are also lined with someone's decomposing boxes.
Encapsulated in their friendly, almost gentle exchange is the collision between the well-meaning West and the Afghanistan that is not yet equipped to accept what is being offered. Polk is a man literally wearing all the fast paced, high-tech ingenuity of the most powerful nation in the world, from laser-guided sights on his M-16 to the GPS equipment in his webbing. He arrives with carefully highlighted Excel spreadsheets, ready to get things done. On the other hand, he's a denizen of one of the most primitive districts in one of the world's most primitive countries.
All Polk wants is a list of names of the chief's officers. The chief cannot provide that. He was supposed to, but cannot. There are no phones here, no cell phones. The only way to get a message to a cadet is to walk it to him.
Polk wants all the police to have a medical check. But there isn't a doctor in the district. "OK, so bring them to the FOB," his base, said Polk. The police chief doesn't respond.
The police chief said maybe he'll have the list next week, enshallah (if God wills it). Polk smiles, an expert practitioner of COIN -- counterinsurgency warfare. He knows getting upset won't help.
And while Polk has a GPS that tells him the exact location of the police fort, its altitude, etc., and seemingly more discretionary funds that his Afghan counterparts could dream of spending (although they try, joked Polk), what he doesn't have is time.
He and his boys are trying. God knows they're trying. Fourteen months in the country, two more to go. By now, they effortlessly mingle among the villagers, eat with them, digging into platters of rice and mutton with their hands -- like the locals. (That gastronomic ceremony is preceded by another ritual comprised of a copious spritz of hand sanitizer and some vigorous hand rubbing -- something to which I now swear by.)
But they all know they won't be in this valley, the Kunar River Valley, for long. The 3-71 have whupped the Taliban in each gun battle. But time is their primary enemy. And Polk doesn't have the time to retain the governor, the subgovernor, and the police chief and his men, to be efficient, to vet their men, to help install a meritocracy. He certainly won't have the time to monitor their progress.
The 3-71 will soon leave this verdant valley, and the 1-73 brigade that replaces them will leave after them. America is good at fighting a war. It wins easily and speedily. But countering an insurgency takes a generation, and the American public doesn't have the patience for that.
So the Taliban and its henchmen will return. They're already there, prowling those mountains. The day before I left, three Afghan truck drivers delivering supplies were assaulted by the Taliban on the single road that runs through the district. After robbing them and burning the trucks, the insurgents sliced off their ears to teach them a lesson. They branded them like wayward cattle.
So the United States is planning a counterattack on the "Jingle Truck" bandits. They'll slip back to their caves and be back next year.
Polk and the locals know that. And while there's a lot that Afghans would like done and a lot they'll let the Americans pay for, there's little use in changing a system that will one day go back to the Taliban or the warlords.