Politics and rhetoric should not obscure the simple fact of necessity. The people of Afghanistan have suffered continuously for decades and are doomed to suffer further if the world forgets that the humanitarian struggle does not end here. We can celebrate the fact that our troops are no longer stuck over there – but the population of Afghanistan is stuck there for good. International support, and more importantly, international aid, has to stay out there with them.
Despite the 350,000-strong Afghan military being judged ready to take over control of national defence, a state of genuine security is far from a reality on the ground in Afghanistan, as shown by a recent spate of deadly and terrifyingly audacious attacks. If Kabul, where government power is concentrated, can constantly be subjected to violent attacks, seemingly perpetrated with ease, it is difficult to see how the safety and freedom of millions of Afghans living outside the capital can be safeguarded. So bad is the situation, that President Obama recently decided to expand the powers of the 10,000 USA troops remaining in country to allow them to engage in a full combat role. Current levels of violence are as high as they were during the “troop surge” of 2011; the difference is that at that time, there were over 100,000 highly-trained, well-armed ISAF troops in the country, whereas currently the troops level are diminishing rapidly. While the departure of foreign occupying troops should have been a cause for celebration, instead there is a seriously uneasy feeling surrounding the withdrawal: the kind of feeling you might get after making a big mess and then trying to slip away unnoticed while the mess is being cleared up. But here the mess involves hundreds of billions of dollars and the death of over 20,000 civilians. As our troops come home, beaten, exhausted, traumatised, the juxtaposition between the politicians’ rhetoric and the stories of ongoing brutality on the ground is a source of discomfort.
The claim that the invasion of Afghanistan would help to defeat international terrorism has long been discredited to the extent that it is largely ignored; instead, rhetoric now focuses on the successful bringing of peace, freedom, and democracy to the people of Afghanistan. However, when 57 people can be killed by a suicide bomber while watching a volleyball game, and the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) is afflicted by heavy casualties and a high desertion rate, it seems that peace cannot be guaranteed for the future. When women in vast swathes of Afghanistan are still subjected to repression and (often violent) subjugation, in a country in which they were actually relatively free prior to the rise of the Mujahideen, it takes real shamelessness to claim that the Afghan people are free. And with a deadlocked political system, discredited with allegations of fraud and endemic corruption, which maintains only a weak hold over most of the country, even Afghanistan’s democracy, which has been the main bragging point for international coalition leaders, has a lot to prove.
On BBC Radio 4, the UK army’s former leader General Lord Dannatt warned against “talking up” recent Taliban attacks, saying that they should not be taken to indicate that the Taliban are “making advances”. But this means taking a stance that endemic insecurity and insurgency is acceptable, which seems to fly in the face of claims that the mission was about the Afghan people. It evokes the uncomfortable attempt of the Americans in Vietnam to balance the obvious political mission against a claim of humanitarian intentions. That the Taliban have not retaken power is certainly an improvement upon the ending to the atrocity-ridden misadventure that was Vietnam. But Vietnam was an unequivocal catastrophe: doing better than that is not a success story in itself. And the overthrowing of the Taliban is not of great relevance from a humanitarian point of view, if the situation on the ground returns to dire straits. The suffering of coalition troops, the death and injury and trauma, are all tragic – but acknowledging that we still have work to do is not an insult to veterans and fallen soldiers.
It is true that education is far more widespread since the original invasion in 2001, especially for girls, despite the best efforts of militants. And in Malala Yousafzai, girls who are still prevented from exercising their fundamental right to an education have gained an inspirational global champion. But some would say it should have not have required the shocking attempted murder of a 15 year old girl to gain attention to this issue. And the advances belie the facts: in Afghanistan, fewer than 10% of females, and still fewer than 50% of males have a secondary education. A presidential election between apparently genuine statesmen is a definite improvement on the political system prior to the invasion, and high turnout in Afghanistan’s Presidential elections was hailed as a sign of optimism, of grassroots support for democracy and for a functional state with a functional leader. And when President Ahmadzai took the (sadly) rare (but promising) step of acknowledging his wife, Rula Ghani, during his inauguration, it gave a glimmer of hope to many Afghan women. But the fraud allegations, the ensuing political deadlock, and the crippling economic problems which have developed during this political crisis, have all threatened to stifle that flame of positivity.
The people of Afghanistan have surely suffered enough. The bloody Soviet invasion, the ascent of a brutal religious-fundamentalist regime, its violent toppling, and the ongoing insurgency are all compounded by one of the world’s lowest HDI ratings. With politicians trying to draw the curtains on a war of questionable intentions and equally questionable results, the struggle of the Afghan people should not be swept under the carpet. Some things improved drastically with the foreign aid which rolled into the country alongside the tanks: from primary school enrolment and supply of clean water, to access to electricity and the internet.
Two-thirds of the Afghan budget comes from foreign aid money. Although the perceived failure of Afghan politicians to ‘sort themselves out’ might make us shake our heads, and international donors are increasingly reluctant as they feel that their cash will only be whittled away as it travels down corrupt channels, while political crises batter Afghanistan’s domestic economy, those who care about human rights have to look at the improvements that foreign aid have made and ask whether we can withdraw it with the same troubled self-assurances that we withdrew our troops. The military withdrawal has left aid workers exposed – something which was made tragically evident with the murder of a South African aid worker and his two children just last week. But they still have an invaluable job to do, if Afghanistan’s people are ever to look beyond an everyday struggle for survival and towards a future for their country.