“A spark of joy, a ray of hope in Afg inferno,” tweeted the renowned Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary over the weekend, referring to last week’s spectacular triumphs by the Afghan national football and cricket teams in regional and international games.
The tweet also contextualised the momentary euphoria and reminded the readers of the “inferno” in which Afghanistan has been struggling throughout 2015.
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As the year is drawing to a close, the southwestern province of Helmand has been burning in battles between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces.
Although it is difficult to verify exact casualty figures while the battle for Helmand’s Sangin district is ongoing, fatalities are expected to be high in what appears to be Taliban’s determination to secure a permanent stronghold before possible resumption of peace talks.
About two thirds of Afghan provinces have seen security incidents this year. The war expanded geographically and intensified in brutality as besides the Taliban, various Central Asian, Uighur, Chechen, Pakistani and Arab terrorirst groups increased their activities.
Discord over leadership among the Taliban, followed by the disclosure of the death of their leader Mullah Omar two years earlier, gave rise to splinters and infighting among the group and the genesis of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.
The fall of Kunduz at the end of September captured international headlines. As the first urban centre briefly falling to the insurgency, Kunduz came to highlight fundamental policy errors on the part of the Afghan government as well as a history of repeated faux pas committed by the international community.
No ideal picture
In fact, 2015 was arguably the year that showcased consequences of all erroneous policies – intentional or misguided – of the United States-led international involvement in Afghanistan, as well as 13 years of incompetence in domestic leadership.
But on many progress reports, President Ashraf Ghani and his partner, CEO Abdullah Abdullah’s first year would receive failing marks on security, the economy and governance.
This year has, indeed, appeared like 'inferno' for Afghans, a hell in which all of poet Dante Alighieri's circles overlapped.
To be fair, it must be taken into account that the creation of the National Unity Government – an unconstitutional and impractical formula – was imposed by the US as a compromise to end the 2014 presidential election dispute.
One must also acknowledge that the new administration inherited a country marred by bad governance, no provisions for economic transition and tenuous regional and international relations.
Still, bickering over the formation of a coalition government wasted much time and effort. Vital positions such as defence minister, attorney general and a number of governorships continue to be vacant.
Despite lofty campaign promises about meritocracy, many of the appointments were paybacks to election-time allies and perpetuated the culture of patronage.
Reforms have been slow and their effect has not yet become palpable to the public. Even less visible was improvement in the implementation of the rule of law – perhaps the most fundamental legitimising factor for the government and arguably a potent antidote to the spread of insurgency.
While it was unrealistic to expect immediate improvements in governance and security, the failure of the government and its donors in implementing a short-term national economic stimulus plan was disappointing.
With the world’s military disengagement and corresponding dwindling of foreign aid, unemployment figures soared to nearly 50 percent, small-to-medium businesses folded one after another, and the Afghan economy came to a near stalemate in 2015.
Economic stagnation and heightened unrest resulted in almost one million internally displaced Afghans, a fivefold increase in IDPs from 2009. It also drove about 140,000 Afghans to seek refuge in the West, rendering them as the second largest group of refugees in Europe and ushering a new wave of brain drain in Afghanistan.
This year has, indeed, appeared like an “inferno” for Afghans, a hell in which all of poet Dante Alighieri’s circles overlapped. Still, I would argue that all “speranza” (hope) is not to be abandoned yet.
Afghanistan entered 2015 with restored relations with the US (by signing the US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement which former president Hamid Karzai had refused to heed) and reinstated global confidence towards the government as a reliable partner. Ghani succeeded in engaging China, a vital ally of Islamabad, in the Af-Pak peace process.
President Ghani’s offering of the proverbial olive branch to Pakistan and Islamabad’s initial show of good faith generated high hopes in spring of this year.
Pakistan’s failure to genuinely act upon its word and stop providing sanctuary to the Taliban has since taken the peace process through twists and turns. As the year ends, Islamabad is pursuing Kabul to return to the negotiation table.
Time for optimism
The government has undertaken monumental governance reform. Although the effect is not immediately visible, it is evident that Ghani understands that the creation of institutions alone cannot produce good governance. His vision to devise processes and instill the culture of good governance deserves patience.
The establishment of a national procurement commission to review all major governmental contracts is an accomplishment in curbing corruption and waste.
Allocation of budget to 10 provincial governors as a pilot to improve local governance, launching of a short-term job creation programme in Kunduz, creation of a fund for the families of fallen soldiers and policemen, and Ghani and Abdullah’s regular video conferences with governors, military commanders and provincial council members are some of the initiatives that show a clear departure from the tribal-style governance approach of the former president.
The new Afghan First Lady, Rula Ghani, has introduced a fresh and much-welcomed approach to the role. A highly educated and dignified woman, Mrs Ghani made regular public appearances, but her presence went far beyond symbolism.
She has taken on causes such as women’s rights, the plight of the IDPs and the fight against drug addiction.
With the help of a thriving and increasingly responsible private media, violence against women received nationwide exposure.
The public outrage, particularly the show of solidarity by Afghan women and youth, was a clear indication of increased awareness of women’s rights and their civic responsibilities.
The new generation that has benefited from education opportunities, professional training programmes and exposure to modernity showed that it is determined to fight for its constitutional rights and democratic values.
Afghanistan’s security, economic and governance problems will most probably continue to be woeful in the coming year, but if the Afghan government and the international community let the forward-looking generation be their “Virgil”, there will be hope for the country to traverse the current inferno.
Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.