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September 4th, 2009
08:25 PM ET

The Afghan Phoenix

Program Note: For more on Afghanistan follow AC360° and ac360.com all next week. Anderson Cooper will be reporting live from Afghanistan and will be joined by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Michael Ware and Peter Bergen.

Peter Bergen | Bio
AC360° Contributor
CNN National Security Analyst

The first surprise is Kabul airport. The new terminal - “a gift of the people of Japan” - appears to have been airlifted in from a small American city; light-filled, modern and staffed by young men in uniforms of khaki pants and blue shirts who politely answer travelers’ questions as they direct traffic through the quiet, marble halls of the terminal.

This is quite a change from the old Kabul airport terminal, which was not much more than a big shed that broiled in summer and froze in winter with one wheezing baggage belt disgorging luggage to a chaotic press of travelers.

I have visited the Kabul airport since 1993 and it has been an accurate barometer of Afghanistan’s shifting fortunes. In the mid-90s the country was in the grip of a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died and the airport of the capital was littered with the carcasses of airplanes large and small that had crashed on landing or takeoff during the past decade-plus of war.

Under the Taliban - whose fantasies about establishing a 7th century utopia here on earth did not extend to the simplest acts of real governance - no effort was made to clear up this mess. Once their regime fell in 2001, gradually the rusting hulks of the crashed planes were cleared from the runways.

Then came the mine sweepers. Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world and the strategically significant Kabul airport was mined particularly heavily. It took years for the mine sweepers to clear the airport runways but now they are long gone, as they are from much of the country.

Lost in the deluge of the recent media coverage of the rising violence and the flawed presidential election in Afghanistan are the markers of real progress over the past eight years, which in a small but important way is exemplified by the turnaround at Kabul airport.

Consider that:

• More than five million refugees have returned home since the fall of the Taliban. This is one of the most substantial refugee repatriations in history, yet it is little remarked upon because it has largely gone so smoothly.

One in six Afghans now has a cell phone. Under the Taliban there was no phone system.

• Millions of kids are now in school, including many girls. Under the Taliban girls were not allowed to be educated.

• In 2008, Afghanistan’s real GDP growth was 7.5 percent. Under the Taliban the economy was in free fall.

• You were more likely to be murdered in the United States in 1991 than an Afghan civilian is to be killed in the war today.

Some reading this may be thinking - can this really be right? But do the math: In 1991, almost 25,000 people were murdered in the United States at a time when the American population was approximately 260 million. In Afghanistan today some 2,000 Afghan civilians are killed each year by the Taliban and coalition forces out of a population of around 30 million

A comparison with Iraq is also instructive. As the violence peaked in Iraq in early 2007 more than 3,500 Iraqi civilians were being killed every month. Adjusting for population sizes, civilians in Iraq were 20 times more likely to be killed two years ago than they are today in Afghanistan.

Of course none of this is to deny the existence of epic corruption in Afghanistan, the massive drug trade, the scandal of billions of dollars of aid wasted on failed aid projects that have principally enriched giant American contractors like DynCorp, and the resurgence of the Taliban.

These are all too real, but they are only part of the story, and for Afghans who have lived through an invasion by a totalitarian superpower that killed one in ten of their family members, then a civil war that killed many more, and then the Taliban who brought security at the price of living in a completely failed theocratic state, the most important fact is that history is now behind them and that the future promises something better.

Editor's Note: Peter Bergen is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that promotes innovative thought from across the ideological spectrum, and at New York University's Center on Law and Security. He's the author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader," and the editor of the AfPak Channel.


Filed under: 360° Radar • Afghanistan • Peter Bergen
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Jonathan

    Finally some good news about this country from which we've only read about disasters. Glad to know that the little girls can now be allowed to receive education as in the rest of countries in the world. Positive article.

    September 7, 2009 at 12:22 am |
  2. mark

    Why are US boys being wasted in Afghanistan?

    September 4, 2009 at 9:17 pm |
  3. Stu

    Awesome! Now hopefully the liberals and democrats will read this and know the country is turning around!

    September 4, 2009 at 8:08 pm |
  4. Stephanie

    Refreshing and reassuring. A candle of hope amidst the nay-sayers.

    September 4, 2009 at 8:03 pm |
  5. Sharon

    Thank you, Peter. Insightful as always. Very encouraging to read some positive reporting for a change.

    September 4, 2009 at 6:35 pm |
  6. VITA ZEMAITIS

    You say there is a resurgance of Taliban, but perhaps it was never really gone? U.S. is still fighting with more troops than ever before and there is less support for fighting. Would it be unpatriotic to mention the cost of this war when U.S. economy does not seem to improve?
    It will be interesting to see what you find? And what about all those contractors having a field day? Perhaps all the poppy fields are too difficult to resist.

    September 4, 2009 at 3:40 pm |
  7. Hans Stuk

    Some reading this may be thinking — can this really be right? But do the math: In 1991, almost 25,000 (9.61%) people were murdered in the United States at a time when the American population was approximately 260 million. In Afghanistan today some 2,000 (6.66%)Afghan civilians are killed each year by the Taliban and coalition forces out of a population of around 30 million

    Anyone who can actually do math knows this is wrong. A 6.66% chance of being murdered is a little more than 3% less of a chance to be killed than a 9.61%. I did the math, why don't you?

    September 4, 2009 at 3:21 pm |
  8. Andy Howard

    This is an outstanding report on the progress in this country that has had to endure such hardship, for so long. It's refreshing to hear a report that clearly demonstrates that our men and women (military and civilian services), who have sacrificed at such a great cost, have made a difference. America should be proud of our small part in the Afghan story, which has opened the window for positive change. Most of all, the Afghan people have demonstrated the lengths of human (individual and collective) perseverance.

    September 4, 2009 at 2:58 pm |
  9. Johnny five

    Thank you for a positive, insightful article and clearly outlining the drastic changes that have occurred in that country. While there are many problems in Afghanistan, it is refreshing to hear of the many positive outcomes of the international presence there. This is the legitimate war for the US and it is frustrating to hear negative commentaries by many who know nothing about which they talk.

    Thank you Mr. Bergen.

    September 4, 2009 at 2:56 pm |
  10. Yusuf

    It is so encouraging to hear more of this in the news. My wife is from Afghanistan and it would be nice to one day be able to visit her homeland. I pray one day this country turns it all around and the people restore their once proud heritage and legacy.

    September 4, 2009 at 2:47 pm |
  11. Marc Condos

    Curious, with the number of coalition fatalities at an all-time high, you chose to do this article on how Afghanistan is a "Phoenix". I wonder, when did you do a story on the turnaround in Iraq? Was it a time when the casualty rate was this high? Or, did you simply not do that story because it happened in Bush's tenure.

    September 4, 2009 at 2:44 pm |
  12. Ken Williams

    Thanks you so very, very much for writing this article and especially, for providing some much needed perspective.

    September 4, 2009 at 2:42 pm |
  13. Mike

    As a career soldier, I am glad to see someone giving as balanced report on what is happening in Afghanistan. It may not be perfect, and there will be setbacks, but the fact is, this country is light years ahead of where it was a decade ago, thnks to the efforts of our countrymen, and the coalition that is still there todat.

    September 4, 2009 at 2:38 pm |
  14. Joe

    Good article in general and glad to see someone reporting facts "on the ground" and not from behind an anchor desk.

    It amazes me how progress is now measured with cell phones per capita.

    September 4, 2009 at 2:23 pm |
  15. Minou, New York City

    Good to read about the positive changes in Afghanistan. I always accuse the news media of focusing only on the negative sides of a story, so this is refreshing and encouraging. I hope the 360 dispatches next week will be as clarifying as Bergen's story here.

    September 4, 2009 at 2:18 pm |