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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2002
MANAMA, Bahrain -- In an area that spans just two Asian time zones, I saw some of the best and worst living conditions on earth last week. That the United States had a hand in both extremes shows how easy it is to make disastrous missteps in a part of the world Americans know so little about.
In Afghanistan, I was constantly surprised that human beings can live and even maintain a modicum of dignity amid such squalor.
Kabul, the capital, is an urban nightmare. Virtually every building was damaged or destroyed during 23 years of war. Most streets are rent by enormous cracks and potholes; garbage is piled in huge fetid mounds; the stench of untreated sewage assaults the nose.
During the day, as thousands of ancient cars, trucks and buses belch exhaust fumes into the stagnant air, the city is shrouded in a noxious yellow haze so thick you can barely see the mountains.
After the Soviets invaded in 1979 to prop up a hated communist government, the CIA funneled millions of dollars and countless weapons into the hands of Afghan "freedom fighters." The United States was unaware or unconcerned that many of its new allies were religious zealots or big-time drug dealers.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, America abandoned Afghanistan, leading to a civil war that ravaged the nation and gave rise to the Taliban, al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden and the horrors of Sept. 11. Now that the United States has routed its newest enemy, at least temporarily, Afghans fear America has again lost interest in their country at the very time it is in desperate need of help.
As I waited for my flight to neighboring Pakistan on Thursday, I chatted with an avionics engineer for Ariana, the Afghan national airline. He has just one plane to work on; the rest lay in heaps along the runway, wrecked in the U.S.-led bombing last fall.
"We need planes but where are we going to get them?" he asked. Foreign aid has been so slow to trickle in that there's no money to repair the short stretch of road leading to the airport, let alone replace 10 Boeing aircraft or pave thousands of miles of bombed-out highways and bridges.
A few hours later I was in Pakistan. It is a huge, poor Muslim country to which America paid little attention as another U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, funded thousands of religious schools that preached hatred of non-Muslims and counted the Taliban among their alumni.
Although he is a military dictator, President Pervez Musharraf seems to be a decent man trying to do right by his people. But his predecessors, some of them democratically elected, bequeathed him a country so tainted by corruption and Islamic extremism that it would be nearly impossible for any leader to succeed.
Musharraf took a risk by joining the war against terrorism. Few in Pakistan would be surprised if he were assassinated tomorrow. And while most Pakistanis are peace-loving, the level of anti-Western sentiment is such that armed guards were on every floor of the Marriott hotel where I and many other foreigners stay when in Islamabad, the capital.
On the way to the airport Friday, I talked to a security consultant from Miami. His firm advises Western clients to avoid the huge city of Karachi, where Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered and several French engineers were blown up, and never to travel in conspicuous groups.
From Pakistan, I flew to the United Arab Emirates and on to Bahrain, two of the rich little Arab Muslim nations on the Persian Gulf. They are as modern as Afghanistan is primitive, and as safe as Pakistan is dangerous. In parts of Bahrain, you might think you were in Palm Beach, so lavish is the landscaping.
U.S. technology helped build the gulf oil industry and Americans' love for big cars has helped the gulf states to prosper. But credit also must go to those progressive Arab rulers who have used their oil wealth wisely, building schools and roads and hospitals and giving their citizens among the world's highest standards of living.
Unfortunately, in the post-Sept. 11 climate of fear and paranoia, many Americans tend to view the entire Muslim world as an evil, backward monolith. But as a mere day's journey shows, that perception could not be more inaccurate. Where U.S. foreign policy has failed spectacularly, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the disaster comes from not recognizing or appreciating the complex forces that shape every nation individually.
As the Bush administration ponders whether to attack Iraq, it would be good to consider this: How many times has U.S. action or ignorance produced results totally different from what was intended?