Progress and regress: Obama’s mixed Afghanistan legacy

Recent increase in attacks by the Taliban and ISIL have compromised advances in rights, Afghans say.

Boys from Kunduz at an IDP camp outside Kabul
Boys from Kunduz play with a toy gun at an IDP camp outside Kabul - they're among the 1.2 million displaced in the country [Al Jazeera]

Kabul, Afghanistan – It’s America’s Longest War and one that President Barack Obama promised to end in 2014.

But two years later, the security situation in Afghanistan is in a downward spiral, with the Taliban and Islamic State fighters (ISIL) making gains in several provinces.

Although Obama slowed his original timeline of troop withdrawals, his scaling back of troops, coupled with the rise in drone strikes – up to two a day over the summer, according to watchdog Bureau of Investigative Journalism – have increased the insecurity here, which puts the fragile gains made in Afghanistan in danger.

'There's not one household in Kunduz that hasn't lost two or three people,' said Morad. [Al Jazeera]
‘There’s not one household in Kunduz that hasn’t lost two or three people,’ said Morad. [Al Jazeera]

In the past two months alone, according to a deputy spokesman from President Ashraf Ghani’s office, the Taliban has destroyed 302 schools, 5,305 homes and 1,818 businesses in 12 provinces.

Khalil Rufi, director of CSJWG, the country’s civil society joint working group, said that under Obama’s direction the US managed to kill Osama Bin Laden as well as aiding in a peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan after the 2014 presidential election, which were “good achievements”.

But he said that the economic and political progress that the country made before 2008 have eroded.

“Our people hoped that under Obama, change would be positive and visible. Unfortunately the change has been negative – like the increase of extremism, the Taliban becoming more powerful day by day, Daesh, which right now is also becoming strong, our government mismanagement and in our provinces collapsing,” said Rufi, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS) .

“This is the bad shadow of Barack Obama’s government.”

Civilian casualties

The country’s deteriorating situation is apparent in the streets of the capital, with increased security forces making sure the streets in central Kabul are closed to traffic after 8pm with a heightened concern for suicide bombers.

It’s also evident in the swelling ranks of internally displaced people (IDPs) fleeing fighting from more than a dozen provinces and setting up camps on the outskirts of Kabul. According to the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan , the first six months of 2016 have seen 157,987 Afghans displaced owing to conflict – a 10 percent increase over the same period in 2015.

Morad, 67, came here last month from Kunduz, which has again been under Taliban attack.

“My house was bombed, my life is ruined … whatever we had was burned to the ground,” he said, having  lost five family members in the attack.

Morad thinks his house was hit by a drone strike, but it was around 9pm and he’s not sure who bombed his house. On the same day that he spoke to Al Jazeera, a NATO air strike targeting the Taliban killed at least 30 civilians in Kunduz .

Violence has made the number of IDPs increase, reaching the peak levels of 2002 shortly after the US invasion, and it might get worse.

“With the US saying it will totally remove its troops, the Taliban has already promised more attacks starting in the spring,” said Hamidullah.

 Left Behind: America’s Afghan Translators

Afghanistan has seen a surge of people leaving. According to the country’s Ministry of Refugees and Returnees, roughly 3,000 Afghans cross the border into Iran every day.

But for those who don’t want to risk death on the Mediterranean or deportation , options are limited.

Baryali Azizi worked as an interpreter for the US military for more than a year in Kandahar, a very risky job for an Afghan.

“The local men there, when they saw me out with my team, they wouldn’t say anything,” he said.

“But I can see the way they look at me. They are thinking – ‘When I catch you, I will cut off your head,'” said Azizi, who has twice applied for a Special Immigrant Visa to the US, offered as a possibility to interpreters, and has been rejected twice.

“The first letter said my case was denied for ‘lack of faithful and valuable services’,” said Azizi, 26. He appealed it and said he was rejected a second time because he failed his “CI” (criminal investigation) screening. He said he has no idea why.

While the visas are not guaranteed, they’re one of the main reasons most Afghans decide to work with the US, a job that essentially paints a target over their heads.

“When I saw the first letter, I was very upset … but I will try a third time. Everyone knows Afghanistan has become the worst place in the world,” said Azizi, referring to rampant corruption and the security situation.

No plan, ‘no peace’

Although Afghans look to domestic solutions for the problems facing their country – the new attorney general has made a series of recommendations on fighting corruption, including overseeing a new court dedicated the cause – many point to the Obama administration’s failure to maintain progress in security.

Afghanistan’s civilian casualties
2016 (Jan – June): 1,601 deaths, 3,565 injuries
2015: 1,615 deaths, 3,367 injuries
2014: 1,686 deaths, 3,208 injuries
2013: 1,344 deaths, 2,577 injuries
2012: 1,159 deaths, 1,979 injuries
2011: 1,575 deaths, 2,341 injuries
2010: 1,281 deaths, 1,990 injuries
2009: 1,052 deaths, 1,440 injuries
*Source: UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan

“The whole world knows – we know, the Americans know – that our border with Pakistan is open,” said General Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, Afghanistan’s former deputy interior minister.

“If America supports security in Afghanistan, why aren’t they helping seal that border …? All of the conversations, back and forth, between Afghanistan and America have failed to focus on this point, and this has been a difficulty during the Obama administration with the government of [former president] Hamid Karzai and [current president Ashraf] Ghani,” said Yarmand.

“It’s like carpeting only half a house.”

Afghan and US governments had three essential goals, said Yarmand, that they’ve failed to achieve: curtailing opium production, which has increased by 43 percent this year, stopping profits from opium production from funding armed groups and creating good governance in Afghanistan.

“But drugs make it across the border from Afghanistan to Iran, to Turkey to Europe, to US and to Canada … and we don’t have the police force to investigate people’s bank accounts and the flow of money in Afghanistan that funds terrorism and … how can we have good governance with this mess,” said Yarmand, referring to the 2001 Bonn Agreement and subsequent 2011 talks , which set up the participatory government that Yarmand said has enabled tribal conflicts.

Yarmand told Al Jazeera that while the US had spent money on things such as access to education and empowering women, without a “fast response” to the issue of drugs, security and good governance, “there will be no peace”.

‘Going backward’

While there’s no doubt that the US has continued to spend money in Afghanistan in an effort to improve access to education for boys and girls – part of the stated US counterinsurgency plan – the efficacy of that spending has been in question.

According an April 2016 report by the Office of the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, more than $700m has been spent between 2002 and 2014 on education in Afghanistan.

But when it comes to women’s rights and access to education, there are concerns that things have been going in the wrong direction over the past few years.

Suhaila Sahar, director of Tolo-e-Sahar high school in Kabul – a private school with 400 students – told Al Jazeera that the security situation means “there’s no way a woman will leave her home in some places, like Baghlan , and there’s no way a family will allow their daughters go to school because it’s too dangerous.”

So even if the schools don’t get attacked, if the students are not attending, the schools will shut down, said Sahar, who is also active in women’s rights issues.

“Hundreds of schools have been shut down in the past couple of years,” said Sahar, “After almost 13 years of progress, things are going backwards.”

Less safety for women

Sima Samar, the chief of Afghanistan’s human rights commission, told Al Jazeera that the small improvements to rights – particularly women’s rights – have fallen short of what Afghans hoped for.

“We would like to say that the changes have been positive. Yes, the situation is better for women in capital cities, but not everywhere.

“It’s difficult to say that things are better now than eight years ago because the security situation is not better. Without security, the situation of women also not be better,” Samar said.

 Afghanistan: No Country for Women

“The situation for journalists is getting worse than the years before, unfortunately, due to the security situation and governmental problems,” said freelance photojournalist Miriam Alimi, who faces two types of threats in her country: those against women, and those against the media. According to Media Watch, those threats have increased.

In 2008, the local media watchdog registered 50 what it calls “acts of violence” against journalists – threats, beatings, detainment, kidnappings, and murder. So far in 2016, they’re registered 380 cases.

Alimi, who is based in Kabul, travels around the country on assignment and told Al Jazeera that these days – because of fighting and kidnappings – she does not feel safe enough to drive. And so she’s limited to the places where she can travel by plane within Afghanistan.

It used to be easy for her to report from  the north of the country, she said, but owing to sporadic outbreaks of heavy fighting and overall insecurity, to do so now means that “journalists risk their lives and lose their lives, especially women,” said Alimi, 36, who is old enough to remember the time of the Taliban.

“All over Afghanistan, the situation is getting worse for women, for women’s rights and for our freedom to walk and work … under the Taliban it was worse in that we could not go for education, we weren’t allowed to walk alone in the streets,” said Alimi.

“But actually, it was safer then – you could travel and move around,” said Alimi. “During the Obama era, things have not really been better.”

Source: Al Jazeera