By Arian Sharifi
One of the most perplexing issues I encountered time and again in my travels between Afghanistan and the United States is the sense of disconnect between America’s Afghan policies and Afghans’ perceptions of those policies. During my recent trip to Kabul last month, almost every person I spoke to – everyone from taxi drivers and shopkeepers to politicians and government officials – expressed extreme suspicion about America’s objectives in Afghanistan. Most of them delved into conspiracy theories, believing that the US has some “hidden” agenda, seeking to expand its military reach into Iran, China, and the oil-rich Central Asia, using Afghanistan as a jumping board. A natural conclusion, therefore, was that America deliberately keeps Afghanistan unstable as an excuse to maintain its military presence in the region.
Such flawed way of thinking is a direct result of the Obama administration’s failure to project a clear vision and sustained course of action in Afghanistan, contributing to the increasing rift between the two governments.
President Obama’s administration began somewhat promisingly, with the long awaited unveiling of “A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” released in February 2009.At the time, President Obama correctly concluded that Afghanistan had been denied adequate resources due to the war in Iraq, and committed his administration to giving the country the needed attention.
However, the administration did not stay on course with this clarity of policy. The calls of “troop surge” and “civilian surge” were followed by the announcement of the withdrawal deadline of 2014. Then came the “Strategic Partnership” agreement discussion, as a means to ensure America’s support of Afghanistan beyond 2014. Once finalized, however, the document contained little beyond broad statements about US-Afghan relations with virtually no binding arrangement. President Obama’s reluctance to give any concrete future commitments to Afghanistan through the yet-to-be inked “Bilateral Security Agreement”, and his most recent hint son considering a “zero option” of pulling all troops out of the country further indicate a lack of clear focus in his vision on Afghanistan.
This vacillation has strengthened the enemy, weakened allies, and created mistrust in Afghans toward US intentions. Looking at America’s indecision, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have become determined to stay their course, and wait the US out. They have not only become emboldened on the military front, but have also assumed evermore demanding postures in their negotiations with US and Afghan officials.
The Afghan allies of the United States are also weakened with the lack of clear focus. Most notably, women’s rights activists continue to suffer a sustained attack. Conservative elements within Afghanistan are further emboldened in advance of what they see as the impending return of the Taliban by attempting to repeal the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women; edicts restricting women’s clothing and make-up use; and the refusal to uphold women’s basic rights in the courts.
Uncertainty about what the future may hold has significantly hampered Afghans’ confidence in their country. The business community is planning their own exit, already shifting substantial amounts of badly needed capital to other countries in the region. The number of Afghans seeking asylum abroad has reached the highest in a decade – over 480,000 sought asylum in industrialized countries last year, according to the UN. Many diplomats, journalists, athletes and students have not returned to Afghanistan after visits abroad, creating a massive brain drain in a country in dire need of human capital. A lack of confidence in Afghanistan’s future has also exacerbated the cycle of corruption, as many government officials view their positions as their last chance to power. Choor-e-Aakher, meaning the “final grab” is a term used in jokes among government staffers, referring to a last opportunity to make themselves rich.
The Obama administration, therefore, needs to seriously evaluate its options, get its act together, and communicate a clear vision of what it intends to do in Afghanistan. It may be leaving a residual combat force, maintaining only advisory staff, completely pulling out of Afghanistan, or any other course of action. Whatever it may be, President Obama and his team must clearly communicate it to the Afghan people so they understand what their future may hold. Continuing to send mixed signals could create a domino effect, leading to irreversible and disastrous outcomes.
Arian Sharifi is a PhD student at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and a Partner at Afghanistan Holding Group. He holds a Master in Public Affairs (MPA) from Princeton University, and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Political Science from Wesleyan University. He can be reached through email at [email protected] or via phone +1 404 610 2918.