KAI RYSSDAL: The Afghan army got a boost today thanks to the Pentagon. American forces in Kabul handed over about 800 trucks and 12,000 weapons. Allied troops are getting ready for what’s expected to be a spring offensive by the Taliban.
President Bush has asked for $10.5 billion to prepare. Most of that money would be for security. But a couple of billion would go to rebuilding roads and laying power lines.
Afghans would welcome any relief. In the five years since the Taliban was driven out of power, lives haven’t improved all that much. And some say their quality of life has actually gone down.
We sent Miranda Kennedy to Kabul to find out more.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Ahmad Ezmaray heads out on his morning trip to the market. He works as a cook in this upscale Kabul neighborhood, and he’s been shopping here for years.
It’s a cluster of small shops on an unpaved street, crowded with cars and bicycles and donkeys . . . and lots of people. Many more people than there used to be.
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, millions of refugees have returned to Afghanistan. Kabul’s population has swelled from 700,000 under the Taliban to almost 4 million today.
Ezmaray complains that’s inflated the price of everything.
AHMAD EZMARAY: Before, there was not this crowd of people. But right now everything we can find, but the prices little bit higher: 10 percent, some thing 20 percent, some thing more than 20 percent.
KENNEDY: You have any other shopping to do?
EZMARAY: Some meat, mutton and chicken.
KENNEDY: So we’re going to the butcher shop next?
The butcher shop is just an open-air stall, where fly-covered cow and sheep carcasses dangle from ceiling hooks.
The butcher chops away at a side of sheep, and informs Ezmaray that the price has gone up for the second time in a month . . . to $2 a pound. It was 50 cents a pound during the Taliban years.
When Ezmaray buys for himself, he buys the cheapest cut: sheep tails for stew. Right now, he buys four pounds of mutton steaks for his boss.
KENNEDY: Are you finished?
EZMARAY: Yes, finished.
Back at home, Ezmaray hands over the groceries to Nasir Shansab, his boss. He’s one of thousands of returning Afghans and U.S. army and UN personnel who are driving up the price of everything in Kabul.
Shansab pays Ezmaray $160 a month. That’s 80 percent more than he earned as a cook during the Taliban era. But it’s still not enough to keep up with Afghanistan’s inflation, which shot up to as high as 24 percent after the end of the Taliban regime.
EZMARAY: For some people in Kabul who live on a fixed income, I think it has deteriorated. Because of all the money that has come in, people like me who have come in and spent money, the prices have gone up. The rent has gone up, food has gone up, everything has gone up.
Shansab left Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded 30 years ago, and moved to northern Virginia. He ran a real estate business and raised a family. But the vision of a new, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan inspired him to leave it all and come back to Kabul.
He got contracts with the U.S. government here to build power plants. Four years on, he’s made money, but he’s lost hope in the vision.
NASIR SHANSAB: There are things that have happened that didn’t exist four years ago. We have a phone. There are about 2,000 kilometers of new roads. Beside that? Nothing has happened. Kabul is destroyed as it was.
Shansab says the buildings are still rubble, the country is still caught in the grip of corruption, and education and jobs elude most Afghans. The sum of all this is desperation and frustration, which Shansab says are the stepping stones to the insurgency.
SHANSAB: They read the papers and hear of billions of dollars coming to Afghanistan, but they don’t see in their own lives any changes. You know, for an Afghan to take a gun and go to the mountains is very easy, because he has nothing. He has no running water, he has no electricity, his children don’t go to school. That is something that the United States, Washington, has to take into account.
If the U.S.-led coalition forces can’t provide security and basic amenities, Shansab worries Afghanistan will end up in another civil war.
He’s not sticking around to see what happens. He’s closing out his contracts, looking for a new job for Ezmaray, and then buying a one-way ticket back to the suburban comforts of Oak Hill, Virginia.
In Kabul, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.
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