Afghanistan is far from ready to govern and police itself or defend its jagged borders, several members of that country's legislative branch said on a visit to the California Capitol on Monday.
A journalist, an obstetrician/gynecologist, a school principal, a political scientist and a businessman – all members of Afghanistan's House of the People – said that chaos and terror will reign if the United States leaves the poor, war-torn country of more than 30 million in 2014 without making sure its new democracy is working.
"If the U.S. just wants to escape from Afghanistan without a responsible exit strategy, that will send a clear message to the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Haqqani network that it's safe," said journalist Baktash Siawash, at 28 the youngest of the 249 parliamentarians elected in 2010 to the lower house of the country's National Assembly.
Afghanistan would endure a replay of the end of the Russian war in 1992 "when we had civil war and the Talibanization of the country," Siawash said.
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The five Afghan politicians were part of a group of 13 on a two-week U.S. State Department trip focused on the role of the legislative branch in a democracy.
The group met last week with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other members of Congress before visiting the California Legislature.
Siawash said Monday that too much power is concentrated in the hands of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and 21 powerful families. "Our president's ignoring the lawmakers who represent the people who don't have water, roads or clinics," Siawash said.
Billions of dollars in U.S. aid are winding up in the hands of corrupt officials in government and the nonprofit sector, Siawash said.
"I told Sen. McCain, 'You're wasting your time and your money. Why don't you hold the Afghan government accountable and put an end to the corruption?' "
The war in Afghanistan has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $443 billion since it started after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Despite tens of thousands of casualties, the United States has begun laying the groundwork for a better, safer, more democratic Afghanistan, said the two women in the group – Dr. Fatema Aziz and Zakia Sangeen, the school principal.
"Before the U.S. came, Afghan was in the Dark Ages – the Taliban didn't see people as human beings," said Sangeen. "Ten years ago, all girls schools were closed. Now there are schools for boys and girls throughout the country."
With U.S. help, clinics have opened and deaths during childbirth have dropped 20 percent, Aziz said.
But despite the advent of parliament and a nascent democracy, the Pakistan-based Taliban seem to be making a comeback, Aziz said. "They're making life miserable. ... I told Sen. McCain we have to put economic pressure on Pakistan. The Taliban's taking young Afghan boys to Pakistan's madrassas," referring to Islamic religious schools.
The United States views Afghanistan as a short-term project, rather than a long-term exercise in democratic nation-building, said political scientist Jafar Mahdavi.
To fight the Taliban, Mahdavi said, "the U.S. actually brought to power warlords," who are often behind the corruption, drug dealing, abductions and crimes. "And they pretend to be the opposition party in government."
Members of the group, hosted locally by the Northern California World Trade Center, said they hope the United States will finish the job it started.
"All you see are images of death, destruction and violence," said Mohammad Watan Dost, who invests in coal mines. "You don't see your achievements: human rights, women's rights, democracy and representation of all ethnic groups."
Watan Dost said he's one of 6 million ethnic Hazaras who were not part of Afghanistan's political structure until the United States established its parliamentary government.
He said the U.S. should take much of the military budget and build dams, roads and manufacturing centers to give young people jobs and hope: "If someone has a job, he usually doesn't pick up a gun."