During Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, unreconstructed optimists believed that life was always returning to normal. Their proof was that restaurants and cafes were open.
Now, it’s Afghanistan’s turn. The president, Hamid Karzai, for whom the war is probably less of an inconvenience than for his 30 million countrymen, came up with a reassuring statistic.
On the eve of this week’s Bonn Conference on Afghanistan, The New York Times reported that “Karzai and others celebrated the strides made in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban – 60 per cent of Afghans now have cellphones, he said, compared with none in 2001”. Wow.
Ten years after the first Bonn Conference anointed Mr Karzai as his country’s leader, he was back there telling them that most people (adults, anyway) have mobile phones.
This is after the expenditure of nearly 3,000 coalition lives, of whom 1,830 were American. At least 10,000 Afghan civilians have been killed. The US Treasury has spent more than $47 billion, which Afghanistan soaked up faster than you can say “Karzai”.
Has it been worth it? Let’s look at Afghanistan’s progress, as Mr Karzai asked the foreign ministers at Bonn 2011 to do, through the lens of mobile phone use.
In December 2001, although mobile phones were in short supply, there were a lot of AK-47s. Last year’s US congressional report, Warlords Inc, observed that “an AK-47 is like a mobile phone, everyone has one”.
I would bet my mobile phone that AK-47s still outnumber the phones, if only because they penetrated the market much earlier.
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union and the CIA gave them away. Coca-Cola’s strategy in new markets was similarly to offer free samples. If they tried it, whether Coke or an automatic rifle, they liked it. No one is giving away mobile phones, though.
One explanation for the popularity of mobile phones is that landlines are impossible to obtain without paying a large bribe.
Bribes are not unknown in the mobile phone world, either. Private security companies charge large sums to protect thousands of transmitter towers from the Taliban, and they buy off local warlords or the Taliban with some of that money to keep the transmitters working. One security firm director told me that “those towers are mostly controlled by the Taliban, and for the government it’s impossible to go there”.
Particularly in the south, but recently in parts of the north as well, local support (fuelled by anger at American raids on houses, drone attacks on villages and reports of torture) permits the Taliban to range as freely as a mobile phone.
If mobile phone use was not enough to assure Hillary Clinton and the other foreign ministers in Bonn last week, Mr Karzai might have added that Afghanistan now has banks. Ten years ago, there were none.
He can take special pride in the Kabul Bank, which performed a miracle western banks must envy – it made more than $1 billion vanish. Unsecured loans to some of Mr Karzai’s family and associates account for some of the missing money, most of it the gift of the American taxpayer.
TheGuardian newspaper reported that the former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, raised the alarm about the banking scandal in 2008: “The former World Bank technocrat outlined precisely the insider lending and the systematic flouting of the banking law.”
No one listened, until this year when the World Bank held back $70 million in loans to the Kabul Bank. Allegedly, it’s been fixed and Hillary Clinton has said the US would resume its contributions to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund – suspended earlier this year due to the irregularities with the Kabul Bank.
The bank has managed to track down $75 million of the missing billion. Only $925 million to go. Another positive development is Kabul’s building boom, which I saw for myself a few weeks ago. Having been away from the city for nearly five years, I noticed spectacular growth. New villas and hotels, including a huge Marriott from which the Taliban attacked the US Embassy in September, dominate the cityscape.
Most of the buildings have been constructed illegally on land seized without due process by powerful interests either close to the Karzai government or too powerful for Mr Karzai to threaten.
Throwing people off their property to make way for new constructions marks of a certain type of progress, recognisable to any Israeli settler on the West Bank.
Because building regulations are not enforced, most of the buildings will not withstand the next Afghan earthquake. Survivors can no doubt use their mobile phones to order food from the other growth sector of the economy – pizzerias that deliver.
A modern country needs an army, just as it does a flag and a national anthem, to cohere. Lebanon had one of those too, not that it mattered.
Afghanistan’s army is growing and was expected to reach 171,000 troops by the end of the year.
Then President Obama can achieve his aim of “Afghanising” the war, pitting the Afghan National Army against the Taliban and permitting most of the American troops to depart in 2014.
If Mr Obama remembers his childhood, localising the conflict was Richard Nixon’s plan in Vietnam. South Vietnam’s army, which had grown out of the colonial force left by the French, grew to more than a million men under arms. In 1975, it collapsed.
One of the reasons given for its demise in the face of the smaller force from the North was that its officer corps was so corrupt that it vanished to protect its gold rather than fight. Anyone in Kabul taking notes?
One solution for the US in Vietnam was to spread the war to Cambodia in 1970, which resulted in the collapse of the Cambodian state and the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
So successful was that policy that Mr Obama cannot resist taking the Afghan war into Pakistan, most recently with the killing of 24 Pakistani border troops, which caused Pakistan (the only delegation with influence on the Taliban) to boycott Bonn.
As the US escalates its assault on Pakistan, its collapse threatens to mirror Cambodia’s, with many competitors for the role of Jihad Rouge.
Back to mobile phones. Among those using them are the Taliban, whose commanders can phone in orders from the field to hit an American base here or the Intercontinental Hotel there.
It’s a rare war where life stops. Most people go on eating, working, studying, marrying and telling jokes. They use telephones and they read newspapers. They fight for their normality amid the insanity of destruction and killing, but that does not change the reality around them.
The war goes on, and they remain its victims.