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Rebuilding Akokolacha

Why America must get more involved - not less - in Afghanistan

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Former National Public Radio correspondent Sarah Chayes went to Afghanistan in October 2001 to report on the war. When the fighting - and the news assignment - was over, she sensed her responsibility was just beginning. Feeling a growing need to stop talking about conflict and start doing something about it, she stayed to serve as field director of Afghans for Civil Society, a non-profit group in Baltimore.

Engineer Abdullah and I clambered about the wreckage of this parched village last June, a knot of elders and a gaggle of children spilling over the uneven ground. It quickly became clear that we would never know what the village had once looked like.

"I had seven rooms here," one turbaned elder with a wolf-like face asserted. "And a bathroom adjoining every room."

Abdullah and I looked at each other, then at the 10 square yards of mounded debris we were standing on. The mansion the man was describing was what he wished he'd owned, and I told him as much. The visit went on like that. No one would tell the truth about a neighbor's house, for fear of scuttling his own chances of getting a castle from the foreigners who had inexplicably arrived to rebuild the village.

The Akokolacha project has proved to be an extraordinary microcosm of the wreckage that is Afghanistan, the obstacles in the way of laying new foundations, and the key role the US has played and still plays - for good or for bad.

The parched village of Akokolacha abuts the Kandahar airport. It was smashed half to rubble a year ago when Al Qaeda forces - holed up in a bloody last stand - were pounded by US bombs. Villagers returned to find 10 of their 30 houses heaps of broken mud bricks, the desert wind softening the edges.

Last spring, the nonprofit development organization I'm helping to run appealed to the people of Concord, Mass. (where I gave a lecture) and others we approached personally for money to reconstruct Akokolacha's ruined houses. The response was breathtaking - $18,000 in private donations to build a symbolic bridge between a small American town and a crippled village in Afghanistan.

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