Let Them Drink Rapeseed Oil 

In Tajikistan, United States runs a distant fifth in the race for hearts and minds

GORDO-BADAKHSHAN AUTONOMOUS OBLAST, Tajikistan—Finally! I waited 43 years and traveled to one of the most remote places on earth to find it, but find it I have: American tax dollars being spent productively. "USA," the label on the bag reads in Helvetica Bold. "US-AID Flour." Just like the '70s, when my little kid heart swelled at the sight of "Gift of USA" food bags being delivered to starving African villagers! Thank God, America still finds time to help poor Third Worlders in between all the bombing and torturing.

As I chewed a nan bread my Pamiri hosts had baked using US-AID flour, I got the warm fuzzies. The struggle for hearts and minds never tasted so good.

It ain't just flour the Agency of International Development is using to woo the people of eastern Tajikistan (who, by the way, happen to be Ismaeli Muslims). Empty flour bags (USA!) patch broken windows. Empty cans of US-AID rapeseed and fortified vegetable oil litter backyards. But it isn't hard to see that we could be doing more.

There's poor, dirt poor and Gordo-Badakhshan. Misery comes in so many flavors here—economic, political, even topographic—that solving any single problem wouldn't be enough. Bordered by war-ravaged Afghanistan to the south, hostile Uzbekistan to the west, oppressed western China to the east and anarchic Kyrgyzstan to the north, Tajikistan was the poorest of the republics of the Soviet Union. And Gordo-Badakhshan was the poorest and most remote part of Tajikistan.

After independence in 1991, Tajikistan became the only Soviet socialist republic to disintegrate into civil war. The capital was split, Beirut-style, into zones controlled by radical Islamists and the Moscow-backed secular government. Since 93 percent of Tajikistan's landmass is located among the knot of peaks that forms the Himalayas, it has lots of high-altitude white-water rivers. Tossing tied-up POWs into these waterways became a preferred means of disposal. Uzbek fishermen hundreds of miles downstream reported finding human body parts in their catches.

The bad news about this grim state of affairs was that the rest of the world didn't care. But that disinterest was also good news. Without major arms shipments from richer countries waging proxy warfare, the factions soon exhausted their arms caches and their will to keep fighting. By the time a power-sharing agreement was signed in 1997, some 500,000 Tajiks—out of a population of 7 million—had died. War disrupted harvests, causing a famine that may have killed a million more. Since neither the U.N. nor the rest of the world was paying attention, no one knows for sure.

Even after 1997, peace remained elusive. A Taliban-trained militant group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, began using Tajikistan as a base for launching guerrilla attacks against neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, prompting both countries to close their borders and further cripple the ruined Tajik economy. The 2002 death of the IMU's charismatic leader brought peace and the beginning of gradual recovery to Tajikistan. Dushanbe, a dark city whose silence was frequently broken by random gunfire, has become a capital with better problems: traffic, gaudy consumerism and unaffordable housing.

Wrecked tanks and minefields still litter Gordo-Badakhshan, evidence that the civil war was largely fought in a sparsely populated province that wasn't well off to begin with. (The GBAO, as it's known, comprises 45 percent of the nation's area, but only 4 percent of its population.) The IMU was based here; so were reprisal bombings by the Uzbek air force. Worst of all, the GBAO picked the losing side in the 1992-97 civil war by declaring independence. Now, despite a near 100 percent unemployment rate and an economy in which barter often supplants the use of paper currency, the central government isn't inclined to provide much help. Most people, ethnic Tajiks and Pamiris, survive by subsistence farming and foreign aid—from governments and NGOs.

By far the deepest assistance footprints belong to the Aga Khan Foundation. If a building postdates the Soviet era, odds are it was financed by the Aga Khan, the Swiss-born billionaire and spiritual leader of the Ismaeli sect of Islam. Schools, medical clinics, bridges—there isn't a village in the GBAO that hasn't benefited from his largesse.

Foreign governments are active as well. Japan builds automobile and pedestrian bridges that have linked remote hamlets to major roads for the first time. France donates hydroelectric power plants to areas that had never been electrified. By far the biggest player is China, which is well on its way to transforming Tajikistan into an economic satellite and gateway into oil- and gas-rich Central Asia.

Unlike Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and especially Kazakhstan, Tajikistan lost out on the Caspian Sea energy sweepstakes—and thus has received little attention from the United States. Taking the long view, as usual, Chinese leaders think Tajikistan will become a major natural resource soon enough—because it supplies water to the rest of Central Asia. It's also a possible pipeline route for Caspian Sea oil and gas.

China is in deep. Every few minutes, another truck heads west on a new Chinese-built road across the Qolma Pass that connects the two countries, bearing construction equipment over death-defying unpaved "Wages of Fear"-esque roads. Modern highways, tunnels and huge hydroelectric dams are all in the works. Some are financed by long-term zero-interest loans. Other projects are outright gifts. "Gift of the People's Republic of China," reads a fleet of city buses in Dushanbe. (Lest anyone miss the point, the writing is in Mandarin.)

The United States, ranked fifth in foreign aid here, has a comparably insignificant presence. "Gift of the Government and People of Japan," reads the sign on a new monitoring station at Lake Sarez, an alpine lake created by a natural dam that could burst at any moment, killing millions of Central Asians in four nations. "Donated by Germany," reads a suspension bridge across the Bartang River. Infrastructure—schools, transportation arteries and other big projects that make a big difference in people's lives because they allow them to build a future for themselves—never have a "Made in USA" tag on them.

Want a microloan to start your own business? The Aga Khan is there for you. (He's also making sure that your daughter gets an education.) Need to ship perishable goods across the mountains before they go bad? The Chinese are busily blasting out those tunnels. All we're good for, at least here in the poorest province of the poorest nation in one of the poorest regions on earth, is an occasional handout of oil and flour.

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