After 15 years of war, Afghanistan's future remains uncertain
By MARTIN KUZ | San Antonio Express-News | Published: October 1, 2016
KABUL, Afghanistan (Tribune News Service) — Ahmad Nasrullah passed the afternoon watching TV as the tea cakes and cream rolls stacked in his bakery’s display cases continued their gradual surrender to staleness. He had seen few customers since opening at 6 a.m. for a reason at once familiar and dispiriting.
“Another attack,” he said. “Business will be bad for a week. This is what happens every time.”
Two days earlier, five miles from the shop his family has owned for 40 years, insurgents had launched a raid on the American University of Afghanistan. After a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb to breach a security wall, two gunmen entered the campus and opened fire. The hours-long siege in late August killed 14 people and wounded dozens more.
In the following days, public life slowed in this capital city of some 4 million people, a conditioned response to the recurring violence that has riven the country since U.S. forces invaded 15 years ago this month.
Their arrival offered the illusion of a brighter future as they sought to oust the Taliban government. President George W. Bush authorized military action against the Islamic regime for refusing to turn over Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida founder who orchestrated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The fall of the Taliban that December, coupled with the forming of a new government headed by Hamid Karzai, inspired belief that peace might prevail in Afghanistan for the first time since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.
The vision of a national rebirth has instead clouded over, even as the U.S. government has poured $800 billion into the war and reconstruction efforts. The conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 2,400 U.S. troops, more than 21,000 Afghan military personnel and at least 31,000 civilians.
The bloodshed has surged in the almost two years since the U.S. military ended major combat operations and ceded the lead security role to Afghan forces. The United Nations reported in July that the war killed 1,601 civilians during the first half of this year, the highest six-month total since the agency started tracking casualties in 2009.
Taliban militants have carried out numerous suicide bombings in Kabul with brutal efficiency and mounted offensives on provincial capitals from Kunduz in the north to Helmand in the south. Al-Qaida operatives circulate in as many as a quarter of the country’s 34 provinces, and ISIS has emerged as a threat in pockets of the east.
For Nasrullah, 30, who has never known a year without war, the potential for change appeared as scarce as his customers.
“I have heard a lot of talk of things getting better since the Americans came, and every time, it has not come true,” he said. “There is hope one day, and then overnight, it is gone.”
The unrest persists as Pakistan, Iran and the European Union force hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees to return to their homeland.
They encounter a country with a national government plagued by corruption and a stagnant economy burdened with an unemployment rate of 40 percent. More than a third of the population of 32 million lives below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day.
Earlier this year, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, warned that the country had slipped into “a perilous state.” Mir Ahmad Joyenda, deputy director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent policy institute based in Kabul, echoed the pessimism.
“The U.S. and the international community have let Afghanistan down,” he said. “They flooded Afghanistan with billions of dollars and there was no accountability. Then they left. So you now see a country that still has problems with security, governance and economic growth, and there isn’t evidence that the situation will improve.”
The country has shown progress in a handful of areas, including education and health care. School enrollment has reached 10 million nationwide, a tenfold increase over 2001, while the infant mortality rate has fallen by a quarter and life expectancy has climbed from 45 to 62 years.
Women have made modest gains in Kabul and other large cities, where they attend college, hold government jobs and own businesses, pursuits still largely unavailable to them outside urban centers.
Yet an ongoing exodus of young Afghans suggests a collective absence of faith in the country’s prospects. Three-fourths of the population is under age 35, and weary of chronic violence and economic malaise, a rising tide of educated young adults pursue their ambitions abroad. Almost half of the 180,000 Afghans who sought asylum in Europe last year were 30 years old or younger.
In leaving, they take with them perhaps the country’s best chance to break loose of its ravaged recent past.
Three of Nasrullah’s six brothers migrated to Europe during the last decade. Bound by family obligations, he chooses to remain, his expectations for the country as low as the smog that cloaks its traffic-choked capital.
“We keep waiting for a better life, but there is nothing,” he said. “Now people feel like there is no reason to stay.”
‘Year after year’
The explosion that began the assault on the American University of Afghanistan rattled the windows of Fahim Habibi’s corner shop. Customers dove to the floor as soda cans and juice boxes tumbled from shelves.
Habibi stepped outside and saw students clambering over a school security wall that stands across a dirt road from his store. He ran over to help them down as gunfire erupted on the campus.
Like Nasrullah at his bakery a few miles away, Habibi understood that the attack would hurt business. The cycle repeats with a frequency in Kabul that only outsiders find surprising.
Militants killed 64 people in April when they targeted the compound of an Afghan intelligence agency. Eighty people died during a peaceful protest march in July after two suicide bombers detonated their explosives. In early September, less than two weeks after the university siege, three bombings on the same day killed 36 people.
“Many are leaving the country because the security isn’t good,” said Habibi, 32, who had spent the morning replacing items on shelves. His white pants were flecked with the blood of an injured student whose escape he aided a day earlier. “There have been many discussions about improving security, year after year, and still these kinds of things happen. People feel terrorized.”
The Afghan military assumed control of the country’s security last year. Most of the 9,800 U.S. troops remaining in the country work in support of the NATO-led mission to train Afghan forces.
President Obama intended to cut that figure by roughly half before leaving office in January. He reversed course this summer, announcing plans to keep 8,400 troops in place amid conditions in Afghanistan that he described as “precarious.”
The Afghan military, midwifed into existence by U.S. forces in 2002 and nurtured in the ensuing years, has struggled to subdue the insurgency. Some 6,000 Afghan troops died in 2015, more than double the number of American fatalities in 15 years of war, and through this July, casualties were 20 percent above last year’s toll.
Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has estimated that the Taliban controls 10 percent of the country and jeopardizes another 25 percent. The U.S. military has dispatched Special Forces operatives and fighter jets, attack helicopters and drones to reinforce Afghan troops during sustained clashes with insurgents in several provinces this year.
“In general, Afghan security forces are not losing,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network, a nonprofit research group. “But it’s not them who typically show the initiative. It’s the Taliban that is more often forcing the offensive.”
The Afghan National Army, with 150,000 soldiers, leads combat operations and receives backup from various national police agencies whose ranks total 200,000. Along with the army’s small size, a fledgling air force that provides little combat support and the country’s vast, impossible terrain, ground forces must cope with a perpetual dearth of equipment, supplies and fuel.
In September, troops on patrol in the eastern province of Nangarhar, near the country’s border with Pakistan, complained about a lack of ammunition, radios and food. They faulted the American and Afghan governments alike.
“The U.S. and the international community built our army,” said Maj. Malang Jan Safai, the unit’s deputy commander. “But we need equipment, we need supplies. They treated Afghanistan like it was disposable. If we were equipped like the foreign troops, we could fight any enemy in the world.”
His soldiers walked through a small farming village in the district of Achin, where they had waged a days-long battle against ISIS fighters in mid-August.
Men and children stepped from mud-walled homes to greet them with fresh naan and green tea. The soldiers handed out copies of We Are United, a military magazine that urges civilians to cooperate with security forces in resisting insurgents.
Nezafat Islamul, a shopkeeper in the village, took a copy of the magazine and thanked soldiers for driving out ISIS. Then he shared worrisome news.
“We are still getting threats from Daesh,” he said, referring to ISIS by its Arabic acronym. “People are living in fear. It is like a cloud coming toward us. We know the army will fight them. But the army can’t be everywhere all the time.”
The amity between soldiers and civilians contrasted with the frustration troops felt toward Afghan military and defense officials in Kabul. Capt. Abdul Wahdat, a platoon commander, recalled the anxiety of his men as they began running low on bullets while fighting ISIS.
“We ask them in Kabul to send more, and we get nothing,” said Wahdat, 25, who wore a small Afghan flag affixed to the front of his armored vest. “This is something that we have to deal with a lot. We will fight as long as it takes because this is our country, our future. But we need the support of our government or we will never see the war end.”
Variations on that lament reverberate across much of the army. Javid Hakim, who covers eastern Afghanistan as a senior editor for the online news publication Pajhwok, has written about troops enduring long delays to receive uniforms, spare parts and paychecks, among other necessities.
He blamed public and military officials who accept bribes to ship supplies and equipment to certain units at the expense of others beset by shortages. The malfeasance weakens the military in far-flung provinces and, in turn, removes obstacles for insurgents seeking to penetrate Kabul.
“Taking bribes is how people gain power in a poor country, and it comes at a big price for the soldiers,” Hakim said. “You cannot fight a war without food, without ammunition, without vehicles. But this is our problem: Corruption is hurting the military and at the same time the international community has pulled back. We are stuck.”
‘Why would you stay?’
The subject of corruption swirled inside Balman Muhammadi’s barbershop two days after the university attack. Ali Haider Said, a 24-year-old student at Kabul University, drew a connection between unethical officials and the country’s security and economic woes.
“If you have leadership that isn’t honest, it is a very big problem,” he said, gesturing beneath the barber gown he wore as Muhammadi trimmed his hair. “It means money and resources that should be used to build up the military and make business stronger and create more jobs aren’t going to those things.”
Another customer, sitting on a couch as he waited his turn in the chair, stood up as Said finished talking.
“If the situation stays like this, Afghanistan is lost,” said Abdul Fadah, 24, who runs a fabric store. “You understand why people are leaving.”
Muhammadi, 23, nodded as he stepped back from Said to assess his handiwork.
“If things get worse,” he said, “I will try to get out of the country.”
President Ashraf Ghani succeeded Hamid Karzai in 2014 and pledged to root out the government’s culture of corruption and reinvigorate the economy. His struggle to deliver has sharpened the disaffection of young adults, who are tuning out his appeals to staunch the “brain drain” that carried previous generations of Afghans to other countries, away from violence and toward opportunity.
Ghani took office months after an election marred by accusations of voter fraud between him and his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, and their political standoff resulted in a pact that installed Abdullah as the country’s chief executive.
Ghani’s reform agenda has since foundered as the two men argue over the direction and details of the president’s policy ideas. The tension spilled into public view in August, when during a TV interview Abdullah described the government as “paralyzed” under Ghani and suggested the president, famous for his obstinance, lacked the temperament to lead.
Their feuding has blunted the hopes of young Afghans that the government could exhume itself from the patronage and nepotism that marked Karzai’s decade in office.
“People are taking sides and fighting for their personal interests instead of for the country,” Hakim said. “If just one of them ran the country — either one — it would be better. But this situation, it creates problems.”
The loss of billions of dollars in foreign funding the last two years has further thwarted Ghani’s plans. Afghanistan’s economy grew by only 1.5 percent in 2015, stunted by the withdrawal of most international troops and aid organizations.
The vanishing of that mirage economy has deepened exasperation with the inertia sired by Ghani and Abdullah’s forced union.
“Ghani is too much of a micromanager and a hard head, and Abdullah just doesn’t have any ideas,” said Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network. “I’m desperately looking for something positive and I can’t find it.”
His words could serve as the motto for educated adults in their 20s and 30s who regarded the university siege as symbolic of a parallel war on their dreams.
Rather than heed a grass-roots campaign called “Afghanistan Needs You,” launched by activists last year in an effort to persuade young Afghans to rebuild the country, the men in Muhammadi’s barbershop think the future lies beyond their homeland’s borders.
“Even if you find job opportunities, your life isn’t safe here. So why would you stay?” Said asked. “I have no hope here. I will try to go anywhere.”
The car bomb that blew a hole in the university’s security wall caused heavy damage to a school for blind students next door. The day after the blast, Homayoun Azizi, a teacher at the academy, picked his way down a hallway strewn with shattered glass and wood splinters.
Standing before a damaged window frame, Azizi, who is blind, wondered when — or if — his school would reopen.
“We need to educate our children for a better future,” he said. “But how can we do that when the attacks don’t stop? What can they do if the jobs aren’t here? The country doesn’t have a chance if the children don’t have a chance.”
Zubair Babakarkhail and Qadir Sediqi contributed to this report.
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