The winter weather death toll in Afghanistan has exposed the country's acute lack of infrastructure, writes journalist Ahmed Rashid in his latest guest column for the BBC News website.
The UN is just short of declaring a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan
More than 600 people, many of them children, have died in a prolonged bout of bad winter weather in Afghanistan that has included unprecedented snowfall, heavy rain and below freezing temperatures.
In some eastern provinces ravenous wolves have been attacking equally hungry children.
The United Nations is just short of declaring "a humanitarian crisis" for Afghanistan.
Yet the deaths and suffering and last month's air crash near Kabul are as much to do with the still chronically slow progress in rebuilding the country's destroyed infrastructure as the weather.
With no roads or other communications it has taken more than a month for aid workers or Western military units to reach some snowbound villages in western and north-eastern Afghanistan, where the majority of deaths have occurred.
Afghans are still paying with their lives for the failure of the international community to fulfil its many promises to help rebuild the country.
There has been no lack of response to the foul weather affecting 14 of the country's 34 provinces.
More than 400,000 people have received food and other aid from the Afghan government, US-led coalition forces, Nato peacekeeping forces, UN agencies and Afghan and Western non-governmental organisations.
The country has faced its severest winter in decades
But they face the problem of how to get to them when snowfall has blocked mountain passes, avalanches have cut off villages, the few dirt track roads are impassable and there are no telephones to warn of impending disasters.
Even in Kabul's premier Indira Gandhi hospital, children in incubators and on respirators live or die depending on whether there are power cuts to the hospital.
Heating is non-existent and at times the temperature in the hospital has dropped to minus 10 degrees Celsius.
Many of the districts have no functioning hospitals and local clinics are devoid of medicines.
Now, in the first week of March, the World Food Programme has warned of unprecedented floods as the snow melts in the spring.
Nearly three and half years after the war that defeated the Taleban and despite the remarkable political progress Afghanistan has made, the lack of infrastructure continues to haunt this country.
New roads, power stations, water supplies and investment in agriculture which the majority of the population depend on, are still missing.
Despite some progress, Afghanistan lacks basic infrastructure
Only one section - Kabul to Kandahar - of the national highway programme has been
No new power station has been built and only an estimated 6% of Afghans receive any regular electricity.
The lack of clean drinking water, especially after six years of drought, causes disease and early death.
What else has been done to rebuild the infrastructure has been patchwork at best - a generator here, a water tap there or a bulldozer flattening a dirt track road.
The Kam Air crash last month that killed 104 passengers and crew on a flight from Herat to Kabul was only partially a result of bad weather.
Kabul airport has no radar and there is no up-to-standard modern airport in the country, even though thousands of Western military aircraft safely land at their military bases in Afghanistan every year.
Afghanistan needs new airports as much as it needs tarred roads.
The money is there but the projects are not, due to bureaucratic bottlenecks that paralyse major aid donors such as the European Union, the US and the World Bank.
Heating is non-existent at a premier Kabul hospital
The international community pledged $13.4bn at the Tokyo and Berlin reconstruction conferences for the five years starting December 2001.
This despite a needs assessment by the Afghan government of $27bn.
Yet, according to the Centre on International Cooperation at New York University, until last month only $3.9bn had been given out for reconstruction projects.
Of that only $900m worth of projects has actually been completed.
In comparison Iraq is receiving many times what Afghanistan is getting in
funds for reconstruction.
The kind of effort the US-led coalition has put into rebuilding the power grid in Baghdad has never been seen in Kabul.
'Sense of pessimism'
In the meantime the lack of investment in Afghan agriculture has led to farmers growing opium poppies, which has led to drugs generating as much as $6.8bn in income between 2002 and 2004.
Drugs now account for 60% of the economy, but you cannot blame the farmers when they have nothing else to turn to in order to feed their families.
Drugs now account for 60 per cent of the economy
''Our team found the overwhelming majority of people hold a sense of pessimism and fear that reconstruction is bypassing them,'' says Daud Saba, one of the authors of a new UN Development Programme (UNDP) report on Afghanistan.
The report ranks the country 173 out of 178 countries in development indices.
There has been rapid progress in many fields such as health and education
and five million children have gone back to school.
Yet the UNDP report states Afghanistan still has ''the worst education system in the world'' and it is the world leader in infant deaths, while one woman dies in pregnancy every 30 minutes.
Life expectancy for Afghans is still only 44 years - that is 20 years less than any of its neighbours.
Nothing can restore Afghanistan's political unity, social viability and provide self-sustaining economic development until it has acquired at least that minimum basic infrastructure that was present in 1979 before the Soviet invasion.
Foreign donors need to take up whole projects like building new power stations and roads, cutting through their own and the Afghan government's red tape and building in a hurry.
They need to put their money where their mouth is, stop promising reconstruction and actually start delivering on it.
Without this a rain or snowstorm - normal events for a people who have lived with extremes of weather for centuries - will continue to extract the lives of Afghan children and feed hungry wolves.
Below is a selection of readers' views on this column.
This report shows a dramatic but inaccurate view of the problems.
The poppy is grown because it is far more profitable than any other activity, in spite of, and not because of attempts to help.
Much of the help is made impossible by the activities of local warlords. A number of foreign aid workers have been killed thus forcing the aid agencies to pull out.
I work supplying funds to humanitarian aid agencies and feel that this sort of article creates a wrong impression for the benefits of sensationalism.
What happened to BBC unbiased reporting ?
Roger Nunn, Belgium
Thanks Ahmed Rashid for this article that opens eyes on what we guessed -
political success but humanitary distress ! History repeats itself... I cannot offer more than my sympathy but I do it bare-handed.
Alike cases will always be seen till ravenous International and National NGO's tummies are not fully filled! Who cares!?
wafi, Kabul, Afghanistan
It is sad that if the international community does not see financial rewards for itself in helping a 3rd world country it will not put its hands in its pockets. The world would realise that it is more important to help enhance the quality of life of these people so that they develop and eventually become independent.
Amin Kassam, UK
Why is this a suprise? Aren't these characteristics (of foriegn developmentarians) known, and havent they been known for centuries?
Declaring war on this country was a very shortsighted and arrogant project. A great injustice was done. The countries that destroying that nation, to apparently save their own skins, should be expected to rebuild it without charge and a western engineered ideology. But i dont think anybody is holding their breath.
Here's to the recovery of Afghanistan on its own terms, the maintenance of its dignity, its appliance of its own talent and it not turning into an aid dependant place for journalists to write sob stories about.
If the energy and resources of the USA were not being "diverted" to a wild goose chase in Iraq Afghanistan would be well on the way to recovery. Good one "Bush & Company"... You left the job in Afghanistan undone so... Get to work and finish what you started.
Bob S, USA / Thailand & working in Kuwait
The Afghans are a fine people. They deserve better from the international community. We are failing them. Politicians, wake up!
The West has liberated Afghanistan from a medieval misogynist regime, its soldiers are desperately trying to rebuild the country despite regular attacks from local militias, the West (and Japan & S. Korea) have pledged USD 13.4 billion for nothing in return, the Afghans have meanwhile put all their efforts into revitalising the world opium trade which is destroying many Western inter-city societies and you can still make a statement like "Afghans are still paying with their lives for the failure of the international community to fulfil its many promises to help rebuild the country." The failure of Afghanistan is due to nobody except the Afghan people. The leaders and adults in this society have utterly failed their children and it is for this reason that those children are dying. Instead of writing such articles, the BBC should tell the truth and point this fact out...
J Baker, Japan
It is disgusting that three years after Afghanistan was 'liberated' from the Taleban the international community is still dragging its feet when it comes to providing aid and rebuilding much needed basic infrastructure. Although much of the blame could be laid at the feet of the US, the country which is responsible for pushing to 'liberate' Afghanistan, the nations of Western Europe have shown a serious lack of backbone in not pushing harder for greater steps to be taken in the rebuilding process and for not committing more resources themselves to assist this derelict country. This could have been a great way to demonstrate 'multilateralism' at work by enlisting the services of countries all over the world but it seems many nations seem to prefer to pay lip service to this notion and ignore it when it actually requires them to do anything quite difficult.
Mark, Leeds, Uk
You do not even hear about Afghanistan any more...In such disasters, the worst sufferers are children... Shame on all the so called freedom lovers, trying to end political tyranny.. what would you call this??
bimla mehta, usa
Years of war and negligence has left this country in shatters.The international community is more concerned with tackling terrorism,as if they don't know the facts that these gross negligence are the major breeding ground for terrorism.
Muddassar Jawed, India
But the Afghanis are "free!" Isn't that what Bush would say? It's what he's saying about the Iraqis, despite their similar level of suffering. The international community should be figuring out ways to put a stop to US aggression as well as patching up the messes that we've already made. I'm not saying that the Taliban were any model of a good government, but the mess in Afghanistan now is a whole lot worse. Afghanistan is yet another national disaster that goes on the same shelf as Iraq and Haiti.
Debbie Anderson, Washington, DC United States
I weep for these proud and loving people. People who inspired and charmed me and my generation thirty years ago. A people who have paid and are paying for the West's need to vent its anger at the loss of 3000 people and a couple of buildings.
The result as we can all witness is hardly a lessening of tension or terrorist threat - people wake up!! The perpetrators, responsible for the world we live in are the politicians you vote into office.
Martin Worthy, India
Too bad when you are out off the spotlight, you are not on the stage; you are not important anymore. So forget about what has been promised; bottom up and head down and labour yourselves to death and who cares. If you are not happy, suck your toe if you can bend that low
Paul Menass, australia