Published: November 2003

Afghanistan: Between War and Peace

By Edward Girardet
Photographs by Steve McCurry
An all-enveloping burka, the outer garb of conservative Afghan women, makes it hard to grab a quick bite on the go from a street vendor in Mazar-e Sharif. Though officially free to shed the awkward garment since the fall of the Taliban, only a small minority of women—especially in areas outside Kabul—actually do so. "Probably for every hundred women you see walking around in a burka, you'll see five or at most ten without one," says photographer Steve McCurry. "It's still very traditional."

A persistent wet snow blanketed the marketplace as shouting villagers, their plastic shoes slipping in the mud, unloaded food, tools, and other basics from the four-by-four pickups that ply the narrow dirt road linking the Afghanistan town of Jalalabad with the remote northeastern province of Nuristan. The falling snow was so thick you could no longer see the peaks of the Hindu Kush, their cedar-forested slopes looming precipitously over the flat-roofed wood-and-stone dwellings below. It was early last November in Paprok, a small trading town straddling the thunderous headwaters of the Nuristan River. For a week Paprok and much of the rest of Afghanistan had been drenched by rain and, in the higher regions, snow—a welcome respite from a four-year drought.

"This is exactly what the country needs," declared Mohammed Ali, a community development manager with the British agency Afghanaid. "But it may take a lot more, maybe two seasons, for the drought to break."

Since the drought began many Afghan farmers had missed two, even three, harvests, unable to plant their wheat on the nearly ten million acres of rain-fed lands that constitute more than half Afghanistan's cultivable area. Other farmers had to sell their livestock as a desperate last resort. Meanwhile, Kabul's reservoirs had shrunk to little more than ankle-deep puddles barely the size of football fields. In addition to drought, earthquakes during the past several years have wrecked entire villages in the north, killing and wounding thousands.

For Afghans like Mohammed Ali, who are trying to put their country back on its feet, it is impossible to separate the impact of natural disasters from the impact of war. Two years ago this month, a U.S.-led coalition overthrew the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic movement that had ruled the country since 1996. But that was only the most recent episode in a quarter century of turmoil. Afghanistan's current tragedy can be traced to a popular uprising in the summer of 1978 against the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which had grabbed power in a coup d'ètat several months earlier. As the fighting spread, the Soviet Union felt obliged to support the besieged communist regime and invaded the country on December 27, 1979. By the mid-1980s more than five million men, women, and children—one-third of Afghanistan's population—fled to Pakistan, Iran, and other countries in one of the globe's largest exoduses since the end of World War II. When the Soviet occupation ended in 1989, an estimated 1.5 million Afghans had died. In the ensuing struggle for power perhaps another 50,000 people were killed in Kabul, largely as a result of indiscriminate shelling by the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamic extremist supported by the U.S. during the 1980s. A further 3,000 to 4,000 Afghan civilians were reportedly killed when the U.S. and its allies drove the Taliban from power.

It is not surprising, given this tumultuous backdrop, that many Afghans believe that now is their one chance—albeit a fragile one—for peace and stability. As Mohammed Awrang, a thin-faced former mujahid who currently dedicates himself to development projects in the northeast province of Badakhshan, said: "It is up to us—ordinary Afghans—to ensure the peace, because who else will?"

For now Afghans must rely on thousands of foreign soldiers and aid workers trying to keep the peace and carry out the international community's recovery plan for their country—a gargantuan task the UN and World Bank estimate will cost between 11 and 19 billion dollars over the next decade. The plan aims to help Afghans rehabilitate agriculture, create jobs for returning refugees, rebuild roads, and improve health care and education. Already more than three million children, nearly one-third of them girls, have gone back to school. Investment in such projects as the laying of a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to the Indian subcontinent is also expected to contribute to the recovery. But progress has been slowed by funding delays and Afghanistan's internal volatility.

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