Afghanistan: ‘This is not over yet’

Financial Times, Dec. 14, 2014

Afghanistan: ‘This is not over yet’

May Jeong in Kabul, Geoff Dyer in Washington and Victor Mallet in New Delhi

In September 12 2001, Abdul Rashid went to the house of a Kabul friend whose living room had become popular among the neighbours for the rare presence of a satellite television. Mr Rashid, then 23, was sitting there, taking tea, when he first saw the images of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center falling on the previous day. He finished his tea and walked home with a heavy heart: he recalls thinking that the killing of innocent civilians was an un-Islamic act.

Mr Rashid could not have known how his life, and the lives of millions of fellow Afghans, would be profoundly affected by events thousands of kilometres away.

With Nato having formally closed its International Security Assistance Force joint command last week, Afghans are reflecting with a combination of nostalgia, resentment and indifference on the foreign intervention that followed the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington. The conflict has killed more than 3,484 allied forces, including 2,356 Americans and 453 Britons, cost an estimated $1tn and become the US’s longest war, with American troops finding it hard to leave. Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies estimates at least 21,000 Afghan civilians have died.

Locals and foreigners alike look to the future with a mixture of foreboding and hope: will the Taliban Islamists who ruled Afghanistan in 2001 return to power, or will they be held at bay as the war continues to destabilise the region? Will the US have to reverse its decision to pull out of Afghanistan by 2016?

Back in December 2001, the US and its Afghan allies quickly overthrew the Taliban regime that had hosted Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders responsible for 9/11. Three years on, they installed Hamid Karzai as president, planted a western-style democracy in the unpromising soil of Afghanistan’s tribal politics and set about trying to modernise the country’s economy and its society.

Millions of girls, deprived of education under the extremist and puritanical Taliban, started going to school. Mobile phones and media outlets proliferated. The desperately poor economy initially grew at double-digit rates — and that was only partly because of the flourishing of the opium trade.

Strategic blow

Despite the initial progress, for the past few years the war must be counted a failure. After the winding down of the 2009 “surge” that took the number of Nato troops up to 140,000 — there are now only 13,000 — the Taliban are back in force, and not just in the rural areas where they find it easier to operate. Over 16 days in November, the capital suffered 12 major attacks by insurgents. A series of attacks on Friday and Saturday killed at least 21 people, including 12 members of a landmine clearance team in Helmand and two soldiers of the allied forces near Bagram air base.

Sarah Chayes, a former Pentagon adviser who lived in Afghanistan for a decade and is now at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, says: “There is a war still going on in Afghanistan. This is not over yet.” She says it is too early to tell if the new government will have any success in limiting corruption, which is one of the root causes of instability. “Iraq shows us just how bad the backlash can get against abusive government,” she says.

Government-expenditure-chart

Ashraf Ghani, the new president, appears more energetic and effective than Mr Karzai. Amid allegations of vote-rigging Mr Ghani chose his rival Abdullah Abdullah as his de facto prime minister under a US-brokered peace deal, but the controversy over his election has delayed the formation of a cabinet. Mr Ghani faces other tough challenges, according to the International Crisis Group. “He inherited a government that is running out of money and losing ground to a rising insurgency,” it said in a report.

Insecurity is rife, and even where it is not, many Afghans live much as they did before Nato’s arrival. Mr Rashid, who was unemployed under the Taliban but found a job at one of the many foreign NGOs that established themselves in Afghanistan after 2001, has managed to stay in work, driving around foreign contractors working on construction projects. “I don’t know for how long I will be this lucky,” he says.

Not everyone is worried. In the relatively peaceful northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, businessman Jamil Ahmad says the Taliban would no longer have an excuse for refusing to engage in talks — there have been sporadic attempts by both the Afghan and US governments — if the allied troops departed.

Amanullah, a 32-year-old Kabul shopkeeper flanked by drums of vegetable oil and sacks of rice, says his life is the same as it has always been. “For ordinary folks like me, the past 13 years hasn’t brought any change,” he says. “Maybe for those who worked for foreigners, or managed to get into government, yes. But for me, everything is the same.” As for the Americans, he hears so many rumours and conspiracy theories — claims that they are secretly funding the Taliban or use Afghan women as sex slaves — that he does not know what to believe. “I will be glad if they leave, but I don’t think they will,” he says.

Support role

Closer to the main areas of conflict in the south and east, there is deep anxiety. Mohammad Hazrat Janan, a member of Wardak’s provincial council, has to live in the relative safety of Kabul. If foreigners leave, “everything will be ruined,” he says. “Unemployment will go up. Security will worsen. Healthcare will stop.”

Mr Janan adds: “We now have cell [mobile phone] towers. We have roads. We have schools. We have banks. We have a constitution. We have all this, but if the foreigners don’t continue their support, we will lose all of it.”

So why are the US and its allies withdrawing the bulk of their forces without finishing the task of securing Afghanistan from the Taliban and ensuring its stability?

Few US politicians questioned the original order to invade Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. Nor has Afghanistan generated the controversy that surrounded Iraq after 2003.

Even so, public opinion has soured on what has become a drawn-out conflict. A Pew poll earlier this year found that Americans have a similar view of the results in Afghanistan as they do of Iraq, with 52 per cent of respondents believing that both wars failed to achieve their goals. A Gallup poll in February found that for the first time since 2001 more Americans said the Afghan war had been a mistake than those in support.

The crumbling of popular support for the war has added to the broader scepticism about US interventions in foreign countries. That leaves the administration with a delicate dilemma about its next steps in Afghanistan.

On the security front, Mr Obama is facing a problem similar to the withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011. By announcing earlier this year that all US troops would pull out of Afghanistan in 2016, the president hoped to add the end of the Afghan war to his legacy. Yet the fall of Mosul and the rise of Islamist militants in Iraq have raised major questions about the wisdom of pulling out of Baghdad, while fears that something similar could happen in Afghanistan after 2016 have been compounded by recent reports of Taliban advances.

Opium-cultivation-chart

Mr Obama has quietly expanded the mission for the 10,000 troops who will remain in Afghanistan in 2015, allowing them to engage with Taliban fighters — rather than just with al-Qaeda as initially planned. He is also coming under pressure to maintain some sort of force in the country after his 2016 deadline.

Chuck Hagel, the outgoing defence secretary, says the political environment that the US faces in Afghanistan is very different to that in Iraq in 2011. “They [the Afghans] want us here. They want us to help them assist, advise, train,” he said in early December on a visit to Kabul. “How we left Iraq was totally different.”

Gains worth preserving

In Washington, there is a strong view that the war has produced substantial gains for the country, from reduced infant mortality to education for girls. “If the public continues to believe that Afghanistan is a lost cause, then it
might become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” warns Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is the outgoing chair of the Senate armed services committee.

“Afghanistan is not a lost cause,” says Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, arguing that the 352,000-strong Afghan armed forces will continue to need $4bn-$6bn a year funding to help them keep the Taliban at bay. “There’s no reason why we can’t keep 10,000 troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. We’ve got 30,000 in Korea,” she says. “I can definitely see the Taliban taking back control in two to three years if we disengage.”

In Afghanistan, even those who want to see the back of allied troops know they need foreign aid to survive and restore peace. Landlocked Afghanistan has almost no exports except opium and small quantities of fruit, sultanas and handicrafts, and it will depend on the $16bn of support repledged by donors at a London conference this month for the four years from 2012 to 2016.

Saad Mohseni, chief executive of Moby Group, which owns Tolo, the country’s largest TV network, suggests further assistance is necessary but strikes an optimistic note: “We have seen enormous changes in the country. An aspiring young population refuses to accept the re-emergence of the Taliban. The world needs to persist as success in Afghanistan can set an important precedent for the rest of the region.”

Haroon Mir, a Kabul-based analyst who thinks Nato overstayed its welcome, takes a more bullish stance. “We cannot rely on the foreigners forever. It’s about time that they left defending Afghanistan to Afghans,” he says. “The fact that we have a security force capable of standing its ground against the Taliban is the greatest achievement of the last decade.”

One legacy of the ousting of the Taliban from Kabul in 2001 is the revival of leisure activities and drama, including plays that serve as a commentary on the state of the nation. A recent production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which warns of the dangers of bad government and corruption, featured a lookalike of Mr Karzai.

“The best theatre will always reflect the society it comes from,” says Hussein Zada, who staged the play. “But next year, I hope to put on something lighter, a comedy. I have a Molière in mind.”

Lighter moments are a rarer occurrence for many Afghans. Mr Rashid — who married, had five children and sent them all to school on the strength of his well-paid driver’s job after 2001 — has seen his home town of Kabul transformed. For a few years, peace and prosperity replaced the violence of the civil war and the spartan rule of the Taliban.

After three decades of violence and fear and an even longer history of Afghanistan’s unwilling involvement in the central Asian “Great Game” between the superpowers, he thought it might become “another normal country”. So far, it has not happened.

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Civil society: Women fear for loss of advances in rights

When Nilofar Ibrahimi considers the past decade, she is at once grateful and angry. Her gratitude is for her daughter being able to go to school along with 3.4m other Afghan girls, for the elevation of women’s status in Afghanistan, and for her job.

Her anger stems from knowing that all the gains may disappear when the allied troops leave.

One of the 63 female lawmakers in Afghanistan’s parliament, Ms Ibrahimi, 38, has done well for herself and her family in the past few years. From the remote northern province of Badakhshan, she has come farther than most. But she does not believe that any of it will be sustainable. “We have a parliament now,” she says. “We have 63 female MPs. We even have a female minister. If this is what makes foreigners happy, we can keep them. But none of it will be here after they leave.”

The cause of women has always been contentious in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban’s religious conservatives, it was silenced as a form of social control. In 2001, women’s rights were appropriated by western governments as a cause for going to war with the Taliban. Today, there is concern that because of the international community’s vocal support of the issue, women’s rights have come to be associated as a strictly western concept.

Since the inauguration of Ashraf Ghani as president, his Lebanese Christian wife Rula has been seen to play a more active role, giving interviews, running fundraisers and addressing foreign embassy events.

Jamila Razai, 38, a biology teacher at a high school in Kabul, says she was glad that the Nato forces had come, and for the progress they enabled. “We are free now. We have rights,” she says. “We didn’t even know what our rights were before. There are women working in government, in politics, in offices.”

But she and her friends have already begun to talk of the last decade in the past tense. “We say it was the golden time,” she says. “And we know that it is over.”

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