The misguided Western military intervention in Afghanistan is moving inexorably towards its end. But what will happen to Afghanistan after the Western forces leave?
Things are not looking good.
The New Yorker recently ran a long piece on the internal contradictions and tensions facing the country (Dexter Filkins, “After America,” The New Yorker, 9 July 2012):
In the autumn of 1996, the Taliban, armed and backed by the Pakistani military, reached the outskirts of Kabul. On its march across the country, the Taliban had vanquished every militia in its path. All that remained was Massoud’s army, which was still in Kabul.
Around this time, Nasir travelled to his ancestral village, Deh Afghanan, about twenty-five miles west of Kabul, for his wedding day. The morning of the ceremony, he went to his mother’s grave to pray, and to tell her of his marriage. Nasir could see the Taliban forces a few hundred yards away. That day, fighting broke out between the Taliban and Massoud’s forces, and an artillery shell landed in the village, killing five of Nasir’s relatives. The wedding proceeded, and so did the funerals. Nasir shared his wedding feast with the grieving family. “It was the saddest and the happiest day of my life,” he said.
Like most people in Kabul, Nasir welcomed the arrival of the Taliban in the city, because they had kicked out the mujahideen and brought peace. But soon the Taliban took to enforcing their brutal and medieval brand of Islam. “Beards, turbans, television––I was always trying to break the rules,” Nasir said. “Ninety per cent of Afghans have no education, and they didn’t mind the Taliban. But if you were educated it was hell.”
Nasir celebrated the American invasion in 2001, and, in the decade that followed, he prospered, and fathered six children. But now, with the United States planning its withdrawal by the end of 2014, Nasir blames the Americans for a string of catastrophic errors. “The Americans have failed to build a single sustainable institution here,” he said. “All they have done is make a small group of people very rich. And now they are getting ready to go.”
These days, Nasir said, the nineties are very much on his mind. The announced departure of American and NATO combat troops has convinced him and his friends that the civil war, suspended but never settled, is on the verge of resuming. “Everyone is preparing,” he said. “It will be bloodier and longer than before, street to street. This time, everyone has more guns, more to lose. It will be the same groups, the same commanders.” Hezb-e-Wahdat and Jamiat-e-Islami and Hezb-e-Islami and Junbish—all now political parties—are rearming. The Afghan Army is unlikely to be able to restore order as it did in the time of Najibullah. “It’s a joke,” Nasir said. “I’ve worked with the Afghan Army. They get tired making TV commercials!”
A few weeks ago, Nasir returned to Deh Afghanan. The Taliban were back, practically ignored by U.S. forces in the area. “The Americans have a big base there, and they never go out,” he said. “And, only four kilometres from the front gate, the Taliban control everything. You can see them carrying their weapons.” On a drive to Jalrez, a town a little farther west, Nasir was stopped at ten Taliban checkpoints. “How can you expect me to be optimistic?” he said. “Everyone is getting ready for 2014.”
Calling into question the claims of progress made after a decades of war, a leading NGO working in Afghanistan recently issued a report arguing that Afghans face more insecurity today than they have at any time since Western troops arrived in 2001 (“Afghans face humanitarian crisis as security deteriorates,” International Rescue Committee, 3 July 2012):
In Afghanistan, the worst security conditions in a decade combined with chronic poverty, joblessness and relentless natural disasters have caused a humanitarian and displacement crisis that requires urgent international attention.
“To be an Afghan today is to be constantly under threat,” says Nigel Jenkins, who oversees International Rescue Committee aid programs in Afghanistan. “Millions of civilians live in dire conditions and face violence, unemployment and shortages of food and shelter, with only minimal access to medical care and education. It’s no wonder hundreds of thousands are on the move in search of safety, work and basic services.”
Civilians bear the brunt of Afghanistan’s violence. In the past five years, 12,000 have been killed, with last year being the deadliest, according to the UN. During this period, internal displacement has tripled—rising to 450,000 in 2011, a 47% increase from the previous year. Many Afghans driven from their villages have moved to urban areas, like Kabul, Herat and Kandahar, but most end up in informal settlements along the outskirts—wretched slums of mud and tin shacks without water or sewers.
Millions of other Afghans who fled violence in the past decade remain refugees in Pakistan and Iran and don’t want to return home, despite increasing pressure to do so by host countries. Last year marked a 10-year low for refugee returns to Afghanistan, with only 50,000 going back. About half entered the ranks of the internally displaced—choosing not to return to their stricken home communities.
Decades of war, ensuing violent conflict and repeated floods, droughts and other natural hazards have taken a devastating toll on rural economies and infrastructure. Yet due to security threats and a lack of capacity outside urban areas, large swathes of Afghanistan get no direct assistance from the government for roads, agriculture, health care, schools, sanitation and water and other services. Food production has declined in these regions, food shortages are acute and job opportunities are scarce.
“Aid organizations like ours often provide the only support rural Afghans get, whether it’s supporting schools, agriculture and other infrastructure projects, providing emergency supplies when floods hit or helping communities prepare for the next disaster,” says Jenkins. “The goal is for the Afghan government to assume responsibility for essential services for the Afghan people, but currently they don’t have the capability.”
Afghanistan is at a critical crossroads. Foreign forces are preparing to leave by 2014 and hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan government. Foreign donors are also beginning to shift management of extensive humanitarian, development and reconstruction projects to the Afghan government as well. Yet it’s “hard” security issues that remain the focus of the international community, rather than the welfare of Afghan civilians. [Emphasis added]
Photo Credit: DND