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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 February 2008, 12:06 GMT
Piloting Afghanistan to a prosperous future
As the UK and the US have been confirming their commitment to the rebuilding of Afghanistan, Lyse Doucet in Kabul reports that there is growing tension between Afghanistan and the international community, as well as mounting concern about how best to cope with the Taleban insurgency.

A plane on the tarmac at Kabul airport
Kabul Airport was re-opened to civilian airlines in 2002

When I think about Afghanistan's difficult journey, I often remember its pilots.

I call them the "hero pilots".

They have crossed hostile skies across this land with their national carrier Ariana, sailed over jagged snow capped peaks of the Hindu Kush and navigated the risky entry into a capital ringed by majestic mountain ranges and ancient forts.

The flight is breathtaking, as much for the dramatic landscape as the plane's corkscrew descent in the worst days of war. It is a dive in a broad sweeping spiral to avoid enemy fire, and then a swift, safe landing.

When the Taleban were toppled in 2001, one of Ariana's senior pilots, whom I have known for years, took me to see the veritable Afghan museum strewn along the airfield's apron.

There was a Russian-built aircraft punctured by a mujahideen stinger missile during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, as well as smaller jets hit during mujahideen infighting when they took power in the 90s, and the blackened remains of a plane virtually obliterated by US bombing during the onslaught against the Taleban in 2001.

The heady euphoria of 2001 has given way to a wave of doom and gloom

Ariana lost six of its aircraft in that conflict. All told, theirs is the story of a country that has long been at war.

On that winter's day at Kabul airport, there was suddenly a rush and a roar.

Missed opportunities

Ariana staff ran to the edge of the Tarmac to witness an extraordinary sight: the last remaining aircraft in their fleet had arrived, taxi-ing down the last potholed runway still fit for use.

It also happened to be the same plane hijacked to London in 2000.

A hijacked Afghan plane sits at London's Stansted Airport in 2000
The Afghan hijackers said they were fleeing Taleban persecution

Ariana employees shouted with joy and there was not a dry eye.

For professional pilots who often reminisced about the days before war, when they trained with the US's Pan Am airlines, this was a new start, a dream come true.

But six years on, much of that dream has been dashed.

There have been bad decisions, missed opportunities and bitter disappointments.

Missing money

Now their fleet is a hodge podge of second-hand planes donated, leased or bought from countries far and wide.

A corruption case hangs over millions of pounds that went missing.

Over these years, when I have sat with pilots in the cockpit jump-seat, the stories come tumbling out with palpable frustration and fury.

What happened? I asked on one flight.

There is a hard realisation that... rebuilding a shattered land will take a generation and more

One pilot traced an imaginary sack with his hands, torn at the bottom, money flowing away.

And now, in another blow to their pride, European airports have banned Ariana from flying their routes for safety reasons.

I suppose I should tell you that a lot of people I know would never fly Ariana. They call it "Scariana" and tell astonishing tales.

But if Ariana had a Frequent Flyer's club, its members would commend its pilots for their professionalism and commitment.

For me, it is also a snapshot of what has gone on here. And, I have to say, I find it hard to connect the dots.

Misguided aid

In the same way, Ariana's restoration is a jumble of efforts from well-meaning nations, so are some of Afghanistan's other aid programmes.

An Afghan girl takes home a can of food aid from Germany
Afghanistan receives aid from many countries around the world

On this trip to Kabul, one foreign consultant told me how - in his area - the European Commission, the World Bank and the US's aid agency all have different approaches to the same problem and their efforts often duplicate or contradict each other.

They all talk of capacity building to help Afghans take charge but, in many ministries, salaries of highly-paid foreigners are eating up the aid budget.

Among Afghans, there are government ministers and civil servants known for their outstanding work.

Others take up seats by dint of political and/or family connections.

Rebuilding the country

Much of the talk in Kabul's political and diplomatic circles now is about why it has gone wrong and how to put it right, before a resurgent Taleban and others exploit a growing disenchantment.

The heady euphoria of 2001 has given way to a wave of doom and gloom. But that is not all bad.

There is a hard realisation that mistakes have been made, that rebuilding a shattered land will take a generation and more, and that Afghans and outsiders must find better ways to work together.

The journey has not gone the way many had hoped. But that is not to say it has all been for naught.

Take Kabul International Airport. All that twisted metal has been hauled away.

The modest terminal has had a facelift and there are plans for a much bigger one.

There are queues in front of passport control instead of a chaotic scrum. And trained staff in uniform sit in glass cubicles with their computers.

As for Ariana, its director has gone to President Karzai to ask for proper support or privatisation.

And the hero pilots?

Well, some are hanging on. Some have reluctantly moved to the new private airlines doing brisk trade.

Maybe Afghanistan does not need hero pilots now but it does need skills and commitment, good leaders and friends, and a coherent map for a long difficult journey ahead.

Ariana pilots are masters at safe landings in the tightest of spots.

Now they, like millions of other Afghans, must help their country, peaceful and prosperous, to arrive.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 9 February 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Afghanistan
03 Aug 07 |  Country profiles


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