Moving Afghans forward


KABUL, Afghanistan -- A couple of anecdotes stick in my mind at the conclusion of a three-week visit to this troubled land trapped in time.

One was told to me by a young woman who works for an American private humanitarian organization.

She was visiting a village in a remote valley where a bridge had been erected across the river, enabling commerce with the larger village on the other side of the river and also enabling children from the village to go to a government school in the larger village.

Speaking to a local mullah, or holy man, of the smaller village, the aid worker exclaimed how good it would be for those children to get across the river to a good school. To which the mullah replied, "I don't even want them to know there is a bridge."

Such are the attitudes of an ancient culture steeped in religious tradition and prohibitions that stand in the way of the Western idea of progress in Afghanistan.

Right? Well, you could say that, but ...

Thinking I have come across a splendid metaphor for the challenge America and its allies face in modernizing Afghanistan, I share the anecdote with a senior U.N. official in the capital. He laughs.

"Each village has a mullah," he says. "Some of them are not very well educated themselves, but they run their own schools, teaching the Quran.

"And they collect fees the same way a school system in America collects taxes. These fees go to pay for the books and other materials, and they pay for the mullah. If the children go to the government school across the river, they will not be going to the mullah's school, and the mullah will not be getting the money."

So it's not hidebound conservatism. It's a matter of economics.

I heard another story that really did have to do with economics.

One of the things that relief agencies do in Afghanistan is build roads. This is not road-building as we think of it in America. No big equipment is involved. Usually, it's shovels and hoes used by villagers to transform paths fit for donkeys into bigger, firmer paths of dirt and gravel, fit for a truck or a car or a bus.

Typically, the help from the humanitarian agency comes in the form of cash to pay people for doing this work, or food to pay them for doing it.

But in Afghanistan, on the occasion that came to my attention, a problem emerged. Local powers, brandishing weapons, can make money by forcing travelers to pay a toll to pass on a road they control. The problem in this case was that the humanitarian agency was building a new road near the old "toll" road, and the armed collectors were unhappy and making threats.

I did not stay long enough to find out how this issue was resolved. Perhaps it occurred to the collector that the new road would carry more traffic and generate more income for him. On the other hand, maybe travelers would refuse to pay the toll on a new road.

A lot of Afghans want and need a good education for their children. They want to be able to get around so they can buy and sell goods. But there are forces that keep them from getting what they need and want. Some of those forces are religious, some are corrupt, some are militant. Some are all of the above.

But slowly, many Afghans are coming to realize that a world without thugs is possible and that education is not incompatible with their faith, as the Taliban insisted it was for all women. Women as old as 30 and 40 have started taking elementary classes next to 10- and 12-year-olds in some of the education programs supported by aid from the West.

Much is said about the collateral damage caused by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. But there has been some collateral benefit, too, like the bridge across the river to a better school. Question is, will the West remain willing to invest the time and manpower and money it will take to make these changes enduring?

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun who has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services. His e-mail is

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