Disillusion, mistrust and suspicion: the legacy of the Afghan war

When we call for greater security, the soldiers tell us they are here for rebuilding. When we call for rebuilding, they state they are here for the security. In the end, they guarantee neither.
Giuliano Battiston
9 February 2012

Ten years after the beginning of the military mission in Afghanistan, any assessment of the international community’s involvement is mostly negative. This is confirmed by data transpiring from various reports all of which portray a country beset by a dearth of basic services, and devoid of fundamental rights. According to the UNDP, in Afghanistan the Human Development Index has shifted from 0,307 in 2005 to 0,349 in 2010, placing it in the 155th position out of 169 countries (UNDP, Human Rights Development Report, New York, September 2010). This negative assessment also points a finger at the ineffectiveness of operations conducted by both Isaf-Nato and American forces against the anti-governmental movements. Beside differing opinions as to what has caused the current situation of instability in Afghanistan, there’s one certainty: any future hypothesis is bound to remain transitional and inadequate unless the opinions and perceptions of the Afghan population, till now neglected, are taken into consideration. A longlasting solution must answer the needs of the population, which is growing more and more concerned that the ineffectiveness of the strategies adopted until now will be replaced by an increasing indifference to Afghanistan’s future, once the armies return to their respective countries in 2014 or before. There are in addition, more prosaic concerns about the Afghan government’s dependence on the aid of international donors, set to decrease markedly in the years to come.

So what do the Afghan people think about the international troops? Disillusion, mistrust and suspicion are the dominant feelings. I conducted research for the Italian ngo Intersos in three Afghan provinces, Herat, Farah and Badghis, under Regional Command West (RC-W) of the Isaf-Nato forces. The interviews gathered in the summer of 2011 with different interlocutors – from members of Shura-e-ulema (the religious councils) to governmental officials, from businessmen to human rights activists, from teachers to trade union’s representatives - report a radical split between the opinions officially expressed by the representatives of western governments, claiming they have succeeded in the stabilization of the country, and those by Afghan people, who declare that the international community has failed to guarantee security for the population. 

A view on Kandahar city

The majority of the respondents have complained about the extremely precarious security conditions and believe that the deployment of the international troops has not produced the promised results: “In 2004 – claims M. Akram Azimi, professor at the University of Ghargistan, in Farah city – the Taliban were about 400 people. In 2009, 25,000. Today they can count on 30,000 fighters. The international community should start asking itself why the insurgents are increasing rather than diminishing”, while for Mawlawi M. Sardar Saraji, representative of the Badghis Shura-e-ulema, “since international troops are here, the situation has worsened: in 2000 and 2001, I could reach by land, with no problems at all, both Murghab and Muqur districts. Today it is not possible any more. It would simply be too risky a trip”. 

Two reasons, among the many, stand out as more significant: the multiple tendencies, tactics, agendas and goals followed by the different contingents, and the weak involvement of the Afghan counterparts in planning the pacification and stabilization strategy: “The international community’s failure results from the lack of a coherent strategy amongst the actors involved in the conflict; moreover it has been developed elsewhere, by people not knowing the country”, states Soraya Pekzad, director of Voice of Women, based in Herat and active in other provinces as well. For Ahmad Qureishi, chief reporter of the Pajhwok news agency, “the most relevant fault is the lack of a unique military strategy and the lack of coordination among the different Nato armies”, while for Munci Ramazan Surkhabi, a civil servant at the Development Office in Qala-e-now, Badghis, “in order to get security, we need foreign troops, but in order to get security and safety on a long-term - which means stability - we need an efficient and accountable system of government. Otherwise, all these efforts will be pointless”.  

Former Taliban, now joined peace and reintegration programme

Srukhabi’s desire for a plan for stability, and disdain for an idea of security reduced to mere physical safety, at the expense of the social, economic, and institutional aspects of a wider “human security” is widespread. My interviewees criticize an imbalance between the funds earmarked for the military operations and those assigned for development and assistance. Afghanistan houses the largest and most expensive international peacekeeping force instituted by the United Nations. Of the total 286.4 billion dollars invested in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2009, a total of 242.9 billion dollars, 84.6% of the total was allocated to military operations. Funds relating to the security sector and action taken against narcotics is extremely difficult to trace, but is estimated at around 16.1 billion dollars (5.6%) while 9.4% (26.7 billion) of the total is devoted to development aid, and 0.3% (0.80 billion) goes to multilateral peacekeeping (Unama and Eupol). (Figures taken from L. Poole, Afghanistan. Tracking the major resource flows 2002-2010, January 2011, Briefing Paper, Global Humanitarian Assistance/ Development Initiatives, UK.)

 “The right attention has not been paid to economic development and to reconstruction. Besides an efficient strategy of counter-terrorism, what is needed are working opportunities as well, without which the Taliban are bound to grow”, says Rahman Salahi, head of the Shura of the professionals, one of the most representative and rooted social institutions in Herat. This is echoed by people working in the ‘international community’: “I work for an international ngo” says Shir Ahmad Razaqi, member of the International Organization for Migration, Farah, “and I am satisfied with my work. However, I am critical towards the strategy adopted by the international community: they have focused almost exclusively on security issues, without paying attention to the infrastructures and to the rebuilding activities. This results in a lack of coordination and a serious misconception about the local dynamics”. Woodod Faizzadeh, chairman of the Craftsmen/Trader National Union in Heart agrees: “it’s time to change: security and economic development go hand in hand. We need a strong economic structure to have security”.

International forces also stand accused of inadequately taking into consideration the consequences their operations can have on the civil population; for their indiscriminate air-bombings and night raids, and for house-searching: “here in Afghanistan you can find several countries side by side. Each one has its own behaviour. And local people have different opinions on different armies. When the armies act in a proper way, there are no problems. When they act in a wrong way, people rise up in protest, and it’s their right to do this. The Americans behave like criminals: they bomb mosques, kill civilians, ignore Afghan values. That’s why people detest them”, summarizes Faruq Huseyni, head of the Shura-e-ulema in Herat.

Horseman, Maimana city

A commonly heard complaint is that foreign troops do not act within the limits of a defined legal system, and instead exclusively respond to their own code of conduct, free of any public accountability. According to Abdul Qader Rahimi, head of the Herat branch of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, “Afghans have no legal instrument to ask for justice in the event that they are the victim of an accident, whereas the protection of the civilians should be one of the priorities”. Take the tragically typical story of Arif Khan Shaim, 45 years old, a prosecutor in Farah: on May 3, 2009 his 13 years old daughter Benafsha was killed by an Italian soldier while she was on her way to a relative’s wedding in Herat in the family car. “The behaviour of the Italian soldiers was unacceptable. When they saw there were no terrorists or enemies in the car, when they saw women crying and a girl who had been shot, they did not help my family. The just went back to their tanks. It’s something unbelievable. And I have had no justice”. There have been many official declarations and public commitments, over these past years, about the need for real accountability on the part of the foreign forces. But nobody believes them anymore: as Maria Bashir, chief prosecutor of Herat province testifies, “Until now there are just promises coming from the foreign countries that they will conduct serious inquiries into these matters in their own courts, where needed. Do we believe they will keep these promises? No, I don’t believe it anymore”.   

The perceivable deterioration of the security conditions, the strengthening of the anti-governmental movements and the feeling that the foreign soldiers are exempt from the law have increased the climate of mistrust towards them; this on top of the feeling that they are in Afghanistan to promote and defend their own strategic tasks rather than to ensure the wellbeing of the Afghan population: “In 2001, the foreign troops were able to defeat the whole Taliban movement in a month ... Why are they now stronger than before? People wonder”, says Abdul Ghani Saberi, vice-governor of Badghis province, in his office in Qala-e-now, one of the more remote areas in the country, close to the Turkmenistan border. According to many of the respondents the Isaf-Nato contingents are even willing to support the Taliban and fuel the conflict in order to avoid real battles or to justify their prolonged presence in Afghanistan: “Why are the Taliban so strong today? It is said that some foreign countries provides them with assistance, weapons, equipments, military and logistical aid... The reason is that there are goals of a strategic nature, which require a long-term presence in Afghanistan in order to achieve them”, alleges Faisal Kharimi, journalist and professor at the University of Herat. Rumours are rife in Farah province, as Abdul Rahman Zhwandaj explains: “people suspect Americans, that are supposed to sustain the Afghan government, of helping the Taliban. They are believed to help both sides: the Afghan government and the Taliban. Otherwise, the war would have been over already long ago. That’s what people think”. 

Abdul Rahman Zhwandaj, Farah journalist

Despite this bitter criticism of the international contingents, the majority of the interviewees show real dismay at the prospect of their withdrawal, scheduled for 2014. Their reasons are many: the instability of Afghanistan’s internal politics; little confidence in the local leadership; the conviction that foreign troops can prevent the establishment of the Taliban more strongly and efficiently than a weaker, less trained local army. As M. Sardar Saraji, vice-chief of the Shura-e-Ulema, Qala-e-now puts it: “The foreigners are here and the situation is grave enough. If they leave, it could become even worse. They should stay beyond 2014: but they have to act differently from what they have done until now”. The fears connected to withdrawal are mainly twofold: the concern that the vacuum left by the US could be filled by regional powers such as Iran and Pakistan; and the idea that after the withdrawal, international players will not uphold their political-economic commitments for the future. As Abdul Khaliq Stanikzai, working for Sanayee Development Organization, one of the best known and most respected Afghan ngo’s, sums it up: “The great concern is that with the withdrawal of the international troops, Afghanistan will be forgotten once again.”

Children in Faryab province

Regarding dialogue with anti-governmental movements, many of those interviewed support a political-diplomatic solution, calling for a transparent negotiation, mindful of the needs of the population.“We must negotiate with the Taliban; they are Afghans, and they must be involved in the management of power, as well as in government. We have accepted the European foreigners, why shouldn’t we accept our brothers, the Taliban?” asks Faruq Huseyni, head of Shura-e-Ulema in Heart province. Others call for more caution, as Daoud Saba, Heart Governot explains: “It really depends on which Taleban we want to speak with. I say no to dialogue with those people who kill the innocents and use violence against citizens. I say yes to dialogue with those who are inclined to respect the Constitution and willing to have a frank talk. Those who are now in opposition to the government and want to join it, are welcome. But there is no space for the idea that power can continue to be exercised through violence”. 

As for combined civil-military activities, there is much confusion regarding the goals of the PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) and their way of operating. Many of the respondents report the weak transparency in the management of the projects, the confusion between the aims of security and rebuilding, and they question the fact that civil tasks have been assigned to the soldiers. “When we call for greater security, the soldiers tell us they are here for rebuilding. When we call for rebuilding they state they are here for the security. In the end, they guarantee neither...”, reports Farid Ehsas, representative of the civil society in Farah. Besides being counterproductive, the confusion produced by the PRTs is considered dangerous for the population, particularly in the city of Herat, where the Italian PRT is based. Since it is considered a target by the Taliban, those questioned condemn the choice of establishing the base in a residential area. They have asked for it to be relocated but got nowhere, according to Adela Kabiri, journalist and professor in Herat: “People don’t at all like the position of the PRT, they feel threatened; for this reason they have asked the Italians - through the Governor of Herat -  to change their base. No answer until now. It’s weird: they claim they want to foster democracy in Afghanistan, yet no attention is paid to a democratic request of the population of Herat” 

Mawlawi Ruhal Ahmad Rohani

Despite all the objections and suspicions about the international presence in the three provinces researched, some people, like Mawlawi Ruhal Ahmad Rohani are less pessimistic, as he explains: “You see, I have been fighting against the Russians. I am a political mullah, as is every Afghan mullah.  And I am used to fighting. When I reached Farah as the representative of the Shura-e-Ulema and then also the Head of the Department for the Haji (the pilgrimage to the Holy Mecca), I used to have my kalashnikov always with me, under this desk. Today I cannot move freely out of Farah City, because is too risky for me. But you can see: there’s no kalashnikov under the desk. It means the situation has improved!” 
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