Vice President Joe Biden visited Afghanistan just one week before the inauguration, indicating the new administration’s foreign policy priorities. It is clear that America’s “to do” list in Afghanistan is a long one. But the first order of business should be regaining the trust of Afghans.
After seven years of international presence, the country is still facing tremendous challenges: a weak government, a fledging economy, a serious humanitarian situation and a growing insurgency. As the Vice President himself said on his return, "The truth is that things are going to get tougher in Afghanistan before they're going to get better.”
More than three million Afghan refugees remain abroad, fearful of going back to a country with few prospects. The number of Afghan families who voluntarily return to their country has slowed down to a trickle. The ones who have returned face hurdles to reintegrating in their own country, especially those who have no land on which to settle.
Since 2004 the government has allocated plots of land for some selected families, although as Refugees International reported in July 2008 , the implementation of the Land Allocation Schemes went tragically wrong. In the Barikab site, 450 families had been resettled to a barren spot in the desert an hour outside of Kabul before schools, health clinics or jobs were in place. As a result, a third of the population abandoned their shelters and returned to Kabul.
In December, I returned to Barikab to see if the situation had improved.  I’m pleased to say it has. Thanks in large part to the United Nations, a school and additional shelters have been built, but families still struggle to earn a living because of the lack of transportation to markets in Kabul.
One resident of Barikab, Wahid, took me by the arm to show me his UN-built shelter at the back of the settlement. From the outside, it looked as if a bomb had exploded in one of the rooms. Black soot covered the exterior walls. Wahid explained that in the middle of the night, a flare released by a helicopter landed on his shelter and had completely damaged one of the two rooms. Luckily his children were sleeping elsewhere, but all of his possessions were destroyed. Inside, the half-melted generator and burned roof beams testified to the intensity of the heat. The UN Refugee Agency staff accompanying us took note of the incident, but there is little chance of compensation from the US military.
The Barikab site is located near the Bagram base, a major airport and housing complex for the American military. Helicopters which provide cover for army ground convoys often release flares as decoys. “The helicopters always fly low and release the flares. Now I’ve lost everything,” Wahid told me. “The U.S. base is a source of insecurity for us.”
U.S. military personnel have never stopped in Barikab, despite driving up and down the road on an almost daily basis. But the voice of Afghans like Wahid should be heard.
Although President Obama has already discussed a troop surge, it has become somewhat of a cliché in Washington policy circles to emphasize that there can be no military solution to the challenges the country faces. Wahid lost his house, but in 2008 alone more than 2,000 Afghans died because of the conflict including 800 by international and Afghan forces. Some Afghans now compare the American presence to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. It is urgent that the Afghans start seeing the benefits of the international presence, and military surge is not the sign they’re looking for.