Twenty Lost Years? Voices from Abandoned Afghanistan
Ilaria Romano 10 May 2021

On May 1st the United States officially started withdrawal operations involving troops still present in Afghanistan, and will very soon be followed by other NATO countries that are members of the current Resolute Support mission that is to end 20 years after the attack on the Twin Towers, as announced by President Joe Biden, before next September 11th.

Started on January 1st, 2015, following the conclusion of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, Resolute Support confirmed an international presence in the country, albeit with fewer troops compared to previous years, with a new but no longer operational task involving supporting and training local security forces, aimed at transferring to them increasingly more responsibilities as far as protecting the country was concerned.

Last August, Nato still declared a presence in Afghanistan of about 10,000 soldiers from 36 different countries. The decision to remain there, albeit in a different role, had already been taken in 2012 in Chicago, during a meeting between the allies and the government in Kabul, to then be officially signed only two years later with the approval of the Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa), ratified by the Afghan parliament and then unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council with Resolution no. 2189.

Today’s withdrawal, announced as final, is one of the results of the Doha agreements reached between the U.S. and the Taleban and signed on February 29th 2020 after a year and a half of negotiations. It is a fragile and unbalanced pact, in which the Taleban have obtained a road map for the withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for a commitment to cut off all ties with international terrorist groups and to later create a channel for intra-Afghan dialogue with the government in Kabul, which was then effectively launched, although for the moment without substantial results in terms of peace and security for the country.

 

Tough reality

In the last few days Emergency has reported an escalation of violence in Helmand province, with increasingly frequent clashes and also reported the number of wounded people it had treated in its Lashkar-gah surgery: 106, of which 8 children, between May 1st and May 5th, as well as 11 victims in addition to two seriously wounded people who died in the hospital. “Most of the wounded came from the Bolan, Nawa, Nar-e-saraje and Lashkar-gah areas, due to specific attacks and explosions – said Marco Puntin, the organisation’s programme coordinator for Afghanistan – but the attacks in Helmand are not isolated cases, because since the beginning of May we are seeing an intensification of the conflict all over the country.”

During the first three months of 2021, Emergency reports having hospitalised 1,407 patients with war wounds in its own hospitals, 44% more compared to the first three months of 2020.

According to the most recent report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), between early January and the end of March there have been 573 people killed and 1,210 wounded among civilians, with a 29% rise compared to the same period last year, and a higher percentage of women and children (respectively +37% and +23%). If one considers the six months that followed the beginning of negotiations, hence since last September, the rise in the number of civilians involved in armed clashes and those wounded by explosions, the number has risen by 38%, proving that the population continues to be under attack. The main causes of damage inflicted on civilians is the fighting on the ground between the Afghan Army and the Taleban, IEDs and specific killings.

 

Uncertain future

“I am very frightened by America’s decision to withdraw, because the situation here is unstable in every possible way – says Hasmatullah Faqiri, an engineer from Kabul born in 1980 – and the government on its own risks being unable to manage against the Taleban. Many people who are my age agree with me and all we have known all our lives is war and it is not easy to always feel threatened in one’s own country.”

Faqiri confirms that in recent times hostility aimed at the Americans has increased and then even local workers who have so far been employed by the international mission or American companies now feel more vulnerable. “I myself, having been employed for three years by an American construction company, am starting to be afraid for myself and for my family – he adds – and I cannot deny that if I could I would leave the country so as to give my children a chance to grow up in a stable place and with prospects of peace. We had hoped this would be possible with help from America, but this decision has come at the wrong time, although I respect it and I understand how American citizens are tired and after 20 years no longer want their young people being sent to die here. Unfortunately the risk is a very real one and concerns our government, created with such difficulty, which may well lose that little authority it has gained, because there will be fewer and fewer jobs available, fewer health services, fewer funds for projects aimed at assisting women and children, and there will be no money to pay state employees since the entire system depends mostly on foreign aid. We do our very best to hope for peace, but it is a dream that is fading, while here in the capital the situation is deteriorating and the city is increasingly militarised.”

In order to financially support not only security forces but also the entire Afghan institutional apparatus, Nato has created funds such as the Afghan National Army trust fund, which has concentrated resources of countries that were previously members of Isaf and then of Resolute Support, for the training and equipping of the Afghan Army and the country’s institutions, for a total of 3.2 billion euros invested between 2007 and 2020, of which over 40 million coming from the U.S. through the ASFF, the Afghanistan Security forces fund, which depends directly from the Defence Department.

In economic terms this support should be extended and guaranteed until 2024, but uncertainty concerning the future of the government weighs heavily if one considers that a significant part of the territory, in various parts of the country, is already controlled by the Taleban, in particular to the south in Helmand, to the west in Farah, in the centre-north in Ghor and Baghdis, to the north in Kunduz, while a local branch of the Islamic State of Korasan is active between the provinces of Nangharar and Kunar in the north-east which borders with Pakistan.

 

Who’s afraid of schoolgirls?

In just 24 hours, between May 4th and May 5th, the government in Kabul reported 137 attacks in 25 different provinces, some aimed at young students as happened in the province of Paktika, where six boys were wounded by the explosion of an IED placed inside their school. Last weekend, a new massacre shocked the capital: three consecutive blasts in front of a girls high school, in the Hazara neighborhood of Dasht-e Barchi, left at least 85 victims, most of them schoolgirls aged between 12 and 20.

“What frightens me most of all is the possible return of a restrictive regime as far as the rights of women and children are concerned, a regime that does not accept culture, does not believe in democracy and the importance of education – says Suhaila Sahar, founder of a private primary school in Kabul and previously a candidate in the 2018 general election – My country is not ready to manage on its own and I believe that America’s withdrawal is really a bad thing at this moment. I live in the capital and constantly have a security escort due to my political exposure; imagine what happens in rural areas where women have no way of making themselves heard.”

A few years ago, Sahar created a school that accepts boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 12 in mixed classes, and that envisages fees to be paid by families having an adequate income. With their financial contribution, education is also provided for those who cannot pay for it. “We are experiencing a period of great uncertainty and I myself have no idea for how long I will manage to live my life as I do now – continues Sahar – In the meantime I keep going, I am about to found my own political party and hope to continue to still contribute to my country’s freedom. I must, however, admit that many Afghans have opinions that differ from mine and at least 70% of them would prefer a government with the Taleban to a continuation of the international mission. Some say that when the Americans leave, there will at last be peace, but I fear that will not be the case, because if we lose those few right we have won, will one really be able to speak of peace?

Those who expose themselves, especially women, often do so at risk of their lives. This is well known to the journalists and communications operators who in the course of the last 12 months have lost 49 people, who died while working in the field or were the victims of intentional assassinations. At the beginning of March, three female journalists working for Enikass Tv were killed in Jalalabad while returning home from work. Another colleague of theirs had been murdered in December and Islamic State had claimed responsibility.

“After the fall of the Afghan government and the beginning of the civil war in 1992, the country lost everything, from its infrastructures to the army, and it became extremely vulnerable – explains Farishta Atthai, a social worker originally from Afghanistan but grew up in Pakistan, who for some years has worked in Kabul for the NGO Nove – When the Americans and then Nato troops arrived in 2001 they were not completely honest as far as the real objectives of their intervention were concerned and they certainly did not include making the nation autonomous in developing its potential and using its resources. They wanted to prove in a demagogic manner that their presence was indispensable for taking the country out of the state of vulnerability it was in, but effectively, twenty years later we are exactly where we were then.”

Attahi is now 26 years old and has left Afghanistan. During the period she spent in the capital she worked on various programmes aimed at educating women and supporting women’s employment which still remains below 6%.

“Now we find ourselves at a crossroad – she says – The withdrawal is an opportunity for the government to finally test itself and at last try and stand on its own two feet, abandoning the idea of dependency on foreign forces. But this will take a long time and I personally think that it is unlikely that the current political parties will be capable of creating real opportunities for civil society. On the other hand, there is the risk that the Taleban will bring radicalism back into our lives, and what frightens me most is the situation that will be experienced by women, who after the progress made with such difficulty, now risk finding themselves alone once again.”

 

Cover Photo: Two school-girls stand near an institute in Dasht-e-Barchi (Kabul) hit by multiple blasts – May 9, 2021 (Wakil Kohsar / AFP).


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