Journalist Kevin Sites reported from Afghanistan when the United States invaded in 2001, and he has been back a handful of times. With U.S. and NATO troops scheduled to withdraw next year, Sites calls the American legacy “a paradox.” While many Afghans appreciate improvements in infrastructure facilitated by the U.S., the people running the government are “still the warlords,” says Sites.

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It’s ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I’m Arun Rath.

We still don’t have a clear picture of what America’s involvement in Afghanistan will look like after next year. Even if some troops remain beyond 2014, it’ll be the tiniest fraction of the approximately 60,000 troops now present – and a dramatic change in a relationship defined by 12 years of war.

Kevin Sites has been reporting on Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in 2001. In June, he made his fifth trip to the country, in an attempt to understand what has happened there since he first went. He told me about a local warlord he spent time with, named Nabi Gichi.

KEVIN SITES: There hadn’t been any real police or security presence in the region he was from, from Qala-e-Zal. And so the village elders stepped in and asked him if he would provide security. And he did a very good job. He was an incredible Taliban killer, and so effective that the U.S. actually put him in a program where they kind of badged these warlords. They give them a badge, and they train them a little bit. But there was some controversy with the program.

President Karzai didn’t know it existed, and so it was disbanded. But he continued providing security for the region but also taxing the people for that security.

RATH: One of the things that’s amazing about Nabi as you describe him is that he has skills beyond being a great fighter. He’s very resourceful.

SITES: I spent a night at Nabi Gichi’s compound. And the next day, I’d heard this kind of mechanical sound coming from underneath his house. So that morning, Nabi Gichi takes me underneath his house. And Nabi Gichi had built a hydroelectric power plant underneath his house. He had diverted part of the Kunduz River. And he was generating so much electricity that there were no blackouts in his village area. He was supplying electricity not only to himself but to the businesses and to residences around there.

And he was, of course, charging them as well. And I think in some ways, it was a metaphor for some of the things that we’ve overlooked that Afghans can solve their own problems, but we need to help in a more effective way.

RATH: So there are the unofficial forces like Nabi and his people you’ve talked about, but also there are the official security forces, like the Afghan Army and the Afghan National Police. Now, I’ve heard a lot about the army, but I had no idea before I read your piece how many Afghan National Police – they’re just dying in droves.

SITES: In the last few months, there have been thousands of Afghan local police and Afghan National Police that have died. And there’s a couple of reasons for that. You know, often, they’re posted in these remote areas where roadside bombs were used or even donkey bombs. They’ll attach a bomb onto a donkey and send it, you know, into a police checkpoint and they’ll detonate it. But they’re very poorly trained.

They get about six months of training. They’re given a gun. And a lot of these guys had been farmers before, taxi drivers. But they’re out on the front lines and, in a lot of cases, they end up being the first target. The other problem with this is the fact that, you know, these Afghan National Police are kind of the face of the national government. And in some ways, unfortunately, they don’t look very effective.

There’s a lot of corruption. There’s a lot of bribe taking. The critics of the Afghan National Police said, you know, all you’ve done is made these guys more effective at stealing. You’ve given them a gun to do it now. Although, you know, many of them are fighting and feel like they do have something worth fighting for, and they certainly are dying in droves.

RATH: So talking about, you know, when you were first there in 2001, I’m wondering what sort of sense you have looking at it 12 years later, your perspective on the war in the last 12 years.

SITES: There are improvements. And I think for many Afghans, they feel that there are things worth fighting for. But it’s, you know, it’s a paradox in some ways. They appreciate some of the investment that has been made, the huge investment, although it hasn’t been done very effectively. And in some ways, it’s kind of been sprayed into Afghanistan like a fire hose. But people tell me, they said, you know, our lives have changed. Even the Taliban’s lives have changed because of this investment.

One of the things that I saw that I’m most concerned about, though, is that with this aid, there was an unintended consequence. Many of the educated Afghans, especially my friends, have gotten jobs with USAID, United States Aid and International Development. And they’ve done good work, but the problem is they’ve been given this job that has an ending point. And so they work, and they’re able to support their families. And they build infrastructure, they build roads. But those jobs end. And they’re still not within the government. The people that run the government are still the warlords.

And so we haven’t created a civil service, a bureaucracy that’s effective. And unfortunately, I think that is going to be probably the weak link in the whole process.

RATH: That’s reporter Kevin Sites. You can find his story in VICE magazine. It’s called “Swimming with the Warlords.” Kevin, thank you so much for being with us.

SITES: Thanks so much for having me.

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