By John D McHugh
In 2011, US President Obama announced, some would argue unwisely, that all conventional US forces would leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Since then, 2014 has taken on an almost mythical status among Afghan observers, with ever more doom and gloom being heaped on it as the years pass. Now, as the Americans and their coalition partners near their drawdown date, it has become fashionable to say they have lost interest in the war, but it seems that many journalists and commentators have also lost interest. As hyperbole replaces fact, and intellectual laziness takes the place of in-depth analysis, many are saying that the war has been a massive waste of blood and treasure, and that Afghanistan is as bad as it was 12 years ago, a disaster.
But this is far too simplistic a view.
Of course there have been mistakes, huge mistakes. Innocent civilians have died in far greater numbers than armed combatants on either side. Too much money has been spent on smart bombs and not enough on smart people. Opportunities to talk to the opposition have been squandered in favour of large-scale, career-advancing military operations. And worst of all, the goodwill of the Afghan people has been slowly but steadily eroded by the day-to-day misunderstandings and disappointments that are the hallmark of every occupation.
Mistakes, and wasted chances, yes. But is Afghanistan really a disaster? No. Not yet.
It is easy to drown in the problems of the country, but there are successes that must be acknowledged too. While the war still rages in the south and the east, Afghanistan has seen huge improvement in the north and west since 2001. International aid money has built schools and hospitals, improved roads and airports, introduced stable electricity and telecommunications networks, and facilitated the growth of the state through a centralised government.
| A general view of the five remaining 15th century minarets of the Musalla Complex in Herat [John D McHugh/Al Jazeera]
Afghanistan: A Tale of Three Cities is the latest in an occasional series that I have been making for People & Power , looking at Afghanistan through the prism of 2014. Having spent much of the last eight years immersed in the war, I wanted to talk to ordinary Afghans about their lives, and what 2014 means to them. Last year I made a film called Kabul: A City of Hope and Fear , in much the same vein, but this time I decided to go to examine some of the regional cities; Herat in the west, Mazar-e Sharif in the north, and Jalalabad in the east.
Herat - 'The dreams of the young people will be lost"
Aresh Barez is a political activist and musician. Living in Herat, a prosperous and relatively peaceful province in the west of Afghanistan, he uses his music and songwriting talents to call for change in the country. He is representative of a growing youth movement that has come of age since the fall of the Taliban. These young people have experienced a freedom their parents could never dream of. They have had access to education, music, satellite TV, and now the Internet and social media.
But Barez is realistic about the challenges Afghanistan faces.
"There are a number of mullahs who don't believe in music, they don't believe in the young generations. They want to restrict the young generation," he says. "Some time ago, a mullah in Herat issued a fatwa against some young musicians, calling them kaffirs (non-believers), saying that according to Islam music is haram (forbidden)."
| Afghans enjoy a ferris wheel ride in a park in Herat, 20 September 2013. [ John D McHugh /Al Jazeera ]
Aresh worries that things will get worse after 2014. "We can't tell the future, maybe the Taliban will return in Afghanistan. In that case, no musician would be able to work in Afghanistan. Maybe in the future these Taliban ideas will succeed, and the dreams of the young people will be lost to them."
Roya Mahboob is a young entrepreneur from Herat, who is determined to help young girls achieve their dreams. As well as running her own IT company, she is responsible for building 40 computer classrooms in girls schools and providing them with Internet access.
Talking about the girls who use her facilities, she says, "Education gives them freedom of thinking. They have the tools to stay at home and do online education, and no-one can stop them." Girls using computers is new in Afghanistan, but even more recent is the advent of social media. Again, Mahboob sees great opportunity to utilise this new technology for the betterment of Afghanistan. "Social activism is our plan, that we help the students, especially female students," she says.
But Roya also has an eye on the future. "As you know in 2014, we have our elections for president, and we have international soldiers who are leaving Afghanistan. So this is a cause of concern, not only for me, for all the women who work in public, or who do business, or are in politics."
| Roya Mahboob is responsible for building computer classrooms in 40 girls schools in Afghanistan, and providing them access to the internet. [ John D McHugh/ Al Jazeera]
Walking through a fairground in Herat on a Friday, when families traditionally picnic and relax together, it is unusually quiet.
"Our business is bad since the suicide bombing last week" says Abdul Zahid, who operates a Ferris wheel in the amusement park. "The attack was on the American consulate, not the gardens. This park is secure, but the people are terrified. I beg them to come back." But his wheel is almost empty, as are most of the rides, suggesting Zahid's fears are echoed by many others.
Jalalabad - "2014 won't eat anybody"
On the opposite side of the country, sitting next to the Kyber Pass, and Pakistan, is the city of Jalalabad. There has been much violence here over the past 12 years, and the mood of the city is much darker than Herat.
But even here, where the Taliban have strong support from the community, there are projects that simply could not have existed when they were in power. The Mobile Mini Circus for Children teaches circus skills to youngsters across Afghanistan. The founders believe that by bringing kids together through play, a sense of unity can be built that will transcend ethnicity and gender and teach understanding and respect to all the participants. Although it may seem a frivolous project for an NGO to deliver in a country that lacks so much, the children clearly love it.
| Young boys practice their juggling skills at the Mobile Mini Circus for Children, Jalalabad 30 September 2013 [ John D McHugh /Al Jazeera ]
Haroon Sherzad runs the classes in Jalalabad as a volunteer. "Unfortunately," he explains, "most of these kids are orphans. We do all we can to keep them on the right path." He goes on, "They need to be cared for. Most of them don't have clothes, don't have shoes."
On the side of the main city streets, rickshaw builders practice their craft, hammering and welding the bodies and engines into gorgeously gaudy creations. "Security was no good in the time of the Taliban," Nazer tells me, standing in his workshop. "And they wouldn't accept photographs" he tells me with a grin.
When asked about the future he says, "2014 won't eat anybody, it's not a severe disease. People talk about 2014, but it doesn't affect our work." His view is clear. "When we were living in Pakistan we earned between 200 and 300 Pakistani Rupees (approximately between $2 and $3). Here we earn 1000 Rupees (just over $9)."
The King in the North
Atta Mohammad Noor is the governor of Balkh province. Known as the 'King in the North', his wealth is legendary. With steel barriers and gates, armed guards and bomb-sniffing dogs, his home in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which is the capital of the province, is a modern cross between a castle and a palace, and his reception room for petitioners is a gold and gilt affair.
Atta was a powerful figure in the old Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban, and he remains a powerful figure to this day. Some say he is a warlord, with blood on his hands and dirty money in his vault, while others say he is a protector of his people and a champion of business and entrepreneurial enterprise. Whatever the truth, Atta rules over one of the most peaceful provinces in Afghanistan.
| Atta Mohammad Noor (centre), the governor of Balkh province, is seen in his reception room in Mazar-e Sharif on 24 September 2013. [ John D McHugh/ Al Jazeera]
When asked about 2014, Atta echoes the sentiments of many of his countrymen. "Yes, there is some propaganda that the foreigners are leaving, the Americans are leaving," he says. But he goes on, "I don't believe the Westerners will leave completely in 2014. They may reduce their numbers, but they will leave their very best soldiers. They will stay in Afghanistan to keep their power. They will stay in Afghanistan for their long-term strategic goals."
When President Obama first made the announcement that troops would finally leave in 2014, he was careful to speak of "combat troops". What both the US and Afghan administrations have been negotiating quietly, is how many American trainers, mentors, and special forces would remain. Some observers have speculated that as many as 15,000 troops might stay in Afghanistan, possibly for another decade. The US would also continue to pour billions of dollars into supporting the Afghan military and police, and countless other long-term projects.
But talks have stalled over the details of the Bilateral Security Agreement, which among other things would grant legal immunity to all US soldiers in Afghanistan. Karzai has rebuked this idea, and others, and the tension has mounted. Earlier in 2013, President Obama mentioned publicly a concept that had been circulating in backroom circles for some time; the so-called "zero option". This in effect means that before the end of 2014, the US would pull out every soldier, sailor, airman and marine, as well as all their civilian and other government agency advisers and mentors. And they would turn off the money taps.
It should be remembered that when the Soviets left Afghanistan after 10 brutal and ultimately unsuccessful years, the whole world expected the Communist government run by Dr Najibullah to collapse within days. But it didn't. It actually remained a viable regime for 3 years, and collapsed only when the Soviet Union itself collapsed and stopped sending money to Afghanistan. It was the money that held everything together, and so, when the US threatens to stop sending money today, president Karzai would do well to muse for a moment on his country's history.
But President Karzai has remained steadfast in his demands for more concessions from the US. The brinkmanship has reached a crescendo, with the US stating that unless a deal is struck before the end of 2013, they will have no choice but to begin a full withdrawal.
When the Americans arrived in 2001, Afghanistan was a failed state, in every sense of the concept. The past 12 years have changed that, and despite the many failings of the war, Afghanistan is unrecognisable when compared to the ruined, broken country the fleeing Taliban left behind.
But if the Americans do invoke the zero option, and pull out all their people and money, then Afghanistan stands on the edge of an abyss. With no money to pay the army and police, let alone the government, there is every likelihood that the country would face civil war on a level far beyond that which it experienced after the Soviet withdrawal. This would jeopardise all the progress that has been made. What would happen to Aresh and the other musicians, or the girls' computer classrooms, or the jugglers in Jalalabad? These types of projects have brought joy and hope to the people of Afghanistan, showing them there is an alternative to war. But if these things disappear, then Afghanistan will be right back where it started. And then it will be fair to say that Afghanistan is a disaster.
It is all a terrifying vision of the future, and also a depressingly familiar scenario to those who remember the Soviet retreat over the Amu Darya in 1989. It could all still be avoided, but President Karzai and the Americans remain at loggerheads, to the dismay of other Afghans.
Atta Mohammed Noor summed up the situation best when he said, "We are afraid that the West will abandon us because of the actions of one man ... just like in the 90s."
This is a multimedia piece John D shot in September/October 2013 looking at the rapidly growing drug addiction problem in Afghanistan, which produces 90 percent of the world's opiates. The country traditionally exported the drug, and the problems it brings, but in recent years there has been an explosion in the number of Afghans using both opium and heroin. Figures indicate that out of a population of around 35 million, at least one million Afghans are now drug addicts.
For more from John D McHugh visit www.johndmchugh.com and follow him on: @johndphoto
This episode of People & Power can be seen from Wednesday, December 4 at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930; Tuesday: 0330.
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