May 7, 2010 10:21AM

Afghanistan: Hope for Stability Outside of Kabul?

Herat, Afghanistan—Malou Innocent and I have escaped Kabul for the much more pleasant city of Herat, in northwest Afghanistan near Iran and Turkmenistan.  We haven’t left all of Afghanistan’s many problems behind, but the atmosphere here is far different than in Kabul.

Set in a wide plain, Herat played an important historic role as part of the “Silk Road,” the famed Asian trading route.  Although captured by the victorious Taliban, Herat showed little sympathy for its new overlords.  After its liberation the city suffered from the domination of “warlord” Ismail Khan, but sprouts of liberalism increasingly can be seen in Herat.  For instance, though women are expected to cover their hair, women’s organizations have proliferated and gained public acceptance.

Violence is minimal, though an RPG attack six months ago effectively shut down what had been the city’s only five-star hotel, transformed into offices for Westerners.  Set on a hill dramatically overlooking the city, the building offered too tempting a target.

Tight security is evident at the airport, hotels, government buildings, and NGO offices.  But there are far fewer armed police on the streets, machine gun-topped Humvees at intersections, and fortress-like buildings.  Most concrete goes to construction rather than barriers.  Barbed wire is used sparingly, not by the mile, as in Kabul.

The international presence is strong, but not as overwhelming as in the capital.  We generated a lot of attention when we were on the street.  Most reactions were positive.  Children wanted their pictures taken with us; students wanted to practice their English; adults wanted to introduce themselves.  We exercised caution and were closely guarded, but never felt the sense of persistent menace as in Kabul.

Most humbling was meeting with human rights activists.  Our cultures differ dramatically in some regards, but what most Afghans desire is not much different than what Americans want:  peace and prosperity, freedom and opportunity.  Evident on the street are the strong family and friendship ties that underlie Afghan society.  A number of people have stepped out heroically in an attempt to build a better society. 

The consistent frustration of these activists is the Afghan government.  Corruption is pervasive; the police cannot be trusted.  While people disagree over America’s future role, virtually everyone desires a more effective, representative, and honest Afghan government.  And many of them believe that requires less, rather than more, international “aid.”

Malou and I have a few more days in Afghanistan, and another city to visit.  So far it has been a fascinating and challenging visit.  Many hard decisions must be made to reorient U.S. policy.  Among the hardest of those decisions must be made regarding Afghanistan.