Splitting The Difference, In A Bad Way

Wednesday, December 28, 2005 at 09:22 AM

In the US, just after WWII, there was a consensus that we really were all in it together.  Policies favoring the rich at the expense of the poor were mostly put on hold, at least for a while.  An American middle class grew up out of nothing, with union wages providing many blue collar workers a decent living, their own home, and the chance to send their kids to college.

In Afghanistan, after the war with the Soviet Union, the reign of the Taliban, and the ensuing war that ended with Northern Alliance victory with the help of America, there was almost nothing left.  No upper class, no middle class.

Now, from a Washington Post story it kind of looks like we're both working toward the middle of the gap between us, which in this case, unfortunately means creating sizable upper classes, but with no middle class in sight.

An excerpt:
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - Displayed under fluorescent lights on a spotless marble floor, the imported refrigerators, dishwashers and ovens at the new Beko store draw a steady stream of gawkers in a city where nearly everything is coated with grime. But few Afghans can afford such luxury appliances - or the electricity to run them.

"A lot of people come in, and they really, really want to buy these kinds of products," said Baki Karasu, 41, who opened the store this fall. "But they don't have any power. If they have a big generator, they can buy. But if they don't, they have to wait for the government to provide the electricity."

Four years after the ouster of the Taliban, as another frigid winter begins, most residents of the Afghan capital are without power, except for five hours every second or third night.

Although hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid has been spent to fix the problem, conditions have worsened in the past year as improvements have lagged and the population surges. Government officials say things will not noticeably improve until at least 2008, when new power lines are to be completed.

Major difference
The gulf between the wealthy few and the literally powerless majority is especially striking now, as pockets of opulence sprout across the impoverished capital of 4 million after a quarter-century of war that left much of the city in ruins. Downtown, there is a glittering new shopping mall as well as a five-star hotel where regular rooms go for $250 a night and the Presidential Suite fetches $1,200.

There is also Sherpur, a central neighborhood that once contained an army barracks surrounded by poor  squatters' huts. Two years ago, it was taken over by government officials. The huts were razed and the land parceled out to people with money and connections. Now, dozens of mansions are being built there.

Ill-gotten money?
Unlike typical Afghan homes, which have muted colors, simple materials and shrouded windows, the new houses seem designed to attract attention with vivid tiles, elaborate balconies and ornate columns.

A 10-foot-high eagle statue perches on one roof, wings outstretched.

Such displays have elicited both admiration and resentment from ordinary Afghans, many of whom think they have been financed through ill-gotten means, including the lucrative opium poppy trade, misuse of aid funds and schemes controlled by former militia leaders.