Afghans always believed US efforts must focus on development, not war. Our democratic institutions still need international help
Finally, after 10 years of direct military intervention, the US has announced the withdrawal of thousands of troops from Afghanistan. In his live speech to the nation Barack Obama stated:
“Starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point. After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan Security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”
When, in early 2009, discussions in Washington were taking place about the military surge, Afghans raised concerns that more troops and an escalation would mean more civilian casualties, more fighting, more hate and anger – and if our aim was to finish this war, the best way would be to seek political solutions and focus on development rather than war. Three years on, the evidence from implementing the military surge shows how the reality differs from the president’s narrative that the surge was a success.
The way progress is measured in Afghanistan is very problematic. Look beyond the cliched statements about how many girls are going to school or women are now engaged in the public sphere – good news to an uninformed audience – and you can see a drop off in the number of school and university students, particularly outside the capital, and suspension of significant development projects in all parts of the country.
The escalation in the war not only caused casualties on both sides, but it also resulted in the further militarisation of communities, either through the government’s initiative of arming local militias or via criminal gangs and anti-government forces. This is undoubtedly affecting provision of very basic services such as health, education, agricultural and various socioeconomic development programs.
Furthermore, the military surge certainly resulted in an increase in recruitment to anti-government forces. This was partly due to civilian casualties, but also to the reaction of those forces loyal to the Taliban to the increased military presence.
It is interesting that the people of Afghanistan, the ones directly affected by escalation or cessation of military action, are the last to be consulted on these matters. The Afghan government, despite all the resources and tremendous opportunities of the past decade, has failed to fulfil the most basic need of the Afghan population: security – and the surge has not helped this. The so-called political opposition, instead of trying to further unify the nation and strengthen the country, is now using networks from the civil war period to regroup and in some cases openly declare war against the government.
The de-escalation is a positive move, but the desire of the majority of Afghans is a much stronger commitment from the international community not to abandon Afghanistan and to keep its promise to support democratic institutions in the country, though not by military means. It is critical that the US and its allies realise that the conflict in Afghanistan is not an internal battle. Tackling the sources of war beyond Afghanistan’s borders is going to be the key to ending our miseries.
Today I spoke with Ahmad, a friend from Kunar province. He told me: “The greatest concern for people in this region is the increase in rocket attacks from the Pakistani border side, which continues to take the lives of ordinary villagers over the past months. This is more scary to me than thinking of US military drawdown. We are worried about a direct invasion by Pakistani forces, even as the world is watching.”
Afghanistan as a sovereign state must be protected and the country’s progress driven forward by its own women and men. However, as the war and violence of the past three decades involved outside intervention, it is critical that the country is not now abandoned in the task of taking steps towards strengthening its institutions. The issue of corruption and lack of accountability has been a challenge that played an important role in destabilising the country. In the views of many Afghans it is more of a threat than the Taliban, and we would like to see what the world and the US can do to help tackle it.
Only by putting effort into overcoming these challenges can the US president’s narrative come closer to that of the Afghan people. In between now and then he must realise that what he calls success might not sound quite the same to us.