REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Afghanistan's 'Decrepit Reality'

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.

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