Afghans decry economic and security woes

Children study near the tomb of King Ahmad Shah Abdali in Kandahar, the city the Taliban government made their capital before being unseated by a U.S. military invasion in 2001. The Taliban is reprinting and using old U.S.-sponsored jihadist books to influence children in areas where the militants still hold sway, according to one American scholar.


By BILAL SARWARY | Al Jazeera, Doha, Qatar (TNS) | Published: December 29, 2014

KABUL, Afghanistan - A day after a NATO-led coalition formally ended combat operations after 13 years of war, Afghanistan's government continues to struggle making basic governance decisions amid a worsening security and economic situation. Ordinary Afghans are increasingly becoming fed up.

At a solemn ceremony at NATO headquarters in the capital Kabul on Sunday - which was kept secret to prevent Taliban attacks - coalition officials announced the handover of security to the Afghan government and its 350,000-strong military.

However, a NATO force of 12,500 - dubbed "Resolute Support" - will remain in Afghanistan. "Today marks an end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Resolute Support will serve as the bedrock of our enduring partnership with Afghanistan," said US Army General John F Campbell.

Nearly 3,500 foreign soldiers have died in Afghanistan, including about 2,200 Americans, since 2001. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed in the war, along with more than 4,600 Afghan army and police who died in Taliban attacks in 2014 alone.

The Taliban, meanwhile, responded to the handover ceremony with disdain, accusing NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of failure and pledging to fight "so long as a single foreigner remains in Afghanistan in a military uniform".

"Today ISAF rolled up its flag in an atmosphere of failure and disappointment without having achieved anything substantial or tangible and transitioned to a new mission by hoisting the meaningless flag of Resolute Support. We consider this step a clear indication of their defeat," a Taliban statement said.

President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have been unable to agree on a new cabinet after Ghani dismissed most ministers in November. The country is facing a governance deficit at time when the Taliban has intensified attacks on civilians, security forces, and the country's limited infrastructure, deadly moves that are also affecting the faltering economy.

Economic doldrums

Haji Sakhi bought a 75-square-metre two-bedroom house in the Soviet-era-built Macroryan apartment complex in northeast Kabul two years ago. He paid 6,800,000 Afghanis ($120,000) for the home, which he says became a financial burden after his dry fruit wholesale business began to slow down.

Three months ago, Sakhi decided to sell the house and pay off some of his debt, but by then the property market in Kabul, like much of Afghanistan, was on a downward spiral.

"Since I was desperate for cash, I decided to sell the house at the same price at which I had bought it for. But there was no buyer. I then slashed the asking rate by 25 percent. Still, no one turned up," Sakhi told Al Jazeera.

"Last week, I told real estate agents that I am willing to give up the house for even half of what I had paid. I am still waiting to hear from them. Buyers seem to have vanished from the property market."

Too scared to shop

About 15km from Sakhi's house, in the centre of Tanke Logar market, sits Khan Mohammad Zazay amid logs of cut wood, puffing hard on his hookah as he tries to stay warm in Kabul's harsh winter.

"Last winter, I sold 58,000 Afghanis [$1,000] worth of wood and coal every day. Now, I am struggling to make even one-tenth of that in a day. People are scared to step out of their houses because of the attacks," says Zazay.

Two shops away, Haji Nizam sits with his head buried in the pages of ANIS Daily, a Dari-language newspaper published in Kabul. Through his big, thick glasses, Nizam is trying to get some idea of where the Afghan economy is heading.

"My business has almost collapsed," says Nizam, an importer of electrical goods from China. "My business depends on the building and construction sector. But no one seems to be building houses or shopping malls anymore."

Deteriorating security and disagreement within the government over fundamental issues has hit hard the already fragile Afghan economy. Property prices are plummeting, businesses are shrinking, inflation is rising, and investment in critical infrastructure projects has come to a grinding halt.

'Failing the people'

All this is compounding the uncertainty in Afghanistan, even more so with Sunday's handover of security from ISAF to the unsteady Afghan government.

"I blame President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah for this uncertainty," political analyst Younas Fakoor told Al Jazeera. "They have failed to agree on a cabinet at a time when we are at war and the economy is fragile. Both the leaders have an enormous amount of expertise: one is a mujahid, the other is a technocrat, but both are failing the people."

Fakoor says the country's current political set up may be untenable, even if a cabinet is eventually agreed on. "But will these ministers be able to function? What if President Ghani fires a minister, will Abdullah accept?"

Earlier this month, Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of Afghan parliament, criticised the Ghani-led National Unity Government for failing to name new cabinet nominees, calling it a "tragedy".

Afghanistan's acting Finance Minister Mustafa Mastoor agrees the spate of recent attacks and the delay in cabinet formation is putting even more strain on an already-difficult situation.

"The government had set a revenue target of 132 billion Afghanis [$2.3bn] for 2014, of which we have managed to collect only 102 billion [$1.7bn]," Mastoor told Al Jazeera. "That means we have a $537 million deficit.

"We appealed to donors for help and we have got the money from the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and Italy. We are devising plans and strategies to recover the deficit in 2015," he said.

The Afghan parliament rejected the budget for 2015, calling it "unbalanced". The Finance Ministry is now working on a new budget, which will be presented to the parliament soon, Mastoor said.

According to Nazifullah Salarzai, spokesman for the Afghan president, the process of appointing the new cabinet is under way.

"It will be in place within the two-to-four week timeframe set by the president in early December," Salarzai told Al Jazeera. "There are differences but they are more about how to introduce a cabinet that can deliver and function."


©2014 Al Jazeera (Doha, Qatar)