Obama Address Gets Cool Afghan Reception

The much-anticipated Cairo speech failed to convince sceptical Afghans that real change was possible.

Obama Address Gets Cool Afghan Reception

The much-anticipated Cairo speech failed to convince sceptical Afghans that real change was possible.

When United States president Barack Obama took to the podium at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University on June 4, the eyes of the world were upon him. His stirring address was heralded as a major step towards forging a new relationship between the United States and the Muslim world.



But in Afghanistan most eyes were focused firmly on the day to day problems of a country where security is in decline, the insurgency is on the rise, and a disappointed and alienated population is just trying to survive.



“I cannot remember when a speech changed people’s lives,” said Mohammad Hanif, a resident of Kabul. “I listened to all of it, but it was for the Americans and their interests. We Afghans are just onlookers. There will not be any benefit for us there.”



Abdullah, a student at Kabul University, told IWPR that he was still finding it hard to trust Obama, “ We.. understand…that all the leaders of the world say something and do something else. So I am not expecting Obama to do what he said.”



Afghans have, in general, responded positively to the young American president, and most believe that his attitude towards the Muslim world is a radical and welcome departure from that of his predecessor, George W Bush.



But this does not necessarily translate into giving Obama an extended honeymoon: Afghans have been waiting for positive signs of change since the US-led invasion of 2001, and they are growing impatient.



The point that stuck in many Afghan minds was Obama’s insistence that the US had no interest in remaining in Afghanistan .



“Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan,” said the president. “We seek no military bases there. It is agonising for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict.



“We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.”



With no sign of an end to the insurgency and more US troops expected to be deployed in the near future, many Afghans believe the Americans are consolidating their presence in the country.



Journalist and political analyst Daad Noorani summed this up neatly. “With the [security] situation getting more complicated by the day, no one believes that the Americans will leave Afghanistan,” he said.



Alim Mushfiq, chief editor of Nawai Kuhsar weekly in northern Afghanistan, noted that while the US president acknowledged a military solution alone was not the answer to Afghanistan’s problems, he was nonetheless planning to increase his forces here.



“Regarding conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Islamic fundamentalists in both countries, his speech had a big paradox, as he mentioned that military power cannot resolve the problem of two countries but practically we are seeing that he is sending extra troops in Afghanistan,” said Mushfiq. “It seems that still there is a big space between US politicians’ speeches and acts.”



Indeed, there is a common perception in Afghanistan that the US is pursuing an overarching regional goal in Asia, and using the conflict with the Taleban to establish and justify an armed presence there.



There is also concern that America may be adopting a controversial new policy towards the radical groups that are waging the increasingly active insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan.



“What I understood from Obama’s speech is that Americans have run out of patience,” said Hashmatullah Ahmadzai, a political analyst in Mazar-e-Sharif. “They can no longer tolerate this headache. They are now trying to reconcile with flexible Islamic groups, and the efforts to negotiate with the moderate Taleban in Afghanistan could be a good example of this.”



The issue of negotiations with the Taleban is a contentious and divisive one, within Afghanistan and internationally. While some recommend trying to separate the moderate Taleban from the extremists, others argue that no accommodation to the Taleban world view is possible.



But while many Afghans took a sceptical view of Obama’s speech, there were those who welcomed it as a breath of fresh air.



Political analyst Mahmoud Sayeqal praised Obama’s change of tone, and his appeal to deeper principles.



“We have completely forgotten morality in diplomacy over the past few decades,” he said. “Obama’s speech represents a return to moral issues. For example, when he said that he would say what was in his heart.”



Mohammd Latif, a Kabul resident, said, “ Obama’s speech.. .. was hopeful. Now in our country the problem is that the insurgents think America is against Islam, but his speech showed that, if the [former US administration] had some bad policy towards Islamic countries, now Obama wants to be close with them and wants to change US relations with Islamic countries.



“I hope [this achieves] a good result and I hope other western countries to do same, because in Afghanistan there is not only American troops there are troops from [many] countries.”



Obama’s reference to the Koran went down well in Helmand province, the centre of the Taleban insurgency.



Abdul Wali Raheb, a resident of Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, told IWPR that the speech changed his attitude towards the US in general.



“Obama talked about Islam, he cited the Holy Koran. He said that if you kill one person, it’s as if you kill all humanity. This is really appreciated. I think Obama is a real humanitarian,” he said.



Mushfiq said he didn’t expect “quick results” from the speech, but acknowledged that it could in time signal a different approach to Afghanistan and the Islamic world.



“It seems the US is tired and cannot follow the old policies. Now it is accepting that Islamic world is a power which could make problems, ” he said. “But we should not forget that changing any policies in the US depends on this country’s long term strategy in the world, especially in Islamic world.”



Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff journalist based in Mazar-e-Sharif. Aziz Ahmad Tassal and other IWPR-trained journalists in Helmand contributed to this report.
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