By Jean MacKenzie
KABUL — Even for Afghanistan, a country where bad news is more the rule than the exception, 2015 has been shockingly terrible.
“The past year has been definitely, undeniably difficult,” said Shaharzad Akbar, the head of Open Society Afghanistan. Educated at Smith and Oxford, Shaharzad came back to her country with a vision of what Afghanistan could be.
Akbar is among Afghanistan’s “millennials,” born between 1980, the first year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and 2001, which marked the beginning of the US-led military intervention. They are a generation that has only known war, yet has demonstrated great resiliency and hope.
GroundTruth has been following Akbar and a group of seven others throughout 2015. The best and brightest of their generation, they were optimistic almost to a fault at the start of the year, determined to use their world-class educations, international outlook and deep patriotism to bring their beleaguered but beloved country into the light.
But the past twelve months have put their commitment to the test.
As December drew to a close, a renewed insurgency captured a key district in Helmand, while the province’s deputy governor took to Facebook to plead for the government to help.
In Kabul, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed six American soldiers, while a mullah shot a young Afghan-American woman in her housing complex.
The economy has disintegrated, leaving millions of unemployed angry and resentful. Actual statistics are difficult to come by in a country where even the population figures are not known. Estimates range as high as 40 percent.
What is clear is that the withdrawal of foreign troops and the decline in international engagement has resulted in a dramatic loss of jobs. Students have been holding a sit-in at the Kabul University campus to demand that the government do something about employment. Others turn to the Taliban as a source of income.
After a fiercely contested election, the National Unity Government, so hopefully brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry in August of last year, has become paralyzed by the vicious in-fighting between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, his chief political rival, who assumed the newly-created position of Chief Executive as part of a power-sharing formula.
More than a year after the inauguration, the country still lacks a complete Cabinet, with key positions such as Defense Minister as yet unfilled.
The best and brightest of their generation, they were optimistic almost to a fault at the start of the year… but the past twelve months have put their commitment to the test.
Given the rising levels of violence and political dysfunction, the buzz in the streets is that 2017 could be the year that things completely unravel. Afghans are already voting with their feet: Record numbers are fleeing the chaos, risking their lives to cross illegally into Iran, going from there to Turkey and on to Europe. Those with even a tenuous connection to the United States are trying for Special Immigrant Visas, which are open to those who have worked with US forces or organizations, and who might be threatened by the Taliban if they stayed.
Shaharzad insists that she is still hopeful, but after such a difficult year for her country her words, and tone, are much less upbeat than before.
“We knew the transition would not be easy,” she said, “but we didn’t expect so many things not going right at the same time. There is certainly disappointment with the National Unity Government among the public, there is frustration. But I don’t think that all is lost. I think there is still space for the National Unity government to make itself relevant.”
She points to some “small steps in the right direction,” such as the signing of TAPI, a more than 1600-kilometer pipeline that will take natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. The project has been in the works for decades — there had even been negotiations with the Taliban back in the 1990s — but it was only on December 11 that the deal was formalized.
The obstacles, however, are massive, most prominently, the security situation. The pipeline will have to go through some of the most unstable areas of the country.
Helmand Province, in the south, is on the verge of a complete collapse. On December 22 a key district, Sangin, is reported to have fallen to the Taliban.
In September the insurgents took, and briefly held Kunduz, a major city in Afghanistan’s north. For the first time in more than a decade, there are real fears that the country could go back to the dark days of the 1990s, when Afghanistan was torn apart by civil war, then smothered under the dark yoke of the Taliban.
“The sad part is that it could go either way,” said Shaharzad. “Kunduz was very shocking; they said it was a wake-up call, but I think it was in the works for a long time. Those situations exist in different parts of Afghanistan where there is a failure of local governance, where officials have been unpopular for a long time, where insurgents have worked in all the surrounding villages. I’m not expecting a dramatic improvement in the security situation.”
Ahmad Shuja, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch and co-founder of Impassion, Afghanistan’s first digital media agency, has a similarly gloomy outlook.
“Over the past year it has become abundantly clear that Afghanistan alone cannot fight the insurgency it is facing,” said Shuja.
“Back in March when the president went to Washington he received a rock star’s treatment,” he added. “Now, though, I get the distinct impression that Ghani is wearing out his welcome. We have an entrenched insurgency that over the past 12 months has demonstrated that it is not tamable by the Afghan security forces, and we have a government that is rapidly losing international political credit. The net effect is that we are in a worse position than we were at the beginning of the year.”
The Afghan security forces, trained and equipped by the US and other members of the NATO alliance, have not been up to the task of defending the country, despite the over $60 billion invested.
But the problem with Afghanistan, from Shuja’s perspective, appears to be one that money can not fix.
“They seem to lack intelligence capabilities, logistics capabilities, air capabilities,” said Shuja. “They also in many cases seem to lack morale; we’ve heard credible reports of many positions in Kunduz city not firing a single shot. We’ve also heard that in a good number of cases the Afghan security forces were given orders to fall back. The net effect is that the Taliban took over the city really quickly. That’s one reason why the Taliban are advancing so much and it’s actually happening not just in Kunduz but elsewhere as well.”
Qais Akbar Omar, a writer who has been living in exile in Massachusetts and California, has closely watched the news coverage and noticed that Afghanistan no longer occupies a central position in US foreign policy concerns. Desperate for information about his country, he spends hours on Afghan websites, he says, largely because the American media seems to have dropped Afghanistan as a topic.
“Since the Syria issue became bigger and bigger you don’t hear much about Afghanistan,” said Qais. “I think everyone is tired of hearing about it. America had its longest war there, and yet there is no result that they can say, yes, we actually achieved this.”
Qais is harsh in his assessment of the US effort in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year. The waste, fraud and abuse that has accompanied the development projects, combined with the failure to subdue the insurgency, has made Afghans angry and frustrated, he said.
The attacks of September 11th, “had nothing to do” with the Afghan people, he added. They were carried out by Al Qaeda, which was led by the Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden who had established a base of support in Afghanistan from which he orchestrated his self-declared war on America.
“Afghanistan was invaded, and everyone was very happy that the Taliban were gone, but then they came back. What are actually the big gains, apart from the small bubble we had for a short time, when people had jobs? I agree that there was corruption. The money was stolen by the Afghan corrupt government, but who brought them back? The Americans.”
Qais said he is not planning on going back any time soon.
“What is the point if I go home? To get killed by someone? I am trying to get my two younger sisters here, to get them out of harm’s way if anything happens, God forbid. We went through all of that, we went through civil war, we went through the Taliban, we know how ugly things can get.”
But amid the doom and gloom,how is it that these millennials hang on to hope?
One consistent development that they point to is that Afghan civil society seems to have found its voice.
In November, Kabul witnessed the largest protests in decades, as tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets to demand that the government take action against those who beheaded seven people in Zabul province. The victims were from the Hazara ethnic group, and many of the protesters were Hazara, but the anger and revulsion spilled over ethnic lines in a rare moment of unity.
The government was forced to meet with the protesters, and actually made promises that action would be taken. They may or may not be able to find and punish the perpetrators, but at least they know that the Afghan people are watching.
Last March, after a young woman was savagely killed in the center of Kabul after being falsely accused of burning the Quran, civil society again took the lead. Major protests in Kabul resulted in the arrests of 49 men for the murder of Farkhunda.
Many were later released,but the people had flexed their civic muscle, and had realized that they had real power.
“In the past year the most encouraging thing for me were the recent protests after the beheadings in Zabul,” said Shaharzad.
“They signaled several things: civil society is coming together more for advocacy. This is something new and different — ordinary Afghans are participating, whereas before it was just civil society activists. Now thousands and thousands of ordinary Afghans directly want to hold the government accountable,” Shaharzad added.
“What we saw in the Zabul Seven was entirely grass roots,” he said. “This wasn’t a US-paid activist organization with a mandate to organize. This was the people doing it with nobody else’s money but their own determination and their own will. The Farkhunda protests were also like that. There were some elite activists at the helm but their outrage was genuine and organic.”
Shuja sounded a note of caution, however. If the Taliban or other groups make a comeback, civil society will inevitably have to retreat.
“Let’s be realistic,” said Shuja. “The same activists and human rights defenders actually need a civic space in which to operate, and the intrusion of insecurity into zones of previous security is draining the oxygen out of this civic space. This was clearly demonstrable in Kunduz; when the Taliban took over, the activists were not only unable to organize, they were also threatened and frantic about getting out.
Shuja, as a social media entrepreneur, is hopeful that the proliferation of technology will help to mitigate the effects of any possible extremist power grab.
“I think it’s going to be a much different Taliban takeover this time because of the tactics people have learned, and the technologies they’ve adopted, their connection with the wider world,” he said. “It is going to make a huge difference, and would argue against a full takeover of the Taliban.”
Qais, however, is skeptical.
“Syria had Internet, Syria had mobile phones and access to the world media, and yet look what’s happening there,” he said.
ISIS, or Da’esh, as it is known in this part of the world, is a growing concern, although no one really knows how widespread the penetration is.
“We know that ISIS is not indigenous to Afghanistan, but it is a threat at the moment,” said Qais. “In that region of course they are former Taliban, or some people from Pakistan just coming and using the logo of ISIS, it is a franchise. I think what will happen is that the government is going make the Taliban their ally, and America will agree with that, and together they will fight against ISIS, but whether that will turn Afghan into another Syria, that will be a question for the future.”
It is not a happy picture.
Shuja and Shaharzad are committed to staying in Afghanistan, as is Yousef Dawran, a businessman who in January was positively boosterish about his country. He was sure that President Ashraf Ghani could fix the economy, that the young generation would step up and bring change, and that Afghanistan was on the road to a prosperous future.
Now, however, he is a bit less cheerful.
“We cannot change or deny the situation on the ground,” he said. “To be honest, the context for every circumstance has changed over the past year. I am still optimistic about the future, but what is happening now is leading us in a different direction. In the short-term the economy is paralyzed by the withdrawal of foreign troops; unemployment is rampant. In the next six to twelve months no one knows what will happen. Everyone expected that 2015 would be tough — but we have been through worse in our history.”
Still Qais, looking at the situation from afar, has a harder time seeing the light.
“It’s really, really bleak,” he sighed. “The future doesn’t promise anything good. I hope I’m wrong.”