When a huge U.S.-led attack sent the Taliban packing, tractor driver Gullajan hoped that peace and prosperity would follow even in his remote and unsettled corner of this war-ravaged nation.
He is still waiting.
“The Americans are here for the good of us, but they have done nothing yet,” said Gullajan, a 22-year-old laborer who, like many Afghans, goes by one name. “It’s just the same, only less safe. The roads are still totally ruined, and I am afraid that someone will come and steal my tractor out from under me.”
Gardez, a former Taliban stronghold about 60 miles south of the capital, Kabul, is an especially apt place to gauge how the United States is viewed from Afghanistan. People are glad the Taliban are gone and generally see U.S. intentions as positive.
But there is growing disillusionment over America’s failure to make a difference in people’s daily lives. New schools, roads and clinics haven’t materialized, nor have the economic good times many hoped for from the U.S.-backed regime of President Hamid Karzai.
This city of about 200,000 lies in the center of Paktia province in eastern Afghanistan, a region the U.S admits is still far from pacified. It sits astride the escape route that many Taliban and Al Qaeda members used to leave Kabul for the Pakistani border. One of the most important Al Qaeda redoubts was the Shahi Kot valley, just 25 miles southeast of here.
As a result, the region was heavily bombed in late 2001 and during the Anaconda offensive in March. At least five times, U.S. pilots mistakenly bombed civilians, causing dozens of deaths and much anti-Americanism.
Remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda who fled east to the mountains continue to make mischief with rocket attacks and ambushes. So do warlords who came with the victorious U.S.-backed Northern Alliance.
Highway bandits in the guise of toll takers are so common that taxi drivers have refused to pay the government license fees until security is improved.
“Americans are here for a good reason. But they have been here a year, and what have they done? They have brought people to power who have always been thieves,” said Dr. Dad Mohammed, an internist.
Because of the dangers, humanitarian agencies are reluctant to set up operations, so relief and reconstruction have been slower than in other parts of Afghanistan. The U.N. closed its doors after two grenades were thrown into its compound Dec. 2.
Many blame the Americans for doing nothing to alleviate the lack of security. Walid, a merchant who wanted neither his last name nor his business identified, said disillusionment is setting in just as it did under various Afghan governments and during the Russian occupation.
“We are the patient who takes a tablet but doesn’t recover, another tablet and doesn’t recover, and at the end you hate all kinds of medicine,” Walid said.
Many contrast Gardez’s lawlessness with Taliban times, when there was public order, even though it was oppressive. And there is lingering resentment about the bombing errors.
“The bombings caused a lot of ill feelings, to the point that everything bad in the town is ascribed by some people to the Americans,” said Khaled Ahmad, a video store owner and repairman who is back in business after five years during which the Taliban forbade TV and videos. “But for people to come in here and say the Americans want to conquer our country is not right. I hope they do a true rehabilitation. They have already built one school, and they will do much more.”
Raz Mohammed Dalili, appointed governor of Paktia in July by Karzai, says the U.S. military, which maintains a special-forces base outside town, has made amends for the bombings with apologies and payments to victims’ families.
“People will really begin to be very cooperative once they see reconstruction take place,” Dalili said, adding that nine rebuilding projects are planned.
A visit by coalition commander Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill to speak to Gardez’s tribal council also helped soothe passions. The U.S. now shares information with the council and a separate military council in an effort to avoid mistakes, Dalili said.
At Karzai’s urging, the U.S. Army selected Gardez as the first site for a reconstruction program to begin this month. It’s designed to create jobs and get projects rolling quickly.
Col. Phil Maughan, commanding officer of the Army’s civil assistance brigade, said Gardez was chosen because of aid groups’ reluctance to work here and elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan. The program will involve up to 70 soldiers: 50 reconstruction personnel and 20 combat troops to protect them.
Maughan can attest to the region’s insecurity. His staff’s motor convoy was attacked by a remote-controlled bomb last month. There have also been “continual” rocket attacks on the U.S. base near Gardez, he said.
“A lot of people don’t want us to be there. There is a lot of Afghan-on-Afghan, between-the-warlords fighting going on. We’ll ... try to make it an area where small aid agencies will want to start doing stuff in Gardez and expand out,” he said.
But winning hearts and minds will take time in this city. Recently, the entire populace seemed to know that five cars had been stolen this month, something that they said never would have happened under the Taliban.
Col. Abdul Samed, a local military leader, emphasized the need for schools and improvements to the water supply in the wake of a four-year drought.
“What good does it do us to have new bridges and new highways if we don’t have anything to eat?” he asked. “And what good does it do us to have new books and magazines when we can’t read?”
Said Dad Mohammed: “Americans are our last hope for reconstructing the country. But so far that hope has given no results.”
Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this report.