Once Hopeful, Northern Afghanistan Is Disillusioned

Reporter Anna Badkhen talks to Renee Montagne about her recent trip to northern Afghanistan. Badkhen kept a diary at Foreign Policy magazine's website. She chronicled her journey through a region once considered the safest section of Afghanistan, a place where the Taliban were hated.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're going to take a journey now to the countryside in the north of Afghanistan. This is a region that has traditionally been the safest in the country. So it says quite a bit about where things stand in Afghanistan that militants now control large swaths of the north.

Anna Badkhen is a reporter who traveled throughout the north in the months after the coalition invasion drove out the Taliban. She returned last month for Foreign Policy magazine to see how the area has changed since she was first there.

Ms. ANNA BADKHEN (Reporter, Foreign Policy Magazine): In 2001 and 2002, after the Taliban fell, you could basically drive in any direction without fear of being kidnapped. It was safe for foreigners, for Westerners to travel. Afghans did not feel that, at any given moment, they could be stopped and money would be extorted from them by Taliban fighters. It was a part of the country exhilarated and full of hope.

And today, northern Afghanistan is a country extremely disappointed, people extremely disillusioned in the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan, and people who don't know, frankly, where so-called government-controlled territory ends and so-called Taliban territory begins.

MONTAGNE: So let's start with one of your dispatches that gives a sense of how tough life really is there now, nearly nine years after the Taliban were driven out. It's titled: "Who Needs a Playground When the Children are Dying?"

Ms. BADKHEN: This is a place called Shahraqi Mawjirin, which is a camp built by the Afghan government for refugees who fled northern Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. And now they've come back, and they were put in this salt desert in northern Afghanistan, where nothing has ever grown and nothing will ever grow. There is so much salt in the soil, that it percolates to the surface, and the desert is pretty much white.

There is a clinic donated by the U.S. government to the refugee camp, except there is no doctor in the clinic and the clinic is locked. There's also a school, similarly donated, but there is no teacher. And then there's a playground, and there's a big board in front of it that says: This was the gift of the U.S. Department for Refugees and Migration.

And I asked people who live in the camp, you know, does anybody ever use the playground? And they got really upset. They started saying: Do we need this playground if we have nothing to eat? Do we need this playground if we have no jobs? Do we need this playground if our children are dying?

MONTAGNE: You also traveled to a village that was literally buried in mud. In fact, you described that the only clean thing you saw was a white pigeon. Describe what happened there.

Ms. BADKHEN: What happened in this village was one of the freshets that carries spring snow melt from the mountains - the very same snow melt that nurtures the fields and orchards of the villages - became flooded, and it rose from its banks and flooded almost every house in the village. For two or three days, these people had absolutely nobody to come and help them out.

The Afghan government arrived and handed them bread, what amounted to about three or five loaves of bread per family, and then the government left. And because most of the structures in that part of Afghanistan are made with clay, if the clay is exposed to so much water, it becomes wet, and then it crumbles, and then you have not house to live in.

MONTAGNE: What did they do? How did they react when you asked them: Do you expect that the government will come in and give you some help?

Ms. BADKHEN: They almost laughed out of their house. They said that they don't even remember the last time the government cared for them. The $1.7 billion that have been pumped into Afghanistan by the international community since 2001 to rebuild the country, it seems as though most of that money has stayed in Kabul.

MONTAGNE: Towards the end of your trip, one of your stories begins with the premise that on moonless nights, American helicopters fly in Taliban fighters into this northern area from places in the south, from Kandahar and Helmond. And, you know, the thought of that for many of us would be that's ridiculous. What is that story all about?

Ms. BADKHEN: Well, this is one of the most popular conspiracy theory - and I heard it everywhere I went - because Afghans don't understand how is it possible that a military force so powerful that it could push the Taliban out of power within weeks in 2001 cannot defeat, you know, what essentially amounts to barefoot fighters armed with a bunch of Kalashnikov rifles. How is it possible that a force that is so rich cannot bring electricity to a village? How is it possible that the Taliban is gaining strength in northern Afghanistan where the Taliban was always traditionally aboard?

And they're looking for answers, and the only answer they can come up with is that well, it can't be happening without the help of the Americans. So the Americans must be putting the Taliban up north.

MONTAGNE: Colluding for some mysterious motive, but colluding because they could so easily beat them.

Ms. BADKHEN: Absolutely. I mean to me, this conspiracy theory was a symbol of the puzzlement that Afghans feel about why they don't see any change for the better. Why is the Taliban still there? Why is there still war? Because they don't see any other explanation.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. BADKHEN: Thank you very much for having me.

MONTAGNE: Reporter Anna Badkhen chronicled her travels through northern Afghanistan for the website of Foreign Policy magazine.

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