Hopes and Doubts Surround Obama Afghan Strategy

Despite official cheer at the new American plan for Afghanistan, many remain sceptical about the direction Washington is taking.

Hopes and Doubts Surround Obama Afghan Strategy

Despite official cheer at the new American plan for Afghanistan, many remain sceptical about the direction Washington is taking.

The much-heralded Hague conference on Afghanistan on March 31, which brought together 70 nations to renew their commitment to the beleaguered country, made few ripples on the international media agenda. Other than a flicker of interest provided by the presence of Iran’s deputy foreign minister, little of note emerged from the event, which lasted a bare three hours.

Afghans had the opportunity to watch the proceedings live, on the Sabaa national television channel. They may have enjoyed the sartorial splash made by their president, who appeared in a particularly attractive green-and-purple striped chapan, or coat, topped by his trademark karakul hat.

But there was little new in Hamed Karzai’s speech.

The president listed the many achievements of his administration, including 6.5 million children in school, and thousands of kilometres of roads paved. He welcomed the world’s assistance, and managed to get a few digs in at neighbouring states under the guise of exploring a “regional solution to Afghanistan’s problems”.

It was this last issue that caught the attention of many analysts. Afghans have been emphasising for years that the real troublemakers in the region lie outside their borders, in Pakistan and Iran.

“Iran and Pakistan have been interfering in Afghanistan for the past 26 years,” said Abdul Hamid Mubarez, a political expert who heads of the Afghan Journalists’ Association. “They are the ones who have brought us to this tragedy. Terrorism must be addressed at its roots.”

Although there was cautious optimism about the international community’s renewed focus on Afghanistan, there was little hope that a few hours in the Netherlands would lead to a breakthrough.

“The Hague conference pointed out the hopes and challenges in Afghanistan,” said Ahmad Sayeedi, political analyst and former diplomat. “The hope is that the international community has not yet given up on Afghanistan, and is trying to involve regional countries in resolving problems.

“The challenge is that judging by the speeches made by the Iranians and the Pakistanis, this will be impossible. There are three wars going on in Afghanistan now – Russia against NATO, India against Pakistan, and America against Iran.”

Sayeedi concluded, “This conference cannot be the key to solving the current crisis [although] it may lead to some very nice lines being written on paper, like all the other conferences on Afghanistan.”

The main task of the conference was to drum up support among America’s flagging allies for the White House’s new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, unveiled on March 27 by US president Barack Obama.

The major outlines of this programme are clear – more foreign troops for Afghanistan and greater support for the country’s own security forces, plus increased assistance for Pakistan, which will receive an annual stipend of 1.5 billion US dollars in non-military aid for the next five years.

The strategy did not go down well with war-weary Afghans, who have been waiting for more than seven years for the international community to make good on its promises. When American bombs sent the Taleban packing in 2001, the local population harboured dreams that mountains of cash and other aid would flow into the country. The somewhat lacklustre results produced by the small army of aid workers has left them frustrated, while the behaviour of the larger army of foreign troops – in particular their perceived indifference to civilian casualties – has made them furious.

“In this strategy, the message for Afghanistan was bombs and bullets. For Pakistan, it was money,” said Mohammad Mansoor, a recent graduate of the Law Faculty of Balkh University. “It should have been the other way around.”

Mansoor believes the only way forward is significant development assistance, which would reduce the impetus for young men to join the insurgents.

“I read the strategy,” he said. “But unfortunately it talked in great detail about sending more troops to Afghanistan, but was very vague on financial assistance. For Pakistan, it was exactly the opposite. If the Americans have finally decided that they should split the money for the fight against terrorism between Afghanistan and Pakistan, they should also split the bombs and bullets.”

Karzai showed no such hesitation in his reaction to the strategy. Newly reconciled with his US backers, he beamed with praise for the plan when he spoke at a press conference in Kabul the day after Obama’s presentation.

“I am in full agreement with the new strategy,” he said. “It is exactly what the Afghan people were hoping and looking for. Therefore, it has our support and backing.”

But Afghan lawmakers were not convinced. Shukria Barakzai, a prominent parliamentarian from Kabul, told a press conference that the plan had missed the mark.

“Afghanistan is in need of economic and financial aid, and reconstruction programmes,” she said. “But in the new strategy, the focus is once again on a military solution.”

The influential newspaper Afghanistan Daily carried a scathing editorial in its March 28 edition.

“Pakistan has once again managed to sway America in its own interest,” read the editorial. “Pakistan has raised the Taleban like its own child, and has used al-Qaeda to destabilise the political situation in Afghanistan. Yet America is paying 1.5 billion dollars a year for the reconstruction of Pakistan’s infrastructure.”

Ordinary Afghans are suspicious that the new strategy is just another trick being played on them by the International community.

“I watched all this talk about the strategy last night on television,” said Mohammad Azim, 55, a resident of Kabul. “It’s all the same stuff. Since the fall of the Taleban, there have been dozens of promises. None of them has been kept. This one is the same thing.

“Life is getting worse by the day. People are being killed. No strategy document, no foreign soldier can make that situation better. The Afghan government needs to do something.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR-trained reporter based in Mazar-e-Sharif.
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