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Afghanistan: One Cheer for Obama

More complaints than congratulations from local commentators.
By Mina Habib
  • President Obama at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan in December 2010. (Photo: David House/17th Public Affairs Department/DVID)
    President Obama at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan in December 2010. (Photo: David House/17th Public Affairs Department/DVID)

Afghan commentators interviewed by IWPR greeted Barack Obama’s re-election as United States president with muted enthusiasm and a list of concerns about his record in his first term.

Afghanistan did not figure large in Obama’s election campaign, and the perception in Kabul was that he was treating it as if it was done and dusted, even though huge challenges will remain beyond the projected 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces.

Fatana Gailani, director of the Afghan Women Society, reeled off what she saw as the many failings of recent US policy.

“Obama speaks of major positive changes in Afghanistan over the past four years, but there’s been no tangible change for the Afghan people,” Gailani said. “The war continues, narcotics production has risen, and more than a million Afghans have become addicts. Furthermore, no attention has been paid to reconstruction or to the Afghan economy. The situation of women is worse now than it was four years ago. I therefore believe Obama's policies have failed Afghanistan."

Moin Marastial is deputy head of the Right and Justice Party, an opposition force that emerged last year. His main criticisms focused on the US strategy of negotiating with the Taleban, as well as the failure to adequately train and equip the Afghan armed forces.

"The Democrats' policies have generally been better than those the Republicans pursued in the region – but not with regard to Afghanistan,” he told IWPR. “The US paid the Afghan government vast amounts of money to talk to the Taleban by means of the High Peace Council…. They [insurgents] will never want peace. Obama should have spotted that disconnect.”

Commenting on the Obama victory, Taleban spokesman , Zabihullah Mojahed said the American leader should pull out his troops from Afghanistan and focus instead on domestic concerns.

Nurollah, a student in Kabul, warned that the insurgents had been emboldened by news of the troop withdrawal.

"This announcement gave new life to the Taleban and countries that support them like Iran and Pakistan, at a point where they were on the verge of defeat and demoralisation,” he said. “The security situation worsened, warlords… rearmed, and there was capital, investment and intellectual flight from the country. In my view, all this stems from Obama's mistaken policies."

In mitigation, some commentators said the Obama administration had been hamstrung by an often fraught relationship with President Hamid Karzai.

"Obama’s policies in Afghanistan have not been carried through successfully because his and Joe Biden's vision differed from Karzai's, the latter has opposed US policies in Afghanistan, and a difficult relationship has developed,” political analyst Ahmad Sayidi said.

Sayidi said it would be important for the new US administration to prevent that the Karzai team dominating and directing the next Afghan presidential election, due in 2014.

Ramazan Bashardost, a member of parliament known for his robust attacks on corruption and maladministration, had harsh words for Obama, who he said had assisted only one microcosm of Afghan society, a tiny elite.

“Future generations of those Afghans will never forget the sweet memories – they became billionaires on the taxes paid by poor Americans. They own luxury palaces and their children drive 100,000-dollar cars, at a time when the US has 15 million unemployed and 50 million others short of food,” Bashardost said. “As for the other Afghanistan, with a population of 26 million, Obama has delivered nothing in the past four years other than poverty, war, civilian deaths, unemployment, lack of security and disaster. He failed there."

Marastial and other interviewees were highly critical of the way former warlords had been brought into positions of power since 2001 and allowed to act with apparent impunity.

"The Americans were initially the guilty party as they granted privileges to these individuals at the [2001] Bonn Conference and gave them a share in power. When the Americans later stopped backing them, Karzai embraced them and he’s been supporting them ever since," Marastial said.

Karzai spokesman Siamak Herawi acknowledges that the US-Afghan ties have experienced some turbulence in the Obama years. But he said none of the problems was really serious and many had been resolved.

On the plus side, Herawi noted that the two countries had signed a strategic pact, international troops were beginning their phased withdrawal, and international donor conferences had resulted in new aid pledges.

Faizollah Jalal, a law lecturer at Kabul University, is among the minority offering praise for Obama’s handling of Afghanistan.

“He pursued liberal policies; he dealt patiently with the sometimes harsh positions taken by the Afghan president, and he passed over in silence the broken promises [from Karzai] to curb corruption, eradicate poppy cultivation and end trafficking – all in order to avoid creating tensions in the relationship,” he said.

As for the future, Sayidi said the Obama administration should move towards practical action, rather than empty promises, to tackle “nests of terrorism” in Pakistan, and adopt new focus on building Afghanistan's economy, infrastructure and education system.

"Obama's team has four years’ experience of the issues facing the region, particularly concerning Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. I do not believe Iran will be attacked. Pakistan will come under more pressure, and Afghanistan will become more closely aligned with India. Such a policy will help improve the situation in Afghanistan," he said.

Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained reporter in Afghanistan.

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