Just back from my seventh wartime trip to Afghanistan since November 2001, there are some clear-cut comparisons.
First, Kabul the capital is a vastly different city than it was when the war started. It is more than twice as big — 5 million now as compared to under 3 million then — and it is dotted by modern mid-rise buildings, festooned with billboards and other indicators of a vibrant business community that uniquely exists behind the tall piles of sandbags and legions of machine-gun wielding guards who patrol in front of virtually every shop, restaurant and government office.
If Afghanistan has any hope of a relatively normal future it is in its resilient capitalism; its business community, which is largely fueled by the entrepreneurial spirit of ex-pat Afghanis mostly from the United States with some money from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.
There are other grudging signs of creeping modernism in Kabul. There are more women's faces visible in the capital city and traffic — the hustle and bustle existing despite the highly-visible terror attacks that have come with some regularity. Everyone has a cell phone; every sect and tribe has a radio and television station and generally seems more in touch with the modern era than ever.
The situation in the provinces, however, still reflects the ancient, reactionary, and deeply conservative society. Women are invisible, hospitals and schools few and far between, paved roads, public facilities and toilets non-existent, the dust is thick and the living is uneasy.
But I bury the lead, which is the incredibly pervasive influence of the drug trade, principally opium. Without any exaggeration or hyperbole, opium is everywhere. In Helmand Province, the scene of our recent military offensive and source of 90 percent of the world's opium, it is difficult to find a flat, irrigated piece of land that is not planted with opium. It is like wheat and Kansas, corn and Nebraska and Mississippi and cotton. The billion dollar business is larger than the sum total of all foreign aid. It has totally corrupted Afghan society, reaching even into the president's office.
Whatever they were ideologically or religiously speaking, the Taliban is now a narco-terror group not unlike FARC in Colombia. Like the Sicilian mafia, they presently exist to facilitate participation in the dope business, it is their raison, not the other way around. And the fact that our GIs have been ordered essentially to keep their hands off the dope trade is a moral conundrum for the United States that is not nearly receiving the attention it deserves. It is flat out weird.
The other personally shocking revelation for me is the gigantic cascade of U.S. taxpayer money being spent for enormous, elaborate base construction, tens of millions being spent on facilities that we are supposedly going to begin leaving behind in September 2011.
Remembering that Usama bin Laden vowed to bankrupt the United States with his asymmetrical warfare, there is no more glaring example of that than the IED campaign against our armored vehicles. They are attacked hourly. Happily, our vehicles now protect our troops and Marines effectively. It is a vast and tardy improvement over the era of the Humvee. Deaths and injuries are dramatically reduced but at tremendous cost. Each bomb costs about $30 — that investment inflicts damage that often incapacitates or wrecks a vehicle costing a million dollars. How long can we sustain that kind of investment without imposing a war tax?
The end game is the hope the majority of the Afghans, including the Taliban comes to appreciate that the United States makes a better friend than enemy, that Al Qaeda never did anything to help the Afghan people and that we really don't want to rule their country. We just want a reasonable reassurance that they will use best efforts to prevent criminal terrorists from using the apparatus of the Afghan state to attack us. What we and the rest of the world choose to do about the dope business is a gaping question.
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Geraldo Rivera currently serves as a roaming correspondent-at-large for Fox News Channel. He joined the network in 2001 as a war correspondent.